Public SDGs or Private GGs?
By Barbara Adams
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) negotiated painstakingly over two years by all UN Member States with thousands of public interest organizations providing their commitment and expertise have been copyrighted. And by whom? The UN you would think? But no. They have been re-branded as Global Goals (GGs) and the copyrighted by Project Everyone, a private company incorporated and registered in London.
On its own website (www.globalgoals.org), Project Everyone claims ownership of the 17 icons that it is popularizing, with active help from celebrities and the UN Secretariat itself, representing each of the 17 Goals that the heads of State and Government are endorsing this week as common objectives of humanity from here to the year 2030.
A political declaration by all UN Member States should be a global public good, available for everyone to use. But the small print of the Project Everyone website says that “all Content included on Our Site and the copyright and other intellectual property rights subsisting in that Content, unless specifically labelled otherwise, belongs to or has been licensed by Us”. That copyright protection clearly includes both the icons and the summary titles given to each of the goals.
The Global Goals website identifies Aviva, Getty Images, Pearson, Sawa, Standard Chartered and Unilever as “Founding Partners”. Some 60 other corporations and media are identified as “delivery partners” while 22 institutions are listed as NGOs and foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UN Foundation are the only foundations in that list, which includes many well known international NGOs (such as Oxfam, Amnesty and Save the Children) along with prominent UN agencies (e.g., UNDP, UNICEF, UN Women, UNESCO, UN Department of Public Information) that it curiously lists as NGOs.
From a media point of view, the strategy seems successful. The international press is already talking about the “Global Goals Summit” at the UN and the Global Goals (GGs) are treated as just a short and easier nickname for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is their title in the official UN documents. In shortening the titles, the concept of “sustainable development” is completely lost.
But more is lost. In what seems justified as necessary simplification for communication purposes, some concepts key to achieve universal consensus are also lost: Goal 12 on “sustainable consumption and production patterns” is translated as “responsible consumption and production”. Goal 16, designed to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” is transformed into “Peace and Justice, strong institutions”. Yes, UN jargon is tortuous sometimes, but if the word ‘inclusive’ was mentioned twice in the title, why replace it with ‘strong’? Does a call for ‘strong institutions’ ring the same bells as a call for ‘inclusive governance’?
Also, the much debated Goal 17, which deals with means of implementation and calls for revitalizing “the global partnership for sustainable development”, a partnership among rich and poor governments towards the common objective, is transformed into “Partnerships for the goals”, dropping mention of ‘means of implementation’ and making ‘partnership’ plural, so that now includes a variety of uneven and loosely accountable associations with the private sector and ‘stakeholders’.
Of course any communicator is free to take a complex document and ‘translate’ it in ways that are understandable by their constituency. But this simplification is a misrepresentation of the SDGs themselves. UN senior officials not only allowed this to happen, but actively promoted it, using UN resources to network the icons and the UN’s official communication office is encouraging their use.
Do Member States know that they could be supporting a campaign that is not owned by the UN if they refer to the Global Goals instead of to the SDGs?
Are the many NGOs and celebrities that are supporting and sponsoring the Global Goals and related activities aware that this is a private initiative not a global public good? To be sure, it is important that everyone knows about the SDGs. A huge campaign with private sector support could be a realistic way of communicating the 17 goals to everyone. But these goals belong to the public and the UN should safeguard their use. And to over-simplify global challenges is not the purpose of the UN and misrepresents the delicate and politically complex balance that went into crafting the new Agenda for 2030 that the governments are approving today.
Much more than one letter is at stake in the choice between the SDGs or GGs.