The United Nations Action Campaign for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) organized the annual “SDG Global Festival of Action” in Bonn from 2-4 May 2019. This event brought together 1700 government officials, local authorities, international organizations, civil society, activists, young lawyers, professionals from the creative industries and the private sector from more than 150 countries. They exchanged new knowledge and insights, primarily aimed at scaling up the impact of their work. All of this was happening at the World Conference Center in Bonn (Germany), the former conference center of the German Bundestag.
It was announced in advance that SDG-related projects could compete for a number of awards. This resulted in almost 2000 entries, divided into the categories Mobilizer (468), Storyteller (124), Campaigner (288), Visualizer (44), Connector (355), Includer (258) and Creative (222) which are briefly published on the website described. The Festival organizers assessed these entries in advance and invited the top three of each category to be present. The final scores were announced during the event.
The 3-day festival consisted of plenary presentations and seven parallel sessions plus exhibitions, interactive exhibits and stands in the corridors. The selected projects were able to “pitch” for the audience prize.
What was good
The festival gave a nice impression of the variety of SDG initiatives that are being taken everywhere. The information about the almost 2000 entries, although brief, can certainly serve as a source of inspiration and reflection.
Interestingly, global organizations outside the UN family are also becoming interested. For example, the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games of summer 2020 in Japan seem to be linked to the SDGs in all sorts of ways. Partnerships of religious organizations will also coordinate their socio-economic agenda with the SDGs.
The festival gave a real picture of the state of the SDGs: despite the enthusiasm of the participants, the awareness of the SDGs is lagging behind the general public. Many projects are therefore still concerned with basic information about the SDGs, awareness of their necessity, taking stock of the socio-economic state of affairs, etc. In this respect, the SDG campaign that started in 2015 and will end in 2030 is not really going well. One speaker said that even in countries that are rich in media, familiarity with the “brand” SDG was only 10%.
During a number of sessions the participants could also get to work themselves: working with a new database, tinkering with a Solar Lamp, participating in various educational games. This helps to make the message more concrete and brings the participants closer together.
What could be improved
The projects that we saw did not differ so much from private initiatives from before the SDGs. They were, however, carefully mapped on the relevant SDGs. On the other hand, you might expect the SDGs to be used more often as a starting point for policy development and project design. This was not the case; only a single speaker signaled this as a loss.
Some projects in developing countries were, in fact, activities in the field of Corporate Social Responsibility of foreign multinationals. You would like to talk about the need to anchor such projects much more firmly in the SDGs and to put the emphasis on capacity building and viability, even if the multinational ever thinks it’s time for something else and leaves.
Some projects strongly assumed that “we” in developed countries could explain what “they” should do in developing countries. The festival could offer the opportunity to let the participants experience how to analyze problems and create solutions together; this opportunity could be exploited better.
Some projects were primarily focused on creating IT solutions. You would like them to first present a business case that makes it plausible that there is a real problem, a real question, and that their ICT approach could be an adequate solution. Now you could ask yourself whether it would be useful to teach rural women how to drive screws on a computer screen, to offer policy officials a new database of static data about countries and SDGs and to connect SDG activists via yet another new social network.
For all projects you would like to ask what impact they are striving for, what activities they undertake and what results they have achieved.
In such a complex challenge as the SDG campaign, it is possible that projects do not (yet) testably contribute to the realization of certain SDG targets, that implementers do not (yet) have the experience to learn from their target group and manage their work, that ICT specialists are so busy that they forget to think about the big picture. But you should wish that the future organizers of the festival could tackle these issues to ensure that the SDG community itself develops and professionalises.
The emphasis on the awards requires the projects to “pitch” and “sell” themselves. That can hinder a constructive dialogue about what went wrong and how it could be better.
In terms of content, the major absentee was translating the SDGs into programs and projects, implementing them and what we can learn from them. We mainly saw bottom-up initiatives, good intentions with few mutual relationships or coordination and with little focus on impact and increasing it. They all remained pin pricks, but all together thousands of them.