SDGs gain traction in the US, but with a domestic twist

A Global Goals pin. Photo by: Universitetet i Bergen / CC BY-NC-SA

NEW YORK — A number of experts on philanthropy, poverty, and development are amping up efforts to show how the Sustainable Development Goals could apply to the United States, just as much as they do in any other country.

But the version of the Global Goals that is emerging in the U.S. looks and sounds a bit different from the development agenda approved at the United Nations in 2015, which agreed to a set of aims intended to be universal in focus and application. Experts say such targets are needed in the U.S. — just as they are in other countries.

As global maternal mortality rates nearly halved from 1990 to 2105, the ratio of maternal deaths in the U.S. doubled during that same time period. Wealth gaps and inequality in the U.S. are on the rise. Last year, a cross-country U.S. tour by human rights and extreme poverty expert Philip Alston cast a light on many of the other issues — homelessness and access to clean, safe drinking water, to name a few — that are increasingly common in rural and urban communities in the U.S.

UN's Alston tailors language to talk about development in the US

In a cross-nation tour, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights evaluated the United States government responses to poverty and inequality. The country mission was one of many, but Alston found some U.S.-specific terminology and approaches were needed to make the visit successful.

But the Global Goals remain unfamiliar to many civil society, philanthropic, and government actors working to alleviate these problems in the U.S., and they have rarely factored into national policy and funding. There is the also the question of whether the Global Goals — developed as a successor to the developing country-focused Millennium Development Goals — can actually apply to the complex economic trends and social dynamics in the world’s richest country.

“The level of familiarity [with the Global Goals] within the nonprofit sector, especially at the community level in the U.S., is not that great. But it's less of a familiarity thing. I don't think that they are completely convinced that there's a lot of value in it yet for them, because you are seeing it as a global commitment, versus commitments that they can hang their hats on,” said Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies how the U.S. approaches the Global Goals.

“In order to achieve the goals globally, it's important to begin to sensitize people about the terminology. There is a sense of a shared future, shared community, a shared vision in the goals. And if the U.S. is not on board, it makes it a harder to achieve a shared vision.”

— Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute.

Diverse range of responses

SDG USA, a nonprofit founded six months ago by economist Jeffrey Sachs, launched their first report card in March tracking seven adapted goals — or “America’s Goals” — across different U.S. states. These revamped goals include good jobs, affordable quality health care, investing in children, equal opportunity for all, and access to clean air, water, and energy.

America’s Goals are intended to be easily understood and shared, especially when compared to the complex 17 SDGs and their 169 sub-targets, said Caroline Fox, the deputy director of SDG USA. America’s Goals have only 21 targets.

Some of America’s Goals targets — such as increasing Americans’ life expectancy to 84 — speak specifically to realities in the U.S. and could not easily be applied universally. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. is considered one important factor impacting the county’s recent decline in life expectancy from birth.

“It’s something that's accessible, that’s easily message-able. You can read it all on one sheet,” Fox said. “We really wanted to make sure that we weren't really releasing something that was really appealing to one political party over the other, but that could be an agenda that people across the world would believe in and get behind.”

Targeted messaging on the Global Goals’ potential domestic focus is key, said Edmund Cain, the vice president of grant programs at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which has worked to connect with other U.S.-based philanthropic organizations and cities such as Los Angeles on the importance of the Global Goals.

“It is definitely a hard sell. There’s a recognition that when you are applying frameworks in different contexts, you don’t want to walk in and say, ‘This is what the U.N. says you should be doing.’ You have to be smart in choosing the language and we are trying to be sensitive to that,” Cain said. “I think a lot of people understand that they are not U.N. goals — they are goals brokered at the U.N.”

Measure of America, a human development project that launched in 2007 and was backed by the Hilton Foundation, garnered interest from states and cities to look at access opportunities and well-being in the U.S., according to Cain.

“We know the problems, so how do we collaborate in a manner that can track our progress and hold us accountable to addressing these issues? We found this resonates with the mayor’s office in LA, and other cities see the framework as having potential,” Cain said. “Some countries in Africa will have billboards on the side of the road promoting the SDGs. They are very open about the goals. Here, you are probably looking at ‘Shared Goals,’ and, the more sophisticated the partnership is, you can allude to the connection with the SDGs,” Cain explained.

For now, however, inclusion of Global Goals — through whatever modification — has been partly overshadowed by a feeling that the Trump administration is hostile to the United Nations and the idea of international development and cooperation. The Christian, anti-hunger nonprofit Bread for the World engaged in a few conversations about the Global Goals with the Obama administration toward the end of President Barack Obama’s term in 2016. They haven’t resumed the conversation since President Donald Trump took office in 2017.

“I feel like in order to achieve the goals globally, it's important to begin to sensitize people about the terminology. There is a sense of a shared future, shared community, a shared vision in the goals. And if the U.S. is not on board, it makes it a harder to achieve a shared vision,” said Asma Lateef, director of Bread for the World Institute.

BWI is now working with other anti-poverty, hunger, and religious groups in six U.S. cities to collaborate on Global Goals engagement. Baltimore is one of the cities that is not publicly advertising its inclusion of the Global Goals into its planning and policy work. Meanwhile, New York and Los Angeles are more directly considering the Global Goals in their work on sustainability and equity. But these plans don’t use the terms Global Goals, Sustainable Development Goals, or other common global development vernacular.

In New York, the OneNYC plan lays out four broad visions: growth of families, businesses, and neighborhoods; an inclusive, equitable economy; environmental sustainability; and climate change resilience. The one-month old Resilient Los Angeles plan has 15 goals focused on economic security, disaster preparedness, civic engagement, and education.

"Resilience is so much more than disaster preparedness; it is a value that guides everything we do in Los Angeles, because we know that today’s decisions shape the lives of our children and grandchildren,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “Resilient Los Angeles is a forward-looking strategy that will strengthen our infrastructure, protect our economy, make our institutions more inclusive, and create safer neighborhoods. Sustainability and resilience go hand in hand, and our work in this area reaffirms the City’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Pressure on foundations

Meanwhile, there is also continued pressure on U.S. foundations to consider the Global Goals. The majority of foundation funding for the Global Goals in 2016 — about $6 billion out of $8.8 billion — originated from U.S.-based foundations.

About 70 percent of all U.S. philanthropy by foundations is domestically focused, says Natalie Ross, vice president for external relations at the Council on Foundations. It is not unheard of that American companies such as UPS are incorporating Global Goals principles into their sustainability reporting.

“It's becoming something that's valuable to shareholders. Shareholders want to know about the social impact the company is having,” Ross said. There’s merit to working with an existing framework, she points out.

“Instead of spending time designing your own indicators and creating your own goals to track your progress, it makes a lot of sense to adopt something that people already know about, that is universally accepted and validated by the United Nations,” Ross said.

April 11, 2018 Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include a quote from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.