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Beyond MDGs: building the sustainable development goals brand

By Stanislav Saling
Source:  Global Development Professionals Network

For all their flaws the MDGs were a success because of the singular message to end poverty. But the world has changed. Can any message unify now as it did then?

The eight millennium development goals, which guided international development for the past 13 years, have been a ccommunications success: athletes like Maria Sharapova and LeBron James campaigned for them; Bill Gates praised them; Unilever committed to help achieve them; there are 381 books about them on Amazon.

These are just a few illustrations of how this technical 'development' term, shortened to the acronym "MDGs", shaped actions of not only governments, but also individuals and organisations across various sectors.

The question now is how to ensure that the post-2015 agenda and thesustainable development goals (SDGs) — which are expected to replace the MDGs on 1 January 2016 — will have the same effect?

What made MDGs such a public relations success?

As a new initiative, the MDGs were defined for audiences worldwide as a set of goals focused on a singular objective: the "global anti-poverty goals." For example, the One campaign writes on its web site that the MDGs "injected new momentum into the fight against global poverty." On another occasion, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey said: "The MDGs constitute the biggest anti-poverty push in history." The simplicity of their definition made the goals accessible to new audiences beyond traditional development circles. In addition to their simplicity, the focus on poverty eradication brought the goals to a moral high ground, promoting a noble cause that few would deny.

Second, the MDGs were presented as endorsed by every government in the world, which imbued the initiative with an overwhelming air of social consensus. The endorsement of 189 presidents and prime ministers gave the goals a significant authority: it supported the belief that the goals are the right thing to do.

Finally, the MDG agenda emerged in 2000 when media markets were not as fragmented as they are now. The UN had the ability to influence editorials of traditional media and, consequently, topics like the MDGs were thrust into the public domain.

Thirteen years later, the global development sector is no longer dominated by the UN. It is a vibrant space with new actors (and new communicators), such as bilateral agencies like Koica of South Korea, regional development banks, mega philanthropic organisations, and influential thinktanks.

The many new influencers have been skillfully advocating for their niche objectives to be included in the future development agenda. This wasn't the case with the MDGs.

As a result, the scope of discussed post-2015 and SDGs is so expansive that it stretches from the anti-poverty MDGs to new territories like improving road safety, ending tax havens and preserving indigenous cultures.

However, purely from communications perspective, SDGs cannot be all things to all people. More issues mean less clarity; less clarity means decreased impact. As the American political commentator, James Carville put it: "If you say three things, you don't say anything."

What can make sustainable development goals communications success?

Meeting three key conditions could help make the post-2015 agenda and the SDGs a comparable communications success as the MDGs.

• They need a new but equally simple definition as the "global anti-poverty goals" used for the MDGs.

• This definition, the core idea of the goals, must have the potential to cut through the ever-increasing noise of 24/7 media and social networks.

• The future goals will also need to garner an even larger social consensus in order to be adopted by the diverse development communities who could then persuade new audiences to support the goals.

Of the three points, arriving at a simple yet effective framing definition, as in the case of the "global anti-poverty goals," is the most important first step. Only a definition with such a singular and unique focus will facilitate the emergence of the goals' 'brand'.

What could the definition of goals be? The post-2015 agenda and SDGs could be anchored in at least four conceptual areas:

Sustainability: this is the obvious "global sustainability goals" as a new model of the "global anti-poverty goals."

Forward Planning: this definition could be built around the concept of a problem-solving "plan" that will help us create sustainable future (for inspiration see New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's A Stronger, More Resilient New York).

Empowerment: this interpretation of the goals would be centered on the idea of participation — that the entire global community, not just states, are shaping and delivering the future development agenda.

Universality: the common ground for this frame could be founded in the universal preference for education, healthcare, jobs, and honest and responsive governments as was documented by the global My Worldsurvey.

The UN member states will agree to adopt the new goals in September 2015. Until then, the contest for the winning communications framework to define the goals will continue: it is likely that a series of interpretations will compete for supremacy. However, the time to focus on it is now because the dominant definition might influence global development politics, actions and budgeting for the next 15 or more years.

Stanislav Saling is a communications adviser at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) team on the post-2015 agenda in New York. Follow @StanislavSaling on Twitter

subjects Development | MDGs | Post 2015 Agenda

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