Young People, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Liberal World Order: What is to Be Done?


By Sarah E. Mendelson

Sarah E. Mendelson served in the Obama administration as U.S. Ambassador to the UN’s ECOSOC, and as a Deputy Assistant Administrator at USAID. She is currently Distinguished Service Professor of Public Policy and the Head of Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College in Washington DC. She is a founder of Cohort 2030, which aims to unleash the power and potential of youth to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. This work is supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation in collaboration with the International Youth Foundation. Ambassador Mendelson is also working closely with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies to promote the implementation of SDG16+.

Overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s trip to Europe and his closed-door session with Vladimir Putin, another high stakes meeting took place this summer. In New York, country representatives gathered in July at the United Nations to report progress on an agenda that has the potential to make the planet more prosperous and peaceful.

Distracted by Twitter and scandals, populism and trade wars, it’s easy to forget that just three years ago, in September 2015, 193 member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This ambitious agenda runs through 2030 and commits countries to devote resources and take action to end poverty, advance gender equality, work for peace and justice, and deal effectively with climate change, among many other goals. The SDGs were also the focus of a circus of events and discussions at the UN General Assembly during the last few weeks. In September next year, heads of state will gather to gauge progress and to increase ambition for future implementation.

While some countries are taking the SDGs seriously, the agenda is not reaching beyond the filter bubble of development specialists and UN enthusiasts, suggesting the SDGs could well fall flat. What’s needed is an action plan to mobilize young people, a generation full of agency like no other, and one that has the most to gain from robust implementation or to lose if the agenda stalls. This mobilization must happen urgently — before the world’s leaders meet next year.

Introducing Cohort 2030

The SDGs can serve as an action-forcing mechanism, just as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did for reducing child mortality and extreme poverty.

Unlike the MDGs, which ran from 2000 to 2015, the SDGs apply to everyone, not just the Global South. Moreover, the SDGs call attention to the critical role in development that sound governance, reductions in violence, and access to justice play — issues not addressed by the MDGs, to their detriment. The goals represent nothing short of a paradigm shift away from the traditionally narrow technocratic framework that has dominated the field for decades, to one that recognizes the role politics, conflict, and rights play in advancing or hindering development.

This early in the life cycle of the SDGs, as was the case with the MDGs, robust implementation has yet to begin.

That said, over 100 countries have voluntarily reported some progress, closely tracked by numerous foundations and think tanks. The consensus that emerged from this summer’s gathering in New York, however, backed by data from the countries themselves and aggregated and analyzed by numerous groups including the Center for International Cooperation, the Brookings Institution, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, suggests progress to date is “pretty grim” and the lives of millions could be at stake.

Without greater awareness and demand by populations around the world, the SDGs are in danger of becoming just “an event,” as one UN Ambassador described them. What then, to quote a famous Russian philosopher, is to be done?

© UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The answer is to focus on young people, identified in the 2030 Agenda as critical agents of change who should find in the SDGs “a platform to channel their infinite capacities for activism into the creation of a better world.”

As the SDGs came together, the “My World 2015” campaign, a global survey of priorities for the agenda, showed that 15–30 year olds had the greatest levels of interest and commitment. This generation — “Cohort 2030” — has distinct qualities that are highly relevant to advancing the SDGs. These include native fluency in technology that could be deployed to solve societal problems, attitudes favoring diversity, gender, and LGBT rights, intolerance of corruption and inequality, concern about climate change, and a strong preference for ethically sourced products.

By building on these qualities, a virtuous cycle can be created: the Global Goals resonate with Cohort 2030, and Cohort 2030 generates demand, urges governments and businesses to do more, and works directly to deliver the SDGs.

Barriers to success

© UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

To unleash the energy of Cohort 2030, serious challenges must be addressed.

The SDGs must be better publicized and advocated. There will be little delivery if there is no demand. Various studies suggest most people have never heard of the SDGs, let alone appreciate their relevance to everyday life. Young people especially need to be educated on what the SDGs could affect if they are achieved, and the consequences if they are not.

Issues of ownership and lack of accountability have dampened enthusiasm for the agenda in some quarters, such as many in the human rights community. Even those who know about the goals tend to think of them as the “UN Goals” and not “Our Goals.” The UN system has a role to play in, for example, convening heads of state, but the agenda will fail if ownership does not move outside the UN bureaucracy and take hold at the regional and local level around the world. Action and delivery must be powered by citizen demand, especially that of Cohort 2030.

The world’s largest donors need to be better coordinated on investments in all the goals, rather than cherry picking some — a challenge exacerbated by the decline of US global leadership. As we saw with the MDGs, donors play a crucial role in advancing or thwarting collective action. Major bilateral donors that have customarily helped drive coordinated responses, such as the US Agency for International Development, have been largely silent on the SDGs.

Foundations must also step up. Several of the largest philanthropic organizations to date have been drawn to variations of the goals established by the MDGs, such as tackling poverty and advancing health. Others are attracted to those that can be monetized such as alternative energy sources. There is growing and impressive collective investment around climate change.

But we need a new wave of foundations to take on the broader and complex aim of creating peaceful, just, and inclusive societies. These are challenges that resonate with young people who are sickened by violence, injustice, and corruption, and who feel excluded from deeply unequal societies with institutions still stuck in the 20th century.

What’s at stake

If the good news is that the international community has agreed to and nominally embraced the SDGs, as judged by over 100 countries voluntarily reporting progress, the bad news is that the current challenges to meaningful and deep implementation are daunting. The central question the world’s policymakers ought to answer each time they gather at the UN is how to ensure the commitments made collectively in 2015 become reality by 2030. Mobilizing young people will help them build a new narrative.

In an era characterized by struggles between liberal and illiberal societies, progress is not in any way guaranteed. Trump may well renounce the SDGs, as he has the Paris Climate Accord and the Human Rights Council, further abdicating US global leadership and eroding the post-war liberal order. The SDGs could help shore up that order — one reason why more open and progressive societies are turning to the SDGs to combat populist and authoritarian leaders whose societies are infused by corruption, violence, and discrimination.

An action plan is needed to grow Cohort 2030. This plan should include working with national and multilateral development agencies, the private sector, foundations, faith-based groups, artists, athletes, civil society, the media, and mayors around the world. Schools and universities have a critical role to play. In particular, public policy graduate schools should come together, to divide and conquer clusters of goals. The agendas of young social entrepreneurs and the emerging field of public interest technology ought to be driven by achieving the SDGs.

It is easy to be cynical about the feasibility of an agenda as idealistic and aspirational as the SDGs. Yet meaningful progress in tackling the greatest social and political challenges of our time can happen if the public appreciates and embraces the goals, and demands the collective action necessary to realize them. Leaders advancing closed, undemocratic societies are betting this will never happen. Are they right? Cohort 2030 can prove them wrong.