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Director’s Corner: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are ‘No Little Plans’

By March 19, 2019July 23rd, 20203 Comments

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work….” — Daniel Hudson Burnham

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there” is a paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In other words, without a vision, a goal, or a plan we have no idea where we want to go or what we want to achieve. Having no desired outcome against which to judge our journey or destination, any road we take is as good as another.

Recognizing the ill-advised nature of this approach to achieving anything meaningful, Steven Covey includes as one of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.” A vision and a clear goal enable a plan to emerge.

We set goals to achieve what we aspire to create, something different and better than the current state. Goals can be catalyzed by the need to reverse negative conditions and trends, and goals can be sparked by an inspiring vision. Usually, both factors are at play.

Take for example the fact that one in nine people on the planet are undernourished. A majority of them live in developing countries, but right here in Alabama and at Auburn University are food-insecure people. Being aware of that problem, we want to fix it; we need to eliminate hunger worldwide. That’s a goal, but in my view, as big as it seems, it is an insufficient one. The solution cannot be just about hunger. It would be like filling a pothole in a road. The hole is eliminated but the road could be made so much better, and it doesn’t address the underlying conditions that created the hole in the first place.

When it comes to ending hunger and creating food security, an aspirational goal, a big goal, is: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

That goal happens to be one of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the nations of the world under the auspices of the United Nations.

The SDGs were initiated in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro as a follow up to the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in September 2000. While the MDGs were not fully achieved by 2015, they had produced significant progress by that self-determined deadline.

Between 2012 and 2015, a global delegation of experts developed, debated, and introduced the seventeen SDGs and they were adopted by the UN in August of 2015. The SDGs emerged from rigorous research into global conditions and trends, and their achievement will result from innovative research collaborations that create new possibilities. Through creative and open-minded innovations and collaborations, new possibilities will be transformed into realities of a more sustainable world.

UN Sustainable Development GoalsInternationally, the SDGs are a big deal. They are at the forefront of international development conversations and initiatives. The SDGs have been less visible in the United States and less a part of the conversation, but momentum here is rapidly building.

With the intention of ensuring that the SDGs are acted upon and achieved, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) was established in 2012 and overseen by the U.N. Secretary-General. From the SDSN website: “SDSN mobilizes global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development, including the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

An exciting, and relevant to Auburn University, SDSN development occurred in December: “On December 4, 2018 the US chapter of SDSN was launched at Columbia University in New York. The chapter is co-directed by academic centers at Columbia University, Yale University, and the University of California San Diego. The SDSN USA joins 29 existing SDSN networks that are creating new online courses, educating their students and the general public, working with governments, engaging and empowering young people, and offering innovative solutions for the SDGs.”

Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati was invited by Jeffrey Sachs, SDSN Director and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, to attend the December 4th meeting to establish the US chapter. As a result, and with the support of Provost Bill Hardgrave, Auburn University has joined SDSN.

As a member of SDSN Auburn University joins an organized international community of experts in academia, business, government, and civil society, collaborating to resolve the sustainability grand challenges of our time. Auburn has experts already working in areas addressed by all seventeen SDGs, and SDSN membership can only amplify their impact. SDSN membership will also help Auburn University achieve the ambitious and substantive goals of our new 2019-2024 University Strategic Plan.

The SDGs are “big plans,” and Auburn’s membership in SDSN is significant. Auburn University’s new Strategic Plan includes high aspirations and “big plans.” I cannot help but notice the timely convergence of these two important commitments.

AU Strategic Plan and SDG quotesFrom the SDGs website: “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)…are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”

From the new Strategic Plan, Auburn’s revised Mission Statement: “As a land-grant institution, Auburn University is dedicated to improving the lives of the people of Alabama, the nation, and the world through forward-thinking education, life-enhancing research and scholarship, and selfless service.”

Meaningfully addressing the sustainability grand challenges of our time serves to fulfill our Strategic Plan, and fulfilling commitments and aspirations in the Strategic Plan enhances our efforts on behalf of the SDGs.

For anyone wanting to make a difference in the world, it’s an especially great time to be an Auburn Tiger.

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