John McArthur has been part of the conversation about shared global goals for humanity for many years. From 2002-2006 he was the Manager and then Deputy Director of the United Nations Millennium Project, an advisory body to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, working to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In 2011, when he was the Chief Executive Officer of the Millennium Promise Alliance, he was asked to participate in very early conversations about targets to follow the MDGs, for the period after 2015. He played an active role advocating for “zero” targets on measures of human deprivation in any post-2015 goals. Despite John’s deep involvement in work that led to their development, he admits to initially questioning the expansiveness and breadth of what became the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Until then, my work had focused on life-and-death issues, problems of extreme deprivation, and investments to allow people to live and build potential in some of the most left-behind parts of the world. Then, in 2015, every country agreed to a more complex set of 17 goals for issues ranging from poverty, hunger, and education to inequality, jobs, climate, life below water, peace, and justice,” says John. “At first, it seemed like such a large number, but I came to recognize that the 17 SDGs reflect common challenges and priorities the whole world already cares about — and that they offer a way of organizing in our communities.”
Solving global challenges at the community level
Today, John works as a researcher focusing on both global and Canadian issues at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization researching new ideas for solving societal problems at local, national and global levels. His role as Director and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Development is twofold. John and his Centre colleagues investigate big questions about sustainable development, distill key challenges, and recommend steps forward. He also convenes people at all levels — local, national, and international — to help develop solutions.
As he explains in his paper co-authored with colleague Margaret Biggs, Turbocharging Canada’s approach to SDG implementation, the SDGs have given Canadians a universal, nonpartisan opportunity to tackle intersecting challenges like social exclusion, climate change, economic prosperity, and reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“Now, as the world marks the midpoint to the 2030 deadline, we need to reboot attention to the SDGs at all levels,” says John. “The issues are common worldwide, so we need to find new ways for communities to make a difference in all the issues they care about most. In Canada, while should we expect the federal government to do its part, what short-term steps can we take in our communities too?”
Conversations stimulate new ideas and solutions
In 2018, John co-founded 17 Rooms, a partnership between the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings and The Rockefeller Foundation. The 17 Rooms initiative has two tracks to foster conversations about near-term actions toward longer-term progress: (1) an annual global flagship process focussed on tackling international-scale SDG challenges, and (2) an accessible “17 Rooms-X” methodology to help communities of all scale take practical steps toward local SDG priorities. The three principles of 17 Rooms are:
- All SDGs get a seat at the table: Respect the unique priorities within goals while
recognizing interdependencies between goals.
- Take a next step, not the perfect step: Focus on actionable ideas that can make a
difference over the following 12-18 months.
- Engage in conversations, not presentations: Celebrate informal discussions to focus on what is best for an issue, not an organization.
“The 17 Rooms initiative is a response to the challenge of taking the global SDG framework and making it something that any group or community can own and act upon in its way,” John explains. “This initiative has helped individuals and communities to connect, organize conversations about different forms of action, and think about unconventional collaborations (for example, between experts on forced labor and institutional investors), one year at a time.”
John points out several concrete actions the Government of Canada can take to make progress toward the SDGs, including convening societal leaders, benchmarking progress, and prioritizing global public investments and policy leadership. However, he believes that transforming our world also requires people to work together at all levels:
“Sustainable development means finding ways for societies to succeed for everyone, with no one left behind. In this second half of the SDG era, we need to have conversations that help shape original, locally-relevant paths forward, and then share ideas and solutions. The future of sustainable development is ultimately the same as international cooperation itself; each community needs to be able to take its economic, environmental and social next steps forward
in their own hands.”