An innovative analysis of the SDG’s targets is unlocking barriers and triggering efficient actions to reach these goals by 2030. By understanding that these targets are inter-connected and that acting on one might impact others, we are able to identify prioritized actions. Interconnectedness between targets can be identified using a defined cause effect pathway, or theory of change, which is presented in detail below.
The Sustainable Development Goals are like the Mont Blanc observed from another mountain kilometers away. The picture herewith provides a view of the Mont Blanc as seen from the Jura mountain chain facing the Alps, across from the Léman lake. The Jura is a wonderful outdoor playground, providing beautiful panoramic views of the Mont Blanc.
The 17 SDGs can be depicted as the various parts forming the Mont Blanc which, when visible in its entirety, is stunning and desirable.
We see the Mont Blanc clearly although we also see the wide gap in front of us. We will need to find our way, descending from the summits of the Jura, making our way through the countryside of the Canton de Vaud, swimming across the Léman lake (or getting around it), and hiking the Alps to reach the bottom of the Mont Blanc. And only then do we start the climb to the summit. It is a long journey, but a worthwhile destination. We are convinced it is the right destination.
However, common sense would advise us to get a map, as the SDG are only goals. They are not a plan. The journey is as important as the final destination. There are 169 SDG targets, which for any decision-maker would be a management nightmare, without talking of the relevance of the goals themselves. The evolution from the MDGs to the SDGs added 9 goals and as well as more complex objectives and targets, when we haven’t actually succeeded in achieving the MDGs thus far. This is not considered as a common and effective management practice. Choosing the SDG which we value most or which is aligned with our company culture is already good, but far from being sufficient. We need to gain an understanding of the bottlenecks, of the target “hubs” and of the actions that will unlock the highest societal value and contribute the most to the SDGs. Many targets are linked, and they can all be classified within a cause effect chain or “theory of change”. This theory of change will help us reach the Mont Blanc and identify the best actions and activities to reach the summit.
The theory of change is a traditional model which is defined around key activities that require input and subsequently generate output. Output contribute to create outcomes and finally the impact we want to achieve, a sustainable development. The figure below expresses this clearly.
We can map the SDGs’ targets within this framework to:
Realize how they are part of the same cause effect chain
Identify how targets are linked and focus on the targets that will influence positively the highest number of other targets
Prioritize the activities or actions that will lead to the outcomes and impact we want to achieve
Identify missing actions that connect and support the targets
This systemic view brings much needed clarity within the SDGs. Let’s illustrate this with goal 6, which states “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. It is composed of 6 targets and 2 sub-targets. By completing the exercise of plotting the targets within the theory of change framework, we obtain the figure below:
We observe that targets 1 and 2, which are related to the access to water and sanitation, are outcomes which contribute overall to reach the level of well-being we are targeting (impact). However, to reach these outcomes, we must work on specific activities represented by targets 3, 4 and 6: increase water use efficiency, reduce water pollution and protect/restore water related ecosystems which provide most of the global water supply. These three targets are about recognizing the value of our built capital (water infrastructures), social capital (institutions) and natural capital (natural ecosystems). They are key assets to invest in, but which are often neglected. Identifying for each watershed which is undervalued and lacks investment is the first step towards the outcome of access to water and sanitation.
To support an efficient investment in those types of capital, we need on the one hand an integrated water resource management plan (target 5) and on the other hand the contribution of key stakeholders, such as international cooperation agencies (target 6A) and local communities (target 6B).
This way of representing the targets of the SDG 6 provides some clarity or a preliminary map to trigger actions. Firstly, we will need to identify which of the activities, related to targets 3, 4 and 6, will be the most relevant for a specific region. Secondly, we will need to ensure the buy-in of key stakeholders (including international cooperation agencies and local communities) around an integrated water resources management plan.
This example has been developed within the SDG 6. By extending this thinking to other goals we can quickly see that those specific targets will contribute to others (and the contrary is true too), for example:
Target 2.4 - Ensure sustainable food production systems: Water resource management is key to most of the world’s agriculture production (80% of the world’s water use is for agriculture production)
Target 12.2 - Achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources: Water is one of the vital natural resources.
Target 15.2 - Sustainable management of forests: Water is one of the most important ecosystem services provided by forests worldwide.
And the list goes on…
This short analysis shows the path to unlock actions - and not focus only on bold statements - around the SDGs. I also hope it will stimulate a more practical use of the SDG’s 169 targets, in particular for the private sector. For this sector, it is critical to identify the specific investments required in natural, social and built capital, which will directly contribute to create resilient revenues for their business, and at the same time support SDG’s targets. This is one more link to create between such targets and business objectives. This is important to avoid the trap of “feel good” statements and activities commonly seen in the private sector. The SDGs are simply good business, not philanthropic goals.
Now that we have set a desired summit to reach with the establishment of the SDGs, the next step is asking yourself whether you have your map in hand to reach the Mont Blanc by 2030.