Grand Challenges

Grand Challenges are complex problems that have no clear solutions. For USAID, these Grand Challenges include battling and curing Ebola and Zika, securing water for food, and having all children reading, among others. The United Nations addresses a variety of Grand Challenges in the Sustainable Development Goals, ranging from the elimination of poverty to affordable and clean energy to partnership for the goals.

Looking at the name, the two words “Grand” and “Challenge” are heavy, serious words. These words can overwhelm and overpower people. While “grand” does mean large in size, it also means magnificent in appearance and style. Similarly, “challenge” can denote something is hard to overcome, but it also means something that tests abilities. So while this phrase can mean large problems that are hard to overcome, it can also mean magnificent ways to test someone’s abilities. That is what organizations like the UN and USAID are doing: they are testing us, as a society, in our abilities to solve issues that we face every day.

These grand challenges have been used to frame the end of some of the world’s largest problems, like climate change or poverty. These frameworks make it so that we, as a society, see the means to the end – collaboration. This directly relates back to SDG 17: partnership. The rest of the goals tackle specific problems like poverty and hunger, but this final goal, number 17, tells us how to accomplish the rest: through partnerships. By framing it in a way that we believe that collaboration and teamwork is needed for success, it involves more people than it would if it solely dictated that we have to do x, y, and z in order to overcome the issue.

Grand Challenges exist on a local, state, federal, regional, and global scale. Each level has different challenges that it must solve and overcome. For example, the city of Bangor, ME might have accessible public transportation as a grand challenge. The state of Maine might not view this specific issue as a grand challenge, but might focus on accessibility for Medicare and Medicaid. On the federal level, a grand challenge is combatting drug trafficking. On a regional level, a grand challenge is migration within the region (people leaving country A to go to country B, etc.). On a global level, the grand challenges in the SDGs are some of the most prominent. On each stage of government and on each level of the scale, there will be overlap in grand challenges. Accessible public transportation is a grand challenge in Bangor, ME, but it is also one on the federal level with the idea that more big cities need better and more accessible public transportation. This is also reflected in SDGs 9 and 11.

Continuing with the challenge of accessible public transportation, a variety of organizations—governmental, non-governmental, and inter-governmental—have come together to try and solve this problem. One example of this MetroAccess in the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA, commonly referred to as Metro). When living in both Spain and Costa Rica, I did not see the same efforts put in for people who needed transit to be accessible. In Madrid, many of the metro stations are not accessible, but they do have a plan in place to make them so. The buses are not all accessible, but they are making progress into making them so. In Costa Rica, many people use buses to travel around, but a majority of these buses were not accessible. This has not been a priority for Costa Rica, with not a large need for accessible transportation, but even one person provides justification for need.

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