A number of experts on philanthropy, poverty, and development are amping up efforts to show how the Sustainable Development Goals could apply to the United States, just as much as they do in any other country.
But the version of the Global Goals that is emerging in the U.S. looks and sounds a bit different from the development agenda approved at the United Nations in 2015, which agreed to a set of aims intended to be universal in focus and application. Experts say such targets are needed in the U.S. — just as they are in other countries.
As global maternal mortality rates nearly halved from 1990 to 2015, the ratio of maternal deaths in the U.S. doubled during that same time period. Wealth gaps and inequality in the U.S. are on the rise. Last year, a cross-country U.S. tour by human rights and extreme poverty expert Philip Alston cast a light on many of the other issues — homelessness and access to clean, safe drinking water, to name a few — that are increasingly common in rural and urban communities in the U.S.
But the Global Goals remain unfamiliar to many civil society, philanthropic, and government actors working to alleviate these problems in the U.S., and they have rarely factored into national policy and funding. There is the also the question of whether the Global Goals — developed as a successor to the developing country-focused Millennium Development Goals — can actually apply to the complex economic trends and social dynamics in the world’s richest country.
“The level of familiarity [with the Global Goals] within the nonprofit sector, especially at the community level in the U.S., is not that great. But it’s less of a familiarity thing. I don’t think that they are completely convinced that there’s a lot of value in it yet for them, because you are seeing it as a global commitment, versus commitments that they can hang their hats on,” said Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies how the U.S. approaches the Global Goals.
SDG USA, a nonprofit founded six months ago by economist Jeffrey Sachs, launched their first report card in March tracking seven adapted goals — or “America’s Goals” — across different U.S. states. These revamped goals include good jobs, affordable quality health care, investing in children, equal opportunity for all, and access to clean air, water, and energy.America’s Goals are intended to be easily understood and shared, especially when compared to the complex 17 SDGs and their 169 sub-targets, said Caroline Fox, the deputy director of SDG USA. America’s Goals have only 21 targets.
Some of America’s Goals targets — such as increasing Americans’ life expectancy to 84 — speak specifically to realities in the U.S. and could not easily be applied universally. The opioid epidemic in the U.S. is considered one important factor impacting the county’s recent decline in life expectancy from birth.
“It’s something that’s accessible, that’s easily message-able. You can read it all on one sheet,” Fox said. “We really wanted to make sure that we weren’t really releasing something that was really appealing to one political party over the other, but that could be an agenda that people across the world would believe in and get behind.”
Targeted messaging on the Global Goals’ potential domestic focus is key, said Edmund Cain, the vice president of grant programs at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which has worked to connect with other U.S.-based philanthropic organizations and cities such as Los Angeles on the importance of the Global Goals.
“It is definitely a hard sell. There’s a recognition that when you are applying frameworks in different contexts, you don’t want to walk in and say, ‘This is what the U.N. says you should be doing.’ You have to be smart in choosing the language and we are trying to be sensitive to that,” Cain said. “I think a lot of people understand that they are not U.N. goals — they are goals brokered at the U.N.”