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The Sustainable Development Goals Come to the USA

Nearly a year after the official launch of the post-2015 agenda, people are still grappling with how to make the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals a reality. But while most people view the SDGs as a framework for improving lives in the developing world, a new report highlights how the SDGs can guide domestic programs here is the US.

When the UN announced the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the intended beneficiaries were clear. The main focus of the MDGs was to reduce global poverty and established a series of goals to do just that. Even though the goals ranged from reducing child mortality to creating gender equality, each goal was designed to contribute to the overarching desire to reduce poverty, using proven benchmarks to reach that aim.

And it largely worked. By 2015, the number of people worldwide living on less than $1.25 a day was cut in half. Similar progress was made on reducing child and maternal mortality, malnourishment and gender equality in primary education.

As a result, when it came to creating the post-2015 agenda, there was a real desire to think bigger. The process of developing the agenda also became more collaborative with the launch of an online survey to allow ordinary people from all over the world have a say in what priorities the SDGs should focus on. Here in the US, almost 80,000 people participated in the survey. The results highlight the similar concerns that people from both developed and developing countries have for the future.

The end result of the surveys, discussions and meetings were the SDGs – 17 goals spanning all aspects of development from poverty reduction and zero hunger to rule of law programs and infrastructure development.

The breadth of the SDGs goes far beyond what the MDGs envisioned, leaving room for developed countries to benefit from the goals as well.

This is the focus of “From Global Goals to Local Impact”, a new report by the Council on Foundations. While most people view development as what the global south can learn from the global north, the report highlights that there is plenty the developing world and can teach industrialized nations when it comes to poverty reduction, community outreach and responsible consumption – all goals enumerated under the SDGs.

In particular, by using the SDGs as a framework for domestic programs, philanthropic organizations can better gear their programs to have more impact. Often times the funding and creation of domestic programs is fragmented, with each element existing in its own silo. What the MDGs, and now SDGs, demonstrate is that collaborating across seemingly disconnected fields can majorly improve the impact of programs.

It also allows different fields to learn through the failure of others in a way that helps reduce waste by not having each organization make the same mistakes for themselves.

But beyond the value of matching the language and framework of the SDGs across borders, in an increasingly globalized world there is a growing understanding that problems that impact one country often do not stay within that nation’s borders. Issues like human trafficking, pollution and conflict are by their nature international, but even issues such as economic development, the rule of law and innovation have impacts far beyond the borders of a specific country. In this way, improving the situation in one spot will have a ripple effect. By marrying domestic programming in both developed and developing countries, programs can build upon that ripple effect to exact real change.

One example from the report concerns human trafficking, an industry that impacts all countries in the world.

In this way, a community foundation in Little Rock, Arkansas which leads a campaign against human trafficking isn’t just working on SDG target 5.2, they are impacting goals related to education, poverty, and gender equality. Because human trafficking is essentially a global supply chain—meaning that individuals are brought to the U.S. from overseas—a foundation that intervenes at one point in the chain reverberates at all other points of the chain. Put differently, less demand for trafficked individuals means less supply. In this way, women and girls in the developing world are more likely to escape poverty, pursue education, lead healthy lives, and contribute positively to society (goals 1, 4, 3, and 8, respectively).

That connection to the SDGs may be coincidental and not intentional, but it does show how the post-2015 agenda can be integrated into domestic programs without really trying. However when New York City launched a vision for its future in April 2015 with its OneNYC plan, the city intentionally designed the program around the SDGs. Doing so demonstrates how all cities can benefit from the SDGs and provides yet another data point for others to learn from.


Less than a year into the SDGs 15 year plan, governments and organizations are still developing plans on how to achieve the goals. But perhaps the ambitious nature of the SDGs should serve as a lesson in how to go about it. Far less limiting than the MDGs, the new partnerships and collaborations encouraged by the goals represent a starting point for making the post-2015 agenda a truly global endeavor.