People power: the missing piece in UN Sustainable Development Goals

Communities need to be empowered to deal with crises, such as the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. unmeer/flickr, CC BY-ND

On July 24, President Barack Obama will make his first trip as president to his paternal homeland of Kenya, and then on to Ethiopia. While security is sure to dominate the agenda, hopefully he can spare more than a few moments to talk sustainable development.

Just weeks after Obama comes home, the world’s leaders are set to adopt the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global compact for “people, planet and prosperity.”

But there’s a problem: as now drafted, these goals contain virtually no role for people. Surely our organizer-in-chief can do something to return our world’s most precious resource – people – to the center of development.

In today’s society – in which billions are connected to the world through mobile phones and millions have marched for justice from Cairo to Kiev, New York to New Delhi – world leaders need to step up to the reality that citizens demand a place at the table.

Community capacity

First, a bit of background. After exhaustively reviewing the 17 goals and 169 targets in the “Zero Draft” document, I found no reference to individual or community voice, oversight or accountability. A lone reference to community participation relates only to water and sanitation.

If people really are incapable of participating in the UN’s grand vision, surely the SDGs must set goals to prepare citizens for future participation in sustainable development by bestowing them with knowledge and capacity? Actually, no.

There are literally just two references to raising community capacity, a concept that is never defined in the SDGs but might presumably relate to the ability to engage in planning, oversight or implementation of development programs. One relates to preventing wildlife poaching and one to “climate change related planning” (that actually seems to be more of a global issue). The only reference is to improving people’s knowledge of “lifestyles in harmony with nature.” That is some weak tea.

The Ebola epidemic revealed the importance of community participation and capacity in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Vulnerable, frightened and devastated communities were thrust into the process of epidemic control with little opportunity for advice or consent. Their perseverance and eventual success in battling back Ebola illustrates the need for more robust and inclusive social mobilization capabilities at all levels of society.

This absence of people’s role in societal goals would be a sheer travesty under any circumstances, but it borders on criminal given that the world outside the United Nations is undergoing a revolution in grassroots mobilization and technology, a revolution whose beating heart is in the Horn of Africa.

Data revolution

In Kenya, the “Silicon Savannah” hosts hundreds of private and nonprofit tech start-ups, most focused on harnessing mobile phones to meet basic human needs.

SafariCom’s M-Pesa mobile money platform, for example, moves phone credits amounting to 50% of GDP annually as a substitute for paper money, and is going global. Kenya’s Ministry of Health has developed the Jamii Smart (Smart Families) program, which keeps health records, manages referrals and even transmits vouchers to cover health care and transport costs (via M-Pesa, of course). The Center for Health Market Innovations tracks 201 start-ups in Kenya and 163 in neighboring Uganda, and that’s just in the health sector! The president will surely hear about many of these programs when he keynotes the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi.

Phone-based services in Africa allow people to transfer money and conduct business. Gates Foundation, CC BY-NC

Just to the north, Ethiopia has taken a more low-tech, state-centered approach to local engagement with its Women’s Development Army. This network of 35,000 female health extension workers conducts behavior change, referrals and health monitoring with support from the US Agency for International Development and a whole lot of coffee. The goal in these programs is not merely to target today’s challenges like childhood infection and HIV/AIDS, but also to mobilize communities to handle tomorrow’s, from chronic disease to climate change to preventing epidemics.

Keeping the momentum

This grassroots revolution faces enormous challenges to take root, spread and achieve its goals, and so it must be cultivated through clear and achievable targets for increasing access to mobile solutions and improving their utility for all members of society.

Mobile apps depend on smartphones that aren’t yet available in large numbers, electricity that is in short supply and high levels of literacy. Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa lack effective birth registration or identity cards, meaning that most people don’t even exist in the eyes of the state.

Inclusion and data collection also carry risks that must be managed carefully, including the exploitation of data for profit, for repression or even for genocide.

A truly robust data revolution could also include the mechanisms by which individuals and communities could demand accountability from governments, donors and the UN. Open government portals available on every phone or rural cyber kiosk could provide valuable data on funding and projects, information on services and entitlements, and a one-stop shop for all government applications. In other words, they would look a lot like the Obama administration’s own open government initiatives that have revolutionized the relationship between citizen and state.

Given the immense opportunity and the potent risks of failure, President Obama must not let today’s global people power revolution be relegated to the fine print of a hulking and bureaucratic UN framework. The world needs one clear Sustainable Development Goal that makes clear that people are the drivers of sustainable development now and into the future.

President Obama himself has a long legacy of inclusive development, one that passes from his mother’s work on microfinance in Indonesia to his own work on the streets of Chicago. On September 27, when the world’s leaders ratify the Sustainable Development Goals, we can enshrine that vision in the global agenda.