Somebody’s Got to Keep Score

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by Joy Portella


The Sustainable Development Goals are a tough sell.


It’s a great idea. The world agrees to a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and prosperity for all. The goals are timebound, so they’re all supposed to be achieved by 2030. And they’re measurable so we can track progress and leaders can be held accountable.


But the SDGs are also very complicated. There are a lot of them – 17 goals in all with 169 targets and a whopping 300+ indicators to measure compliance. That’s a lot to keep track of, and for countries that find it challenging to achieve all or any of the SDGs, it’s hard to figure out where to start. Some groups like the International Science Council have tried to map how the Goals interact with each other and how countries might prioritize and tackle them to ensure the best outcomes. But these efforts are also complex.


From a communication perspective, the SDGs present special challenges. Their complexity defies simple messaging; they’re difficult to remember or even understand. The three-letter acronym name doesn’t help. The name created such a conundrum that the SDGs were almost immediately rebranded as “the Global Goals.”


The communication gap is a big problem. It’s critically important that people around the world understand and feel urgency around the SDGs. If people don’t hold their leaders accountable for achieving the Goals, they won’t happen.


There have been several attempts to communicate about the SDGs beyond the United Nations HQ and national capitals. This includes everything from big concerts like the recent Global Citizen Festival (which included an all-star line-up and a freak mass panic episode) to TED-style talks broadcast through the UN from a location dubbed the #SDGStudio.


One of the most prominent efforts to communicate about the SDGs comes from Bill and Melinda Gates, who use their unique position as the world’s foremost philanthropists to promote the Goals.


For the second year in a row, the Gates have issued their Goalkeepers report, which tracks progress towards achieving the SDGs. Employing their signature combination of human empathy and stone-cold data (much of which was provided by Minerva’s client the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation), the Gates’s recent report focuses on the opportunity and challenge of a burgeoning population of young people.


The report lauds amazing development gains by countries like Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Rwanda. But it also warns that, without more investments in the education and health of young people, many countries – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – risk stagnating or even backsliding on progress.


First of all, it displays the typical Gatesian hubris that they are the self-appointed “goalkeepers” who are monitoring and reporting on progress for the rest of us. And of course, the successes and shortfalls that the Gates choose to highlight in Goalkeepers match their own philanthropic investments. You don’t see a lot in the report about protecting the oceans or peace-building initiatives, but there’s plenty about health and education – two areas the Gates Foundation has focused on for decades.


But despite any reservations, the report makes effective use of the Gates’ substantial platform to keep people thinking about the SDGs. As Bill Gates recently told the online news publication Quartz:


[T]he whole idea of Goalkeepers [the annual report and event] is to talk about places where people are ahead and where there are positive outliers and how we should adopt their best practices and be frank about places that have fallen behind, goals that are proving to be very difficult to get on track to.


There is great value in having high-profile people like Bill and Melinda Gates on board for the cause. After all, it’s not every day that Fortune, CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show are simultaneously taking about a wonky three-letter acronym. I just wish there were more famous and diverse voices following the Gates’ lead.

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.