7 Years Into The SDGs, Real Progress Is Happening In Communities

If we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to recognize and support the changemakers who are working toward them in their communities.


Shifting, sharing, and ceding power are the latest terms in global philanthropy and development. Depending on the source, these words can sound hollow, like an empty barrel waiting to be put to good use. The great intentions behind the semantic shift to shared power that has occurred since the turn of the century seem to be losing steam as we move closer to 2030 and the ambitious targets the global development community, led by the United Nations, has set to achieve sustainable development.

Aligning with the global development agenda

In September 2000, global leaders representing 189 countries convened at the UN headquarters in New York to ratify eight broad Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which they hoped to achieve by 2015. At the time, these goals were described as the most important document of this century. Unfortunately, those lofty goals barely took off in some communities and were generally unattained. There are many criticisms of the MDGs. However, one of their main achievements was putting communities and people at the heart of international development. Understanding and reinforcing this single milestone is the key to true, sustainable development.

On Sept. 25, 2015, world leaders made another attempt to establish a global development agenda. This time, 193 leaders articulated and signed off on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs tried to identify gaps in the MDGs and course correct. These 17 goals, which range from no poverty to new partnerships, are bolder and even more ambitious than the MDGs. However, this time, they not only provide a framework for us to understand global problems that manifest locally, but they also offer guidelines for how individuals, communities, and institutions can contribute to solving those problems. Thousands of GlobalGiving partners are already contributing to the achievement of the SDGs. However, major blockers need to be addressed if we are to attain the goals.

Where the SDGs fall short

Major critiques of the SDGs include that they:

    • Don’t address the underlying structural inequalities in the global economy
    • Aren’t enforceable, allowing many governments to neglect their responsibilities
    • Lack incentives for countries to devote limited resources to the goals
    • Adopt a pro-economic growth model that undermines the success of many goals

In relation to the last criticism, many development theorists like Philip Alston have argued that the neoliberal lens the SDGs apply to development has the, perhaps unanticipated, result of prioritizing economic growth as the most important indicator of sustainable development. It is therefore not surprising that 58 of the 169 targets and 78 of the 248 sub-indicators under the 17 SDGs are tied to economic growth metrics like gross domestic product (GDP) and per capita incomes (PCI).

While income generation and economic development are indisputably essential elements for sustainable development, what this prioritization misses is the need to first create the enabling environment for growth to occur. For instance, SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), aims to increase GDP in Least Developed Countries by 7%. However, with the escalation of economic growth and industrialization comes an increase in emissions that contribute to the growing climate emergency. Consequently, the aggressive pursuit of SDG 8 directly undermines the attainment of SDG 13 (climate action).

Many critics have also noted that the SDGs adopt a bureaucratic, top-down approach that fails to recognize or address the human rights violations that many communities face daily and which directly impede their ability to pursue the goals. For instance, SDG 3 (good health and well-being) is one of the 17 SDGs with the least progress toward achievement. Target 3b, for example, seeks to “support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and noncommunicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries, and provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines.” However, since March 2020, childhood immunizations have rapidly declined. More than 53% of 129 countries surveyed reported having vaccination services moderately or severely disrupted during March and April 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also placed the spotlight on the flaws inherent in this SDG. Our World In Data shows that only 19.7% of people in low-income countries have received their first dose of COVID vaccines. In contrast, 78.4% of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Not only has the pandemic reversed more than 10 years of progress on this SDG, but it has also uncovered several contradictions and interconnected problems that were not addressed in the initial targets. Other data tracking reproductive health and various public health conditions reveal similar disparities.

So is the SDG framework creating the problem or uncovering it? I would argue the latter.

Though the SDGs are limiting, they are illuminating previously unforeseen gaps and structural inequities.

They are also offering a universally understood plan for us to challenge these inequities and an opportunity to contribute to a conversation that could result in meaningful progress on certain goals and the re-envisioning of others.

In 2021, GlobalGiving reviewed how our current nonprofit partners’ work aligns with the SDGs. We found more than 3,000 projects that are actively addressing at least one sub-objective of an SDG across six major regions of the world: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America, and the Middle East and North Africa. Many GlobalGiving partner organizations are contributing to this global development framework within their communities, even without realizing it.

Fondo de Mujeres del Sur, for example, is an organization based in Argentina that has multiple projects addressing SDGs, including SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), and SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). This GlobalGiving partner is advancing gender equality and social justice by mobilizing financial resources and providing technical assistance to grassroots organizations contributing to change within their community. They are also strengthening organizational capacity for multiple groups dedicated to elevating women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights in the region. They provide support to local grassroots organizations through network connections, empowerment opportunities, and financial support. In 2020, they supported 11 other nonprofit organizations in the region, providing counseling to more than 2,000 women on gender violence, human trafficking, and LGBTQIA+ rights.

Another GlobalGiving partner doing excellent work aligned to the SDG framework is Aumazo, Inc. This nonprofit is contributing to the advancement of SDG 4 (quality education) by improving the lives of girls in Cameroon through educational advancement. Aumazo’s programs include tutoring, peer-to-peer mentoring, and vocational training. As the UN report on SDG 4 stipulates, we are in a global learning crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The work Aumazo is doing in rural communities is critical because their efforts not only support increased access to formal education but also vocational training and instruction in agribusiness techniques that contribute to greater economic opportunities for women in the community. Aumazo knows that investing in education, especially education for women and girls in underprivileged communities, helps transform economies and create future community leaders.

Reef Check Malaysia, an organization dedicated to sustainably conserving Malaysia’s ocean and marine ecosystems is also making incredible strides toward the achievement of SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 14 (life below water). Malaysia’s Coral Triangle is home to more than 75% of the world’s coral species, and this organization spans three islands in Malaysia and works closely with local communities to look after their marine ecosystems. Their four-fold approach to sustainable development incudes eco-action, science, advocacy, and management. Reef Check trains divers to survey reefs, collect data, and suggest future steps toward conservation. Their strategy is also based on a scientific understanding of coral reefs and is devoted to reef rehabilitation and resilience. Finally, they support local communities in managing these core aspects of their program. This management capability ensures that local communities are empowered and engaged in preserving their environment and livelihoods and ensuring sustainable development.

Whose goals?

The SDGs are universally relevant. In addition to the GlobalGiving partners I highlighted, there are more than 10 million nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations worldwide that could be helping to achieve the SDGs. If you add the millions of unregistered community-based organizations and “nonprofit individuals” (NPIs) doing amazing yet generally undocumented and uncelebrated community-building work around the world, this number increases exponentially. Unfortunately, despite the shifting power rhetoric, many of these organizations receive little recognition for their contribution to the attainment of the SDGs. Yet, they are closest to the problem and are developing solutions for their communities and potentially the rest of the world.

GlobalGiving partners contributing directly to the SDGs

A chart showing the number of GlobalGiving partner projects by region that contribute to the SDGs
*Nearly all GlobalGiving partners have projects that contribute to more than one SDG.

Beyond the rhetoric

According to a popular Gambian proverb “if your only tool is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.” At GlobalGiving, we recognize that the complex challenges the international development community seeks to address require more than one framework, narrative, or metric to resolve. However, we also believe that global frameworks like the SDGs, despite their limitations, can provide a robust set of targets and tools for articulating the challenge, measuring progress, and identifying gaps. We just need to make sure that the right tools are in the right hands. We also need to constantly reassess the toolbox and update it to ensure it is relevant and able to help replicate solutions, where appropriate.

If we are to achieve the ambitious SDG targets, we need input from all stakeholders, especially community leaders and changemakers closest to the issues being addressed.

We encourage all our partners and other changemakers to not only engage in this global dialogue but to document their contributions to the goals in a way that clearly demonstrates the global impact local community-led change can have, and is already having.

To all the leaders of underrepresented and largely under-resourced organizations working tirelessly to reduce poverty, end hunger, improve access to quality education and health care, challenge gender inequities, dismantle institutional racism, and so much more, we see you. And we are committed to helping you access the assets and support you need to advance your work and scale your impact.

In the next few weeks, through our Instagram Live series, we are excited to feature several of our nonprofit partners and the incredible work they are doing toward the SDGs in their communities. This effort will provide a platform for these changemakers to contribute their perspectives, problem-solving approaches, and practical tools to a global conversation about the SDGs. It will also connect changemakers in a supportive ecosystem that promotes knowledge sharing, mutual support, and global visibility for their work—because we can’t meet our goals without it.

Want to hear more about how GlobalGiving partners are leading the global development agenda from their communities?


Featured Photo: Support AFARI Fellow's High-Impact Rural Projects by American Friends of Asian Rural Institute
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