Implementing the UN SDGs: A Job for Everyone, Everywhere


Nadia Isler

Everyone seems to agree that the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make perfect sense.

Countries and companies, individuals and industries are proudly flaunting their commitment to the United Nations 2030 Agenda — but the pledges can be tricky to implement, and the results difficult to measure.
Fear not: SDG Lab director Nadia Isler — aka “the alchemist of sustainable development” — has the situation under control.

SDG Lab is located in Geneva, a centre for international commerce and co-operation, and the perfect base for the people and organisations driving the implementation of the SDGs.

Isler hopes to “piggyback on this dynamic and make sure that it blossoms all over”. SDG Lab — an organiser, amplifier and innovator — is a nexus for a diverse ecosystem focused on delivering on the UN’s agenda. “This is a neutral space to test ideas, identify past mistakes, and replicate the experiences that have been successful in implementing the SDGs,” Isler explains.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines 17 overarching SDGs and 169 targets. It was negotiated and adopted by all 193 UN member states, and officially came into force on January 1, 2016.

“These goals are nothing less than a historic commitment of every (UN) country towards defining precise sets of common objectives in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges of our world,” Isler says. The goals are “unique in that they call for action by all countries — poor, rich, and middle-income — to promote prosperity while protecting the planet”.

Isler serves as the SDG Lab team leader, sharing the expertise gained from a lengthy career in international development and first-hand experience in bilateral co-operation and multilateral affairs. Her career — from a Swiss diplomat to a communications officer for Doctors Without Borders — has given her a breadth of knowledge and experience that she can use for the benefit of the lab, and the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda.

She describes the agenda as “more than a political commitment” and “a platform for action that every citizen can contribute to”. She urges people to inform themselves on the scope of focus of the goals, and to discuss them whenever possible. Isler would like to see the SDGs incorporated in the school curriculum, so that younger people could learn to badger parents, politicians and corporations.

She reminds the public that the 17 SDGs are indivisible, and should be addressed in their totality. “Many people think of the goals as being discrete stand-alone objectives, or that some might be more important than others,” she says. “What we do at the SDG Lab in Geneva, and in the broader UN system, is to drive home the message that it is an integrated agenda that cannot be separated.

“If a country fails on one SDG, it will not be able to address the other goals. If we want to achieve SDG Three (Good Health and Wellbeing) it means … you also need to address issues related to education, clean water, access to food, gender equality. The 2030 Agenda is a recognition that the international community must address today’s global challenges in an integrated and a systemic way.”

There is one recurring question: who’s going to foot the bill? The answer, according to Isler, is no one — and everyone. She cites estimates of $5 to $7tn yearly to close the gap, and calls for organisations and governments to optimise operations for more efficient use of resources. The burden should be shared through public-private partnerships, she says, and sees private finance playing a bigger role as consumers demand evidence of SDG contributions.

“This is what makes me think we’re in a new era,” she says. “As grey as everything might seem, I think it’s not naïve to be an optimist. I think there are positive signs that there is a huge new dynamic towards more co-operation, partnership and cross-partnerships.”

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