The Global “Grand Challenges” of Inclusive Sustainable Development

The definition of Grand Challenges, their inclusion in the hard and social sciences, and their evolution when it comes to development approaches are fundamental to understanding the need and long term goals for inclusive sustainable development. Given away in the name, Grand Challenges go beyond issues on the individual and local level, but the persistent issues that continue to hinder long-term international development.

Grand Challenges are social problems with technical complexities that make them persistently difficult to overcome (Branscomb, 2013). Although difficult and daunting, Grand Challenges must be “ambitious yet achievable goals” and require “innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology” (Pescovitz, 2012). Grand Challenges are challenge to define, in and of themselves, as there is no universally accepted definition. A  country or region may experience one Grand Challenge that may not align with the context or issues of another country or region. For example, although many countries in Latin America and Africa experience severe income inequality, the path that led to inequality and the path to overcoming it is different for both regions.


However, there are general thematic areas that Grand Challenges stem from including health, energy, sustainability, education, economic development and opportunity, national security, or the exploration of things yet to be discovered.  Many development experts and researches, such as Lewis Branscomb (2013), make the argument that the approach to sustainably solve Grand Challenge must be multilateral and take advantage of technological scientific advances.


Once Grand Challenges became imbedded in development language, many aid and development organizations have used them to structure funding programs. On their website, USAID lays out 10 programs for “Grand Challenges for Development”. Some of these include Saving Lives at Birth, All Children Reading, and Power Agriculture (USAID, 2018). At this point we can see the monetization of the Grand Challenges, as USAID states that it and its partners have “committed more than $508 million in grants and technical assistance” to several regions of focus.


The discourse on the Grand Challenges has gone through several stages of evolution. At the 2000 Millennium Summit, the United Nations (UN) set forth 8 “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs). The UN set a deadline to achieve these goals, or at least make substantial progress towards these goals, by 2015. Attempting to address the major Global Grand Challenges, these goals focused on the themes of poverty eradication, universal primary education, female empowerment and gender equality, minimizing child mortality rates, improving maternal health care, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability, and unifying the globe for sustainable development (


In addition to the fact that none of the 8 MDGs were fully achieved by 2015, although there was remarkable progress, there was plenty of criticisms that these goals did not expand upon enough global problems and neglected to ensure sustainable development. After reevaluation during the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, the original 8 MDGs were adjusted and 11 more were added. The resulting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a “bold commitment to finish was [was] started” by more directly addressing the pressing global issues, ensuring sustainability, and focus on global partnerships (UNDP, 2018).


By 2013, the SDG’S were amended again, this time with a direct focus on the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The Draft Resolution submitted by the President of the General Assembly outlines the “realization of the Millennium Development Goals and their internationally agreed development goals for person with disabilities” (United Nations General Assembly, 2013). With a list of commitments, a) through q), these additions was an incredible leap forward towards providing sustainable development to all global citizens, including the more than 1 billion people with disabilities.



Branscomb, L. (2013) A Focused Approach to Society’s Grand Challenges. Issues in Science and Technology, 25,

Pescovitz, D. (2012) White House’s Tom Kalil on “Grand Challenges”, BoingBoing,

United Nations. Millennium Development Goals:

United Nations General Assembly (2013). UN High-Level Meeting on Disability and


UNDP. (2018). Sustainable Development Goals. United Nations Development Programme.

USAID, (2018). Grand Challenges for Development. USAID.