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Sustainable Development Goals: One of the Greatest Fun Things in the World!?

Inge Kaul is adjunct professor, Hertie School of Governance, Berlin, and first director of UNDP’s Offices of the Human Development Report and Global Development Studies

BERLIN, May 6 2019 (IPS) - This year’s annual “SDG Global Festival of Action” was held in Bonn, Germany, from May 2–4, 2019. The festival’s overall aim is to gather campaigners and multiple stakeholders from around the world at one place for interaction with each other; furthermore, it seeks to inspire them to scale up action in support of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set forth in the 2030 Agenda adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

As can be seen from the festival website, it is a dynamic event awash in the specific color codes of the various SDGs. About 1,500 “festival-goers” meet and chat in the hallways, share information, or listen to brief interventions—some lasting just 2 minutes—by an array of speakers commenting on a wide range of topics.

They also enjoy cultural performances and SDG-related films screened in different formats, such as 2D, 3D, as well as virtual and augmented reality. Award ceremonies and evening parties are held and, on top of this, the festival fireworks light up the skies over the river Rhine.

However, one is compelled to ask: why hold a festival? Why use fireworks? Why should we have a good time at the banks of the Rhine when there is still a long way to go to achieve the SDGs?

The ill-effects of global warming continue to wreak havoc. In some parts of the world, people and animals starve because of droughts caused by climate change; in other parts, harvests are being destroyed and houses swept away by torrential rains and floods.

Lives are still being cut short because of the unavailability or unaffordability of medicines. Inhuman working conditions, including those prevailing in factories and mines producing goods for export to the world’s rich and super-rich, are still being tolerated.

Human trafficking is still rampant, as are various forms illicit trade and tax evasion. War, international terrorism, and conflict continue to persist, increasing the number of people forcibly displaced within their own country, as well as the number of refugees and international migrants.

So, it is worth wondering what would be the reaction of refugees, who are living in camps and hardly have any real prospects of change in their living conditions, if they have a functioning smart phone and would be able to see pictures of the SDG Global Action Festival and the fun-filled activities held in Bonn?

Would they accept them as part the effort toward “leaving no one behind,” a commitment enshrined in paragraph 4 of the 2030 Agenda? Would these pictures not seem like a cruel and twisted joke to the people caught up in the devastating war in Yemen and the conscience-shocking humanitarian crisis that followed it?

I want to make it clear that many of the contemporary global challenges do not adversely affect only those living in the Global South. People in the Global North also increasingly suffer from rising inequality, relative poverty, unresolved financial problems, and mounting uncertainty about their future living conditions.

This includes uncertainty about managing the risks and tapping the opportunities, such as those arising from the digitalization of economies, as well as the development and application of artificial intelligence and other new technologies. In fact, many Northern consumption and production patterns negatively affect the living conditions of people in the South; further, many of the South’s unresolved problems spill over into the North.

Thus, progress toward meeting the SDGs still faces a number of obstacles that require major reforms in the global economy and an improvement in the functioning of the system of international cooperation.

Therefore, this is not the time for fun travel from one international SDG meeting to another, a pattern that has become rather popular after 2015. Although networking, information sharing, and storytelling can be useful policy tools, there is no justification yet for holding a festival or getting into a festive mood.

In fact, doing so can be construed as signaling a lack of respect not only for the deprived among the current and future generations, but for the planet as a whole.

Even as we face many challenges today, we possess the knowledge and the resources needed to tackle them. The key missing element, which prevents scaled-up and accelerated progress, is the willingness to start “walking the talk,” that is, to act unilaterally and, as and when necessary, collectively with the requisite sense of urgency on the most pressing, high-risk challenges.

Such a shift from slow to quick policymaking calls for a worldwide action on part of the truly determined, realistic yet ambitious change advocates urging policymakers to act now and to do all what others cannot do better to ensure that problems not only get addressed in a piecemeal manner, off and on, but rather actually get resolved decisively.

This could revitalize the global public’s and policymakers’ willingness to cooperate and innovate and move us forward toward global sustainable growth and development.

To facilitate the emergence of such a strong worldwide movement of change advocates, the series of annual “SDG Festivals” could be discontinued and the UN could encourage the festival partners: (1) to lend their support instead to the hard work of transformative change, while holding in check festivities and the fireworks until we see real progress; and (2) to use available resources to offer a global platform for interaction and cooperation to the recently sprung-up but steadily growing and already world-spanning movement of “Fridays for Future.”

The bottom line is – if we fail to effectively limit global warming, many other developments, however big or small, may come to naught. In the longer run, we might even find that “Fridays for Future” was the beginning of a durable innovation in global governance: the beginning of a “future generations council” (perhaps under the umbrella of the United Nations) aimed at fostering an enhanced balance between policymaking for the short and the longer term.

* The author can be reached at

1 For the full text of the 2030 Agenda, see:
2 For more information on the Festival, see

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