Richard Curtis

16 December 2014
Making the SDGs Famous and Popular
story highlights

I have seen how, with passion and dedication, the serious problems of the world can be addressed head-on – and I've seen that most people in the world actually, passionately want that to happen.

This article is based on the author’s speech at the UN General Assembly’s High-level Stocktaking Event on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, on 11 September 2014.

I have made a living making movies about Hugh Grant falling in love and Mr. Bean falling over. But in the other half of my life, I have founded and worked for a charity called Comic Relief, which has raised £1 billion in the UK and was a member of the Make Poverty History campaign for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In that capacity, I have seen how, with passion and dedication, the serious problems of the world can be addressed head-on – and I’ve seen that most people in the world actually, passionately, want that to happen.

It is a mighty task UN Member States have undertaken in preparing for the immensely important year of 2015, and the work is exemplary. At a time when the morning newspaper fills you with fear and nervousness, when people are working against each other, when we see things falling apart – it is so crucial that here in the UN, everyone has worked together and things have fallen into place. I believe it took long days and exceptionally long nights to reach agreement in the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when it would have been so much more comfortable for everyone to be home in their pajamas.

I would like to focus in particular on the communication of the 2015 Goals. The MDGs were structurally simple – and they had some strong results. The MDGs have been instrumental, for instance, in getting 51 million more children to attend school; they have drastically reduced deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; and they have been part of an historically dramatic drop in child mortality.

And 2015 is the time to do it again – but better. This is not always easy – being in the film business, I know how hard sequels can be. Get it right, and you establish a brilliant brand, get even better results; you make Godfather 2, make Terminator 2 – great movies. Get it wrong, misunderstand or undervalue the original, and the legacy swiftly dies.

Governments have taken the serious decision to make the new Goals not simply a sequel, but to make them a more mature set of goals, trying to address the complex nature of poverty. This is an extremely profound and admirable undertaking. But it also presents a very great communication challenge. If the new Goals are to be a richer brew, it becomes even more important to make them clear, digestible, emotionally resonant – and famous.

As a passionate outsider, I would encourage UN Member States, so deeply invested in the process, to encourage the UN system now, and politicians at home, to take extremely seriously the challenge of communicating the new goals and making them famous around the world. For my taste, the MDGs were not famous enough. Almost none of my friends, and certainly none of my children, had heard of them. The MDGs would have been more effective and potent if more people outside the circles of government and NGOs in more countries had known they were something to support and fight for.

The new Goals could be one of the most potent and effective documents the UN has ever produced. In that expectation, I and many others are thinking about a plan to get a concise version of the Goals to everyone on the planet – for example by TV, newspaper, internet, radio, packaging, and classrooms. If the Goals are well known, if they are famous, if they are popular, they could be a rallying call for everybody fighting poverty and injustice. They could get the job done – they could create a generation of well-informed politicians and citizens who have a shared direction of travel and fight together to achieve it.

To achieve this, from my perspective, five things are crucial. First, the goals must be passionately expressed and emotionally engaging. Second, they must have achievable priorities. Third, they must exist in a concise version. Fourth, they must have a name that makes sense to the man and woman in the street. And finally, they must be launched with originality, making them a front-page news story in every country, not just something mentioned in an editorial on Page 27.

Again to use the world of films, there have been many wonderful movies made that only a few people saw and admired. The Goals must be admirable – but they must also be a huge international box office hit that delivers hundreds of billions of dollars to transform the world.

The Goals eventually must be owned by the governments, and most importantly by the citizens, of all countries. The Goals belong to “We, The Peoples,” not just “We, the Governments.” In their perfect version they will be known by everyone in the world; there will be a version of them that can go on the wall of every classroom and be branded on the heart of every campaigner for the next 15 years. And every government and leader must have a realistic roster of things that they, as part of the international community, are committed to achieving. They must see that if they don’t, their citizens will know, and they will hold them accountable. This is not only about communication; it is about implementation. Goals the world knows about are goals the world can, even if at a mighty stretch, achieve.

The SDGs are a blueprint, a road map, a to-do list for the planet, a declaration of planetary rights. Someone told me they should be called the ‘Mandela Goals,’ but they are also the Gandhi Goals, the Anne Frank Goals, the Malala Goals, the Abraham Lincoln Goals, the goals that all those people we most admire in all countries have fought for – epic goals to eradicate extreme poverty and the conditions responsible for extreme poverty by 2030, so that in the near future everyone can lead a life of dignity without destroying the planet’s potential to provide for future generations.

I encourage everyone involved in formulating the new goals to commit to making sure your work actually works. When the leaders sign the document, it is not only 193 people committing – it is 7 billion people committing. Everyone must understand and know what they are committing to. Only then will it be possible – in the thrilling next 15 years – to get the job done.


related posts