If I Had Written the Sustainable Development…
Zia Khan

Zia Khan Vice President, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation

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September 27, 2015

If I Had Written the Sustainable Development Goals

Zia Khan

Zia Khan Vice President, Innovation, The Rockefeller Foundation

Tags for this post
September 27, 2015

Woman Smiling Out Window

In my line of work there’s a lot of talk about goals—especially this time of year. After all, there is no shortage of challenges that the global development community comes together to identify and attempt to address. The most recent example of this, of course, is the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—seventeen imperatives that, if tackled correctly, will change the course of the 21st century.

“I’ve often wondered, though, how these goals might look if I’d written them—or if anybody had.”

Let’s face it: there’s often a limit to how compelling the language can be when it’s been haggled over and approved by nearly 200 countries. Instead how would you communicate the great needs of our time?

We recently posed this question in the form of a challenge to the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP), an initiative focused on tackling complex resilience by bringing together people and organizations from across sectors.

Among the winning teams announced this week were bold and transformative projects to:

Develop mobile-based early warning systems for weather-related hazards

Redesign road infrastructure to harvest rainwater and prevent soil erosion

Build institutional support to ensure people with disabilities are effectively prepared for disasters

MetaMeta
Above: MetaMeta assesses the potential to harvest rainwater in Ethiopia. Photo credit: MetaMeta

While this is one approach, another might involve looking at the goals themselves. Let’s take Goal 12.3, for example, which aims to halve global food waste by 2030. The fact is, post-harvest loss is reaching crisis levels—around the world, between 30 and 50 percent of agricultural harvest is eventually wasted, never making it to those who need it most.

“And while the challenge is indeed significant, without the need for global consensus, I’d start with a person.”

Only after we understand the challenges of an individual can we pan back and look at the systems and circumstances that surround that person.

First, from the vantage point of market demand, we have to make sure farmers have the right information and access to market transparency—are they growing the right crops to suit their customer base?

Next, on the supply side, we can help smallholder farmers to become more competitive, potentially by aggregating several smallholders into one secure market.

Then, we can introduce new technologies to store food for longer—and also help create new markets for produce. So, for example, strawberries that don’t sell on the fresh market can be juiced, or turned into jellies, or dried and sold as snacks.

Finally, we need to connect people to innovative forms of financing to make all of this possible.

As you can see, our approach to this issue could only have been arrived at through an intimate knowledge of people—sometimes just one person. And the outputs from this kind of solution will be equally human-centered:

  • By preserving some of the most nutrient-rich foods—starches like tubers and grains, as well as vital fruits and vegetables—health will be improved.
  • The environment will benefit from better conservation principles. We’re currently using a quarter of the world’s land and a fifth of its water—much of it to produce food that’s never eaten.
  • And finally, whole economies will begin to flourish as smallholders begin to see more profits from food they watched go to waste in the past.

Suddenly, you’ll notice, we’ve gone well beyond Goal 12.3.

And the principle of paying close attention to a particular person—and that person’s unique problems—leads to a kind of holism, touching on all kinds of issues addressed in the SDGs.

Soon, seventeen goals—and numerous sub-goals—start to look a little easier to achieve.

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