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Achieving the SDGs: Three Cs and the One Key Driver of Change
Highlights from the 2022 Cambridge Global Challenges Conference

Nikita Jha


“What is the one essential driver for changing prevailing global power dynamics and realising a sustainable future?”

This question was posed at the closing session of ‘Halfway to the SDGs: Lessons from the South’, a conference held on 21st - 22nd June to mark the midpoint to the 2030 target for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Convened by Cambridge Global Challenges, this hybrid conference was centred on lessons from the global South for fulfilling the SDGs in the remainder of the goal period. I was excited to be attending the programme as ‘chat monitor’, moderating online participation among our virtual audience, which spanned four continents. After two days in front-row seats, traversing the liminal space between the physical buzz of the conference and the engaging exchanges of the virtual space, I am able to share some highlights and key lessons from ‘Halfway to the SDGs: Lessons from the South’.

The sessions included fascinating presentations on topics ranging from sustainable agriculture in India to the future of work in a pandemic-impacted world and surveillance systems for epidemic response in Africa.

From the rich discussions a set of intersecting recommendations emerged, which I have termed the three Cs for achieving the SDGs:

Collaboration and Learning - Steering clear of traditional knowledge silos, we must listen, engage and collaborate with diverse stakeholders, particularly local communities. Knowledge-sharing across the North-South divide must be strengthened, with an emphasis on learning from experiential knowledge in Southern contexts. Crucially, the creativity and potential of young people must be harnessed, their voices heard, and avenues created to empower them to influence decisions affecting their futures.

Capacity-building - Closely linked with collaboration, the appropriate forms of support and resourcing — such as unconditional financial investment — must be ensured for stakeholders across tiers. In particular, the building of social capital is central to responding to the challenges of a changing world.

Contextualisation and Complexity-Cognizant Intervention - COVID-19 is not the only, and maybe not even the greatest disruptor in today’s world. Multiple cross-cutting challenges such as conflict, drought and climate change hinder progress and crisis recovery in many parts of the world. Consequently, there is a need to consider realities in broader context and as linked to multiple intertwined factors. Interventions must take account of such complexity, with a need for long-term, system-wide solutions rather than myopic or insular efforts. In particular, putting in place effective early-warning systems is crucial to efforts at climate adaptation. As captured by Professor Shailaja Fennell from the University of Cambridge vis-à-vis the climate crisis — though the underlying principle is applicable perhaps ubiquitously — we do not have the luxury of thinking about the human world without considering the consequences to the ecological one.

In the fourth and final session of the conference, the three keynote speakers were joined by Professor Charlotte Watts from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Phil Cotton of the Mastercard Foundation for a panel discussion on the role of North-South collaborations in advancing the SDGs towards 2030. With inputs from the audience, panellists discussed the importance of building trust within North-South collaborations, and particularly in the capabilities of Southern researchers. Emphasis was placed on the need for partnerships to be geared towards the long-term, which in turn raises difficult conversations on power sharing. The private sector was recognised as a crucial source of expertise and innovation in making progress on the SDGs, with a need to create the opportunities, funding and networks for them to thrive in.

Curious to know how the panellists’ wealth of experience and expertise had shaped their views on the way forward, it was here that I asked the question that opened this piece. 'What is the one essential driver for changing prevailing global power dynamics and realising a sustainable future?'
Their responses were as thought-provoking as they were varied:

  • The ‘mind’ of Northern funders - The constraints and conditions that currently accompany funding from Northern sources act as a key constraint in North-South partnerships, with power dynamics strongly influenced by whether funds are disbursed directly to Southern organisations or indirectly through Northern partners. More flexibility on this front is central to building equitable partnerships.
  • Our engagement with vulnerable populations: A paradigm shift is needed, whereby we begin to think of our primary recipients of knowledge as those in the poorest countries who are most exposed to the impacts of climate change despite playing little role in causing it. These populations — many of whom have no access to academia and do not even read in English — must be involved in the conducting, implementation, and evaluation of research.
  • The private sector: There is much to be learned from the efficiency, performance-monitoring, and results-focused operations of the private sector in ensuring action on the SDGs.
  • Time: An important commodity for doing and therefore transforming research, time must be thought of as a crucial form of currency.
  • Impact: We must focus squarely on impact, working backwards from our desired objectives and aligning monetary, social, ethical, and other elements equitably in support of these goals.

In his opening address, Professor Stephen Toope — then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge — began by acknowledging the present as ‘a good opportunity to reflect on global progress towards meeting the targets set by the SDGs and [on] actions needed to accelerate progress in the remaining period''. In this same spirit of reflection, we might consider how the takeaways from this conference could translate in our own spheres of influence - how we might foster in our work, as Phil Cotton put so succinctly, “more skin in the game, more belief, more humility, respect, listening, co-creation, and impact”.


Nikita Jha is a doctoral candidate in Education and a Gates Cambridge Scholar at Newnham College, University of Cambridge

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