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Why selling the SDGs isn’t as easy as ABC

Wednesday, 17 February 2016 10:12 GMT

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon addresses the Annual Conference of Swiss Development Cooperation in Zurich, Jan. 22, 2016. On the screen behind are displayed the 17 goals of UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The hard-fought Sustainable Development Goals have so far failed to spark much media or public interest. Why have they been such a hard sell?

Amid much hype and expectation, the 193 member states of the United Nations last September agreed on a new ambitious set of global goals that are designed to tackle poverty, inequality, and climate change over the next 15 years.

But while celebrated in political and development circles, the hard-fought Sustainable Development Goals have so far failed to spark much media or public interest. Why have the SDGs been such a tough sell – and how important is it to the success of these goals to win public and media engagement? 

Corridors in the United Nations were abuzz as world leaders agreed an ambitious new set of global goals to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change. But outside the famed white office tower, passers-by struggled to grasp what was going on.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), thrashed out in three years of brainstorming and negotiations, were a major victory in setting critical targets for the 193 U.N. member states to pursue over the next 15 years.

The international development world was delighted to see the adoption of the most comprehensive global roadmap ever to tackle the world’s ills – 17 goals with an array of 169 specific targets that will apply to all countries, not just poor ones.

Yet despite the indisputable role the agenda could play to combat poverty, promote gender equality, protect the planet and nurture sustainable growth, peace and prosperity, so far the SDGs have failed to spark much interest among the media or the public.


“SDGs? You’ll have to tell me what that stands for,” said Victoria Dillon, a tourist from West Virginia, exchanging blank looks with her daughter outside the U.N. building on Manhattan’s East Side, flanked by fluttering flags from around the globe.

A month or so ago I was asked to speak to a group of about 20 experienced journalists from around the world visiting London for training. Asked about the SDGs, not one of these journalists – from Fiji to Syria to Finland – knew what they were.

Grabbing the public spotlight will be critical to getting the goals enacted, enforced and paid for, experts say.

“Having public attention on the goals can have a direct impact on whether there will be policy changes that make them happen,” said John McArthur, a senior fellow with The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and the U.N. Foundation.

Selling the SDGs to the media and beyond has proved a tough task despite a vigorous publicity campaign using radio spots, social media and celebrity events to spread the word and ignite a sense of expectation.The United Nations tried to engage the public early on through a global survey, My World, focusing heavily on younger people who will be in key positions in 15 years.

The survey, conducted both online and offline to prepare for the SDGs, gave people an opportunity to choose six of 16 issues that are most important to them and their families. About 8.5 million people from 194 countries voted in the survey conducted by the United Nations and UK-based independent think tank the Overseas Development Institute, with education, healthcare, and job opportunities topping the list of concerns.

But the overwhelming majority of voters were young people aged under 30 from low to medium development countries so the survey predominantly captured the voices of the poor from developing countries and media coverage was patchy at best.

So why are the SDGs such a hard sell? Shouldn’t a bid to save humanity be a headline story?

SDGs vs STDs

For starters, it may be as simple as the three little initials: SDG. A veteran US reporter complained at one news conference that they sounded uncomfortably similar to STDs, or Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

Neither do the letters lend themselves to an easy acronym like UNICEF or OPEC, which have become household words. Leading the U.N. campaign to spread the SDG news to a world audience, film director Richard Curtis – who has made popular movies such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary” – rebranded them as “global goals”.

The words “For Sustainable Development” were put in small print after “global goals” with the motto “Tell Everyone”. Curtis said he wanted to make the goals “much more famous and much more well known” than the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. They expired last year, replaced on Jan. 1 this year by the new, broader action plan.

But diplomatic insiders suggest the campaign drawing on star power to raise awareness backfired. Headlines focused on a performance by Beyonce and the visit by Pope Francis to the U.N. SDGs summit in September rather than on the actual goals and world leaders’ commitments.

Others were disappointed to see the word ‘sustainable’ dropped, as its inclusion had been seen as a significant achievement and a new focus for post-2015 development.

“Admittedly global voluntary agreements at U.N. level are not necessarily the kind of thing that inspires huge media coverage,” said Kate Munro, a policy and public affairs adviser for the British charity umbrella group Bond. “Coordination, councils and committees do not have the same glamour as negotiations, rock concerts and speeches from heads of state and the Pope,” she said. “However this is when the real work begins.”

Views vary on just how much the MDGs have helped the world. Aimed largely at ending extreme poverty, the eight goals lacked an environmental focus, which is the ‘sustainable’ aspect of the new goals, and focused narrowly on developing countries.

The SDGs are far more comprehensive, also challenging developed countries to do their share of the work. The MDGs were also far from familiar to many outside the world of charities, non-governmental groups and development policy makers.

That’s not to say they weren’t effective. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the MDGs helped lift more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty over 15 years, enabled more girls to go to school and brought unprecedented results in fighting diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

However, as world leaders are well aware, amid persistent inequality, an estimated 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty, mainly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This, together with climate change, fuels instability that can lead to conflict and migration as people fight over resources or leave their homes in search of a better life.


Dan James, a senior research consultant at the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), said he was surprised by the lack of SDGs coverage in the mainstream media.

This reflects a perception that the SDGs are merely a wish list, easily forgotten after the summit in New York, rather than a concrete framework requiring trade-offs and major shifts from business as usual, he suggested. But while the SDGs may not be legally binding, they are a chance to put sustainability at the heart of international action on development, he said.

“If things carry on, and if the goals are ignored in the public sphere, then politicians won’t necessarily feel they have to be held accountable for them,” he said.

Now is the time to bring the public in all nations together with the development sector to transform the SDGs into policies and practical action, with civil society on board to hold governments to their promises, he said. “Is the lack of coverage a result of our industry being too closed door? I think maybe development is happening in a bubble."

One problem is that there have been few interesting arguments around the SDGs, although this could change after indicators to track them are laid out in March, he said.

The global indicators are expected to set governments clear, specific targets.

“When you start to discuss what policies you need to realise the goals, then you come into more of a conflict,” James said. “That is when we could see more interest from domestic organisations and the media.”

A second problem is that the goals have a target date that is 15 years away.

“Anything beyond five years tends to become hypothetical, and there is no sense of urgency,” he added.


McArthur, a senior fellow in the global economy and development programme at The Brookings Institution, studied the amount of coverage the MDGs received in the media and its importance2.

It took several years for the MDGs to get attention after being agreed upon in 2000, he said. Former US President George W. Bush did not mention them until September 2005.

“The first big spike in media was in January 2005 on the heels of the Asia tsunami and public conversation about how we can help places faced with such damage,” McArthur said.

This time, he said talk about the SDGs seems to have started quicker and to be much more significant – to a point.

“But a lot of these things are seen as technocratic, not political. People aren’t even aware the process is going on.”

Apart from some specialist correspondents, journalists on the whole have shown little interest in the SDGs and are cynical about their ability to address the world’s toughest challenges. An analysis of media coverage between July and September by the World Bank found that 2,400 articles in publications, websites and blog posts in English mentioned the terms “SDGs” and “developing countries”, with a spike at the autumn summit. It did not include social media statistics from Twitter or Facebook.

Admittedly the scope of the ambitious agenda is hard to portray. Explain 17 goals with 169 targets in one punchy sentence to an audience with an attention span more accustomed to 140 characters.

The broad reach of the global goals also means they can’t be pigeonholed into one category, while the media is often organised by theme, such as science, health or security.

The World Bank study found news agency All Africa was the top source for SDGs articles, followed by Foreign Affairs and development platform Devex. Among more mainstream media, Thomson Reuters, the Guardian, DPA and Xinhua news agency led the pack. Commentators said this geographical breakdown made sense.

“I was not surprised to see Africa topping the list. It makes total sense since meeting the SDGs and ending extreme poverty by 2030 will require a major focus of attention and resources in Africa,” said Mauricio Rios from the World Bank.

Developing countries in Africa have grown to understand the aims of the MDGs, buying into the process as time went by, whereas developed nations are not used to the idea.


The risk is that after more than three years of hard bargaining to bring the SDGs to the United Nations for approval, governments lose momentum and fail on delivery, Munro said. Bond recently published a report, titled “Bringing the Goals Home: Implementing the SDGs in the UK”, that aims to keep the conversation alive and the ambition high, and to encourage people to put proposals on the table so policymakers translate them into funded plans.

“The best strategy in the world can still end up just sitting on a shelf,” said Munro.

The long-term success of the SDGs will require a strong message from governments and support from those who vote them into power, as the price tag for the 15-year plan could be as high as $172.5 trillion, experts say. Most of the funding is expected to come from national budgets.

By comparison, the MDGs were a relative bargain, with government aid covering the $61 billion-a-year bill.

McArthur said there was a greater need for public involvement in the SDGs as the blueprint is so much broader, and each goal has its own interest and community group.

“The SDGs are ultimately so interesting because in a sense they are crowd sourced-goals. They are about each of us and all of us,” he said.

Monro suggested campaigners could pick out goals or targets to draw attention and drive change, such as a commitment to end violence against children.

The media’s role was to be sceptical, McArthur said, “to ask the hard questions, and make sure governments are not let off easily”.

“The flipside is asking questions about how to solve these problems. This is the future,” he added.

This blog was first published in the World Financial Review.

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