Voices

The UN’s sustainable development goals can be a game changer for SA

2018-11-27 12:06

According to the latest reports, poverty is rising in South Africa. Statistics South Africa announced in August 2018 that the number of poor people increased from 53.2% in 2011 to 55.5% in 2015. Another report by the World Bank, published in 2018, states that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world – with the top 1% of South Africans owning more than 70% of the country’s wealth.

This perhaps explains why South Africa ranks so low on the United Nations’ SDG Index and Dashboards Report 2018, which measures how well countries are doing in terms of meeting the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, despite being the most advanced country on the continent and 33rd in the world when it comes to total wealth. The country comes in at a woeful 107 on a list of 156 member nations – only just beating India (112) and far behind Brazil (56), China (54), and Russia (63), its emerging market peers.

The sustainable development goals were ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 with the intention that they should be met by 2030 if we want to improve conditions on the planet. The goals are not timid. They include ending poverty, zero hunger (goal 2), quality education (goal 4), gender equality (goal 5), clean water and sanitation (goal 6), affordable and clean energy (goal 7) and climate action (goal 13).

Meeting these 17 goals is going to be a challenge, and at the recent Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2018 in New York, which took place at the same time as the UN General Assembly, more than 700 business, government, civil society and academic leaders from 70 countries all over the world came to reflect on just how well the world is doing in this regard.

For a country so acutely in need of change and upliftment, South African policies and programmes urgently need to become more actively and strategically aligned with the sustainable development goals, and business has a significant role to play here.

It was an event for shaping agendas for action and served as a platform to spotlight and scale alliances, coalitions and cross-sector initiatives for climate action and sustainable development. It was an exciting, invigorating, inspirational and motivational place to be, but it also highlighted just how far behind South Africa is in participating in this exciting and constructive movement for change.

For a country so acutely in need of change and upliftment, South African policies and programmes urgently need to become more actively and strategically aligned with the sustainable development goals, and business has a significant role to play here. While much is being made about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment drive to raise R1.2 trillion in new investment into South Africa over the next five years, there is a growing recognition that without aligning this with social and environmental outcomes, such as are enshrined in the sustainable development goals, the divides in the country will only continue to widen.

According to Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairperson of the World Economic Forum, the implementation of the sustainable development goals is an absolute must to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for humankind.

“Governments are challenged to fulfil their commitments, but business has a key role to play in providing the knowhow and the technologies to reach the objective in more efficient and innovative ways,” he said.

Sustainable development goals can be a game-changer for any organisation – especially those in unequal emerging markets. The benefits of tapping into the sustainable development goal agenda include accessing support on a global scale along with funding and donors, as well as greater ease in establishing fruitful collaborations and networks. In addition, by aligning themselves to the sustainable development goals, organisations can elevate their credibility and standing on the global stage.

Governments are challenged to fulfil their commitments, but business has a key role to play in providing the knowhow and the technologies to reach the objective in more efficient and innovative ways

Take home lessons from the summit on how to accelerate progress in order to achieve the sustainable development goals by 2030 included the importance of making data that supports interventions and solutions to address societal challenges more accessible, and the value of breaking down barriers between the private and public sectors – as well as civil society – through partnerships. No sector can go it alone. And with the right partners, so much more can be done.

Education and raising awareness of the sustainable development goals among the public, as well as organisations and private agencies was also highlighted as key, and a widely accepted recommendation was advocating for and supporting social entrepreneurship – a powerful mechanism that can be used for driving development and social inclusion as part of the sustainable development goal agenda.

The harnessing of exponential technologies such as blockchain, robotics and AI will also be vital. Technology can be used to scale impact, build new markets and reach more people as well as to give young people, who are looking for an opportunity to participate and contribute, a voice. In everything, the local voice was seen to be vital. Unfortunately, as things stand in South Africa, there are still too few local voices making themselves heard in this regard.

One important local voice is the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business. My research at the Bertha Centre and the Social Makeover specifically addresses sustainable development goal 5 (gender equality and women’s empowerment) and sustainable development goal 17 (partnership for the goals), and is looking into scaling successful prevention programmes that address complex social challenges such as domestic violence and women’s empowerment.

While such programmes help many individuals with transforming their lives – giving up drugs, finding employment, giving up on crime and focusing on financial stability – the challenge now is to increase the impact of such interventions in order to reach more people.

Achieving this will not only advance South Africa’s progress in achieving the sustainable development goals, but will foster greater collaboration among South African agencies, promoting more practical and tangible solutions for communities most in need. By aligning local development priorities more purposefully with the sustainable development goals, we can more effectively stem the rise of poverty and inequality and help to put the country on a social development track that will see more citizens benefiting.

Farhana Parker is a social entrepreneur and Bertha scholar on the UCT GSB MPhil in Inclusive Innovation programme. She was selected by the World Economic Forum to represent the voice of youth at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York in October.

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September 22 2019