By Richard Curtis (This article first appeared in The Times, April 17 2018)
As the Commonwealth leaders meet in London, I wanted to take the opportunity – as a UN Advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals – to, well, advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals.
I’m a creature of the Commonwealth, born in New Zealand, both my parents proud Australians, and I’ve lived in the UK for most of my life. I’ve also worked with many African Commonwealth countries on charities and campaigns.
The Commonwealth is a very interesting entity and seems to me to point directly to the goals. It’s a group of countries, linked by a common history, working together for mutual advantage.
That’s the story of the goals as well. Except the group of countries who signed up to them is slightly larger. But the thesis is the same. All of us on this planet have a huge amount in common — in a way, everything in common — and if we work together, substantial ultranational things can be achieved.
The Global Goals themselves are a mechanism for just such co-operation. They’re a remarkable achievement, agreed by 193 nations: a complex yet practical analysis of the issues facing the world.
They are the only plan on the table that might just deliver a generation that is the first to end extreme poverty, the last to be threatened by climate change, and the most determined to fight inequality and injustice.
Wrestling with these mighty ambitions, countries came up with a plan to 2030. And I plead to Commonwealth leaders: take this plan of yours seriously. There’s not one politician that won’t wish, when you retire, that your achievements would be more than the sum of their parts. That you had been part of a great Commonwealth, and a safer, more peaceful and more prosperous planet.
Of course, the challenge is colossal, and will require a mighty partnership, which Goal 17 recognises. Politicians can’t do it on their own. They have the ability, power – and duty – to bring about the conditions for human progress and economic development.
They can promote innovation and trade, and uphold fairness, responsibility and human rights, including in the vital democratic functions of the state. But business and citizens are also essential: the goals are about much, much more than what governments can do alone.
It’s intriguing what’s happening with the private sector and the goals. More and more businesses understand that a sense of benign social purpose is crucial to their success. And that they can’t thrive with outdated or harmful practices and materials.
The goals are proving a compelling framework for companies, including Unilever, Aviva, Bechtel and Salesforce. Investors are demanding it too, historically demonstrated when Blackrock’s Larry Fink recently said he now firmly expects companies “to demonstrate the leadership and clarity that will drive not only their own investment returns, but also the prosperity and security of their fellow citizens”.
And consumers are more engaged than ever, keeping a watchful eye on companies, like guardians of the goals. As citizens make changes in their lives for the good of planet, they have high expectations of business. New transparency initiatives will evaluate companies by benchmarking them against the goals.
And last year the Better Business, Better World report came to the startling conclusion that the fulfilment of the goals, far from being a straitjacket, are a trillion-dollar business opportunity. So politicians can expect and demand that business will join them with determination on the road to 2030.
Likewise, we the people will be loud in our expectations. Be prepared: civil society is going to fight for the goals. Every leader should expect that in 2020, a third of the way through the plan, there will a global and national campaign fighting for them.
Everything that anyone feels passionate about or angry about, every injustice and inequality, is included in this unprecedented plan for humanity. I have been part of campaigns like the 2000 Jubilee Debt Campaign and Make Poverty History for the Millennium Development Goals.
And all over the world, from FGM and child marriage activists, and those fighting malaria, climate change or plastic waste, to Black Lives Matter and MeToo, young people in particular are demanding greater, faster action. They are, after all, only asking governments to deliver what governments themselves promised.
So I advocate loudly to Commonwealth leaders – act on the goals now. If you’ve put them to one side, it’s time to take them very seriously. You don’t need a new plan, a fresh review, a policy calibration: the goals are the plan. You can’t put them off saying “let’s sort out our current problems first”.