Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals: What is in a name?

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“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is a frequently referenced part of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet seems to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from her rival’s house of Montague, that is, that he is named “Montague.”

In effect the argument seemed to be that the name did not matter.  But we all know that names matter – that is why we struggle to get good names for our children, ensure that our names are spelt correctly and pronounced correctly.  Names are important to people because names have power and names define everything.  Names are more than a bunch of letters grouped together to sound pleasant to the ear. Names are more than a convenient way of allowing people to talk to each other. Names define our origins and give us an identity.  Usually the biggest insult to anyone is to name them differently or conveniently without their consent.

On 26th September 2015, the United National General Assembly chaired by our own President Museveni passed the Sustainable Development Goals.  This was after a two years of an intensive process of negotiating the nature, character, scope and detail of the next 15 year development agenda – with the last year of the United Nations General Assembly chaired by Hon. Sam Kuteesa – Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The world community then agreed that the next goal agenda should be about sustainable development and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Since the MDGs were very much about the era – the millennium – it was clear that the next agenda should be about a result – sustainability.

But before the ink even dried, the Sustainable Development Goals have been renamed by a private company.  The name Global Goals is being used – with the argument that this makes them easier to remember and to share.  I think this is an assault on the Post 2015 process in which several citizen groups and public institutions and governments participated and agreed on a name.  The quick renaming and declaration that ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is complicated and hard to understand and we should talk about Global Goals for sustainable development is worrying to say the least.

All practitioners should appreciate that that simplification that aids communication experts – is good but a misrepresentation of a global agreement.  Stakeholders in this process spent over 5 years in this post 2015 process trying to agree and come up with a set of Sustainable Development Goals.  We should continue to call the new goals Sustainable Development Goals and not be quickly taken over by the new marketing façade of Global Goals – which is about substituting one of the most important words that have been introduced in international development – which is the word – ‘sustainable’ – by the word ‘global’.  The word ‘global’ is about ‘territory’ – the word ‘sustainable’ is about ‘result’. What the world needs to focus its eyes on is not the ‘territory’ because indeed that is a given, what we need to focus on is the ‘result’ – which is a sustainable world – our mother earth – which we should love and care for dearly so that our children’s children are able to enjoy this world.  How can we start de-campaigning the word sustainable now?!

We should be looking for ways of communicating that powerful message to the whole world and not looking for quick ways of explaining it away.  I know that in my local language – Luganda – we have a phrase that explains something that is sustainable.  I also think we need to ensure that we do not create – a ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy – saying that the people in the villages may not understand something and therefore ‘we’ need to simply for ‘them’ and then ‘we’ who understand complex terms use these words in some complex way.  While this is an interesting argument but it reinforces the inequality that we all agreed that we should challenge and combat within the new global agenda.

Leaving no one behind would mean that even our language should not leave anyone behind and I hope we can do well to remember that – that is our minimum commitment to humanity in the post 2015 process.

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