Opinion: This is an emergency. We need the backing of the public to demand action on the SDGs

In 2020, we need to ramp up the pressure on leaders to deliver the SDGs — and star power can play an incredibly useful role, argues screenwriter Richard Curtis. Photo by: Manuel Elias / U.N.

The world has transformed hugely since 193 countries pledged to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals back in 2015. The U.K. voted to leave the European Union, Donald Trump entered the White House, TikTok exploded as a new global social platform, and my movie “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” even hit the big screen.

Some good progress has been made toward the goals in that time. However, everyone knows there is an epically long way to go. The world has changed, but it hasn’t changed enough in terms of genuine and positive sustainable development. Half of the global population still lacks access to essential health services, hunger is on the rise after a prolonged decline, and at the current rate of progress, it will take almost 100 years to close the global gender gap. The recent fires in Australia brought to public consciousness that our planet is literally burning. Now more than ever, we need the SDGs and their promise to end extreme poverty, fix inequality, and tackle the climate crisis.

Without pressure from the public and public figures, it is much harder for progress to be made. There is power in a story or an emotive campaign — Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future and the hashtag that started the #MeToo movement are evidence of that.

That’s why, today, I’m proud to be part of the launch of an open letter signed by 20 world-leading activists who are uniting across issues spanning gender, climate, environment, equality, justice, and human rights — just like the global goals. Together, they are declaring an emergency and demanding that world leaders define concrete plans for working toward the goals as we enter the “decade of delivery” — to unlock the finance, the radical solutions, and the tracking of progress that we need.

We hope that the power of this letter lies in the breadth of advocates behind it. It brings together remarkable campaigners from all generations and sectors, including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and Bring Back Our Girls co-founder Obiageli Ezekwesili, among others. Those activists are backed by a further 2,000 supporters from the arts, philanthropy, culture, sports, civil society, and NGOs. They include a host of high-profile supporters such as Emma Watson, Ryan Reynolds, and Stephen Fry.

I’m often asked about the role of the celebrity in these kinds of campaigns, with some critics arguing that their presence is tokenistic. But I think that’s wrong. If we’re going to get the backing of the global public to ramp up the pressure on leaders, then the power of celebrity can be incredibly useful — especially when it is helping to get the voices of the strongest campaigners and activists heard.

Celebrities are normal people who often have access to huge audiences. If they utilize their platforms to talk about things that they’re passionate or worried about, that’s going to be useful and noisy. Time isn’t on our side. If it helps get the word out, let’s use them — perfectionism is the enemy of action.

In 2020, we need to make sure that leaders are watched by people all around the world who expect them to deliver dramatically. It’s a big year — five years into the SDGs, with 10 years to go until the deadline. It was a similar moment — five years into the Millennium Development Goals — when the Make Poverty History campaign and Live 8 concerts were launched in 2005. It’s a year full of opportunities for leaders to show they are serious about achieving these goals, from COP26 and the Gavi replenishment in the U.K. to the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico and France to the landmark biodiversity conference in China.

We’re ready and watching for action — and we need to make sure the global public is, too.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Richard Curtis

    Richard Curtis is a writer and director, as well as co-founder and vice-chair of the U.K. charity Comic Relief. He is a founding member of Make Poverty History and worked on Live 8 in 2005. In 2014, Richard founded Project Everyone to help launch and promote the U.N.’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development. In 2016, Richard was appointed as a U.N. SDG advocate and in 2017 he was awarded the Cannes LionHeart Award for his charity and campaigning work.