Dwayne Carruthers has been working as a communications specialist with Pulse Lab Jakarta for over two years. He recently came to our New York Lab to assist with UNGA 2019. Below he shares his thoughts.
When the UN Member States came together in September 2015 to formally adopt the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, I was a master’s student in the penultimate semester of my degree in international relations and diplomacy. Campus was filled with flurries of chatter about the Global Goals and several peers from my cohort were already delivering their prognosis about how the realm of international development would transform. Me, I was barely becoming conversant with the Millennium Development Goals and was skeptical about what seemed like the installation of a timeline to end poverty. More specifically, my doubt was buried in whether the global community had the resources to measure how well these goals would progress and in a timely way to allow necessary course correction — I was imagining the year 2030 without big data.
I had shifted gears from a fast-paced journalism mindset to an international development career path, where making meaningful impact seemed to take time and a lot of resources. With frequent trips to the UN headquarters in New York to attend forums and discussions, I couldn’t get away from the many critical conversations happening around the goals. I had recognised the importance of these goals in ensuring a sustainable future that leaves no one behind; but achieving seventeen global goals with 232 indicators seemed more illusory than real, especially for 193 countries with their own competing national priorities.
A few years have passed since, and I’m now based in Indonesia serving as a communications specialist with the United Nations Global Pulse, which is an innovation initiative of the UN Secretary-General on big data. My cautious optimism of the SDGs had motivated me to learn more about each of them and their intricacies, and what better way to do so than to get involved with an organisation whose work is focused on accelerating the discovery and adoption of big data and artificial intelligence to promote sustainable development.
The 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly brought me back to New York last month, not for the event itself but on secondment to our New York lab to assist with preparations for a series of events Global Pulse was organising during the week of the general debate. It was good to be back in the Big Apple, and between transits and the long flights back to Jakarta, I had a chance to reflect on a few things I’ve observed over the years.
Reform Doesn’t Take Place Overnight
High-level political meetings and forums sometimes conclude with resolutions, decisions and recommendations, but they don’t always ‘translate’ to the people on the ground. This is not only because of the elusive vernacular, but there’s a dearth of ‘translators’ who should possess a knack for human-centered design to ensure the most vulnerable people are not aloof from the conversation that takes place in well-intended settings such as Arria-formula meetings.
The SDGs nonetheless represent one of the UN’s most epic forms of reform (though not always described in such terms), and are being translated and localised at the country and regional level to help identify community-based, bottom up solutions. Many private-public partnerships that have since been formed are unprecedented and what they mean for the 2030 Agenda and beyond used to be unimaginable. The UN does not own data; but data is a sine qua non for monitoring and accelerating the progress of these goals.
The Global Pulse initiative, works to help UN agencies boost their agility, for example through shared value partnerships with private sector data partners such as mobile telecoms and social media giants. The data they own has incredible real-time value that can help predict socio-economic crises, develop early warning systems and improve disaster response strategies. Still, much remains to be done as the discussions on regulatory frameworks, data privacy, ethics and the missed use of data are still in their infancy in many data-rich but insights-poor communities throughout the world. But I am reminded that Rome wasn’t built in a day and adopting the SDGs is a necessary start to create the impact the world has started to imagine.
The Year 2030 is Really A Check-in Point
There are benefits to having a timeline, especially when the international community is pursuing such a massive set of goals. Things however may evolve along the way and necessary adjustments might be needed to ensure the specific targets remain in sight. New digital data sources have enabled timely monitoring and governments can make early assessment of what has worked, what has failed and what changes are yet to be done.
But let’s admit it — poverty will not end in 2030! In an idyllic future, everyone should be above the poverty line, but it’s not just about getting folks beyond this threshold, but about how to ensure that they are equipped with sustainable resources to prevent falling back into certain predicaments such as uncertainty about the source of their next meal. Such an effort is a continuous process; you don’t get to the finish line and throw your hands up in victory. As with the other SDGs, the indicators set up a roadmap where governments can check in to see how many miles they’ve travelled, when they need to refuel and when they need to switch vehicles!
The Millennium Development Goals served a similar purpose with the year 2015 as the final check-in point. They helped to herald in a new era of sustainable development practices with several lessons learned to help sketch out the world’s blueprint for success. The Internet has given citizens around the world the coveted front seats in the General Assembly hall, where they can not only listen to the general debates, but also directly participate and offer their unapologetic and frank comments.
Unlike the MDGs that were drafted by a relatively small group of experts, the SDGs were formulated in consultation with a diverse range of stakeholders from Member States, civil society, academia and the private sector. When we get to the 2030 check-in point, this time around it will not only be about how well poor countries have progressed but it’ll be a data-informed assessment of what action the world has taken, including rich, middle-income and developing countries.
A Future Beyond 2030
The SDGs are a global call to action on sustainable development. The goals don’t only take into account prevailing challenges, but seek to address others that might emerge in the future. In my work with Pulse Lab Jakarta, I have seen where innovative, fit-for-purpose tools and prototypes we’ve developed have been used to better inform the Government of Indonesia’s decision making by providing timely insights. There is value in using big data and new technologies to better the work of the UN and empower local communities. Through open source technologies such as our latest Managing Information for Natural Disasters platform, citizens on the ground who are affected by a disaster can also make data-informed choices to protect their well-being. While I am still cautious, I am more optimistic that we are on the right path to building a sustainable future that leaves no one behind. We do need more partnerships to advance the SDGs, but as citizens of the world we also need to be responsible and protect our planet.
I imagine the year 2030 as one in which governments will be able to make smarter, data informed decisions by leveraging big data and artificial intelligence to predict crises such as disease outbreaks and food insecurity, as well as come up with early interventions to diminish the scale of impact. More forward-thinking initiatives are needed to help us get there and the work of Global Pulse gives me reassurance that our future is bright.