The UN Grand Challenges are defined as “technically complex problems that have stubbornly defied solution.” These challenges are large, complicated issues that have been plaguing society for years, and take an enormous amount of effort to begin to solve. The needed solutions are often interdisciplinary in nature, and require not only strong effort, but collaboration from many different stakeholder groups.
While different organizations have different definitions, the general consensus is that problems like providing clean water, increasing literacy rates, finding cures to cancer, solving hunger, and solving AIDS comprise some of the world’s “Grand Challenges.” Many agree that these goals are ambitious, but are achievable after a lot of collaboration.
Development practitioners have come to the consensus solving these problems will require non-traditional actors to step in, including people from the fields of science and technology, since the problems are so complex in nature. In my opinion, this approach has fostered communication between many different stakeholders and fostered innovation, leading to discoveries that may not have been previously made.
Branscomb explains this idea using cancer research as an example. He says this disease is a long-term and pervasive issue, and through slowly chipping away at the problem from different angles they have made discoveries and improvements in multiple sectors, such as genetics, surgeries, and more. He says if the research done were narrower and focused in scope, and did not look at the problem from a holistic standpoint, progress may have been slower.
The UN is one of the most important stakeholders that has contributed to work on the Grand Challenges. They drafted the Millennial Development Goals in 2000, which include: eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combatting HIV/aids, Malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.
A huge improvement made since then in working on such Grand Challenges was learning to include persons with disabilities. Around 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability, and the MDGs hardly addressed that problem. The 2015 SGDs are much more inclusive, and have worked to give everybody a seat at the table of development in the hopes of speeding up the process.