SDG supporters in the US – as organizations or individuals – should coordinate a localization campaign to increase local ownership of the SDGs and rebuild public trust to spur action for the Goals.
The operating force for localizing the SDGs should be driven by youth.
By Rachel Svetanoff and Paul Perrin, Pulte Institute for Global Development, University of Notre Dame, US
The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is at its mid-point in 2023, with only seven years left to transform society for the betterment of people and the planet. Despite record-breaking heat, wildfires, and flooding, progress towards mitigating these catastrophic effects has been stagnating at best and actively backsliding at worst.
The need to rebrand the SDGs
In the US, inaction can be attributed to a myriad of reasons, including ones that stem from disinformation campaigns that have targeted the SDGs as a tool for UN conspiracies to create a new world order. While the SDGs aim to serve as an effective alternative to short-term thinking, they have not been framed in a way that inspires trust and effective change with the American public. Therefore, it is with greatest urgency that SDG supporters in the US – as organizations or individuals – should coordinate a localization campaign to increase local ownership of the SDGs and rebuild public trust to spur action for the Goals.
Localizing the SDGs: A gateway to action
Two conditions need to be met: the American public need to have a favorable view of the SDGs; and they need to have a favorable view of local governments. The UN Foundation recently published a report about a survey conducted in 2022 that discovered three out of four US adults do not know what the SDGs are, yet upon learning about them believe they articulate important benchmarks for their local community and the country. The survey also demonstrated that 81% of adults expressed broad support for a regular and public accounting of progress towards the SDGs across political affiliation.
A 2022 Pew Research Center poll found that nearly two-thirds (66%) of Americans say they have a favorable view of their local government, whereas just one-third (33%) have a favorable view of the federal government. The UN Foundation’s study also found that 85% of respondents believe it is important for local leaders to be involved in addressing problems facing both the US and the world. From large cities such as New York and Los Angeles, to medium-sized cities like Pittsburgh and Orlando, to rural areas in Kansas, various local sustainable development frameworks have been adopted with wide support. It can therefore be inferred that positioning the SDGs in the US as a local issue may improve the likelihood that needed legislation and resources will be mobilized towards meeting the Goals.
The rebranding solution: Roles for technology, states, and federal-level policy
In an effort to rebrand the SDGs as a local priority, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have piloted a county-level scorecard and investigated an individual incentive strategy. The SDG scorecard is envisioned as a public-facing tool that will foster transparency and assist with improving community well-being by providing data on key development indicators. Its proof of concept has already been developed for the state of Indiana. This approach can and should be replicated in other federal states to ensure that not only the 2030 Agenda, but also the data, are localized to support local decision making around the SDGs.
Having the potential of interoperability with the scorecard is tokenizing the SDGs as a behavioral change tool to create individual incentive for increasing local ownership. To actualize this vision, however, there is a need to address many of the key technological gaps and cultural divides. These include internet access gaps (currently addressed through the Internet for All initiative), the lack of trust in web3, and cooperation gaps that exist between the local, state, and federal levels of government.
While rebranding the SDGs as a local issue is central, state governments and federal institutions still play a vital support role. State governments, exemplified by Hawai’i, can mobilize resources for tracking SDG progress at various levels. Such an interface is already in place for the SDG scorecard because of tracking COVID-19 at the county level, which proved to be a helpful tool for transparency and implementing the broad COVID-19 response. At the federal level, legislating sustainable development policies is the adhesive for assuring timely, accessible, and affordable implementation and sustainability of a systematized intervention, like the national COVID-19 response through the 2020 Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Youth: Drivers of the SDG rebrand
The operating force for localizing the SDGs should be driven by youth. The youth demographic supports the SDGs more than any other age group, are the most motivated and worried about the future, and are widely known for their intuitive aptitude for technology, especially concerning web3. Youth equally want to use their talents for good and hold everyone else accountable to do their part, which is why American colleges are offering more data science majors with growing demand.
Though youth have been suffering the most from the consequences of SDG inaction, they are inherently equipped to lead the public through to the future and, in fact, yearn to. A survey conducted by web3 platform Boss Beauties found that 52% of young people ages 16 to 25 wanted to have learned more about web3 in school, noting more so for young women, and that 54% foresee themselves spending “somewhat more” or “a lot more” time in web3 in the next three years, often taking it upon themselves to find educational resources. A majority (60%) of American youth ages 18 to 29 surveyed by the United Nations Association of the USA also believe they are capable to lead the process to meet the SDGs.
Despite having a reputation for being fastidious, the UN is quickly recognizing the role youth play in operationalizing the SDGs through the swift establishment of the UN Youth Office within one year of its announcement in 2022, and companies are following suit with board-level youth councils. In American government, New York City made headway in 2023 for establishing 11 August as Youth Assembly Day, one day before the UN International Youth Day.
Next steps: UNGA 78’s call to action
To move forward, there are critical next steps that the US needs to take in a mass coordinated effort to meet the SDGs and secure its future and that of the world. A prominent first step towards achieving that role is to regard the SDGs as a local framework endorsed by the American people. This requires investing in technology that can facilitate local decision making around the SDGs for self-benchmarking and rebuilding trust through transparency.
Leveraging the youth movement is imperative for creating norms to foster wide acceptance and interest in sustainable development.
Lastly, building this effort around the UN General Assembly (UNGA), which cultivates great anticipation on global issues such as climate change, health, and the SDGs specifically, will demonstrate national and international accountability, clarity, and recognition. With all eyes on the US, leastwise as the host of the UNGA and this year’s SDG Summit, this type of commitment is a testament to the effective change that is being sought through American leadership. The first half to reaching the Goals had us down, so there is no better time than now for a half-time talk.