The first time I was exposed to the Sustainable Development Goals was while reading an article published in The Economist that was published in March of 2015. The article was titled “The 169 commandments”, and the overall tone of the article was rather negative toward the SDGs. This tone, and the stance The Economist took with regard to the SDGs, is the exact opposite of the “moonshot thinking” we were all encouraged to practice by Professor Cogburn.
One critique leveled at the SDGs by The Economist is that “Every lobby group has pitched in for its own special interest”, and as such the number of goals ballooned from the relatively modest ones set out in the MDGs. Rather than being a negative, the early engagement of “every lobby group” is what will make the SDGs successful. As USAID states on their website, “[Grand Challenges for Development] engage non-traditional solvers… around critical development problems in a variety ways through partnerships, prizes, challenge grant funding, crowdsourcing, and more to identify innovations that work.” This engagement with non-traditional solvers clearly took place early on in the formation of the SDGs if “every lobby group” had a chance to suggest ideas. Foundations, businesses, and academia can more fully and deeply participate in the SDGs given the range of development issues they cover.
An additional benefit of the wide range of issues covered by the SDGs is that even developed countries, like the United States, can benefit from them. Lewis Branscomb stated as much in 2009 in an article that defined grand challenges as “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution.” Innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues can, and will, be found through the SDGs, and the United States can use some of those solutions to solve domestic issues. For example, solutions to Goal 6 “Clean Water and Sanitation” could hugely benefit the United States as the failure of clean water and sanitation systems in the U.S. have come to the fore of domestic politics recently.