Fulfilling the promise of UN SDGs

Headshot of Belissa Rojas

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a call to action for organizations to make the world a better place—and spur project activity that can help deliver that vision. Adopted by 193 countries in 2015, the 17 goals serve as a veritable blueprint for achieving deep impact on the issues of climate change, poverty and hunger, education, health and well-being, and inclusive economic growth. 

But while many public and private organizations have pledged to work toward making these targets a reality by 2030, progress has slowed, putting in jeopardy a larger push to ensure that “all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” Why are organizations falling behind? The pandemic and the accelerated pace of climate change are critical factors, having had “destructive impacts” on achieving the SDGs, according to a July 2022 report from the United Nations. Another big factor: The cost of meeting SDG targets ballooned 25 percent to US$176 trillion over the past year, Reuters reports. 

To reverse the worrisome trends, companies need to reprioritize their initiatives to show how they can fulfill the promise of the SDGs. PMI talked with four project professionals about how teams can rebuild their momentum:  

  • Mohamed El Agroudy, PhD, PMI-RMP, PMP, PMO director at Jasara Program Management Co., which focuses on social infrastructure delivery and program management, Riyadh 
  • Jaël Voskamp, SDG impact manager at Mastermate, Delfgauw, Netherlands 
  • Maya Safira, director of promotion and cooperation at Sabang Free Trade Zone Authority and a former project manager for SDGs governance at Oxfam Indonesia, Jakarta 
  • Belissa Rojas, impact measurement and management lead, sustainable finance hub, at United Nations Development Program, Washington, D.C.


How can orgs reprioritize SDGs as a strategic objective?

Headshot of Belissa Rojas

Rojas: The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and now a possible economic downturn have put a lot of pressure on us to prioritize short-term urgencies over the medium- to long-term goals of the SDGs. Having said that, one could argue that those events also created a momentum and more interest in the topics of the SDGs. Indeed, sustainability and the SDGs also present businesses with a strategic opportunity to do well and do good. Now, we just need to translate intentions into actual results.

Headshot of Jael Voskamp

Voskamp: Start with conducting interviews with colleagues from every department and stakeholders throughout the value chain to identify the material topics of your organization. This provides information from both bottom-up and top-down and it helps teams look beyond the company’s core business. These topics represent your area of impact and can easily be aligned with relevant SDGs. For instance, our drivers identified unnecessary packages at construction sites when delivering orders. They made our logistic streams more sustainable by swapping redundant packaging for reusable crates, which result in less waste at construction sites. 

Headshot of Mohamed El Agroudy

El Agroudy: Governments need to help, too. When there’s a nationwide strategy, project leaders and their teams can cascade that into portfolios, programs and projects to accelerate change. A good example for this is Saudi Vision 2030, which is interconnected to SDGs.

The scope and scale of the SDGs can seem daunting. How do you make any SDG more achievable for teams? 

Rojas: Teams can get discouraged when they think the impact is too far in the future and they can’t control it. To manage this, teams need to track concrete things they can deliver, without forgetting the sequencing and bigger context that drives the change in the desired economic, social and/or environmental outcomes. We must understand how change is expected to occur and the big picture of the system where change happens, and measure what matters in a timely fashion to inform decisions to maximize the likelihood of achieving impact.

Headshot of Maya Safira

Safira: You also need to engage with the people who will benefit. During the very early development of SDGs in Indonesia, Oxfam focused on three SDGs: Goal 1, no poverty; Goal 5, gender equality; and Goal 10, reduced inequalities. We had brainstorming sessions with vulnerable groups—people with disabilities, women and children. For example, during a women’s group discussion in the town of Soe in East Nusa Tenggara, we asked basic questions such as what they want to achieve in their life, and about women’s and men’s roles in their households—then tried to align that with the SDG targets. After more discussions, we introduced the framework of SDGs in stages. In Jakarta, we put educational advertisements on city trains as part of a long-term marketing campaign for the introduction of SDGs. It’s great to see SDGs everywhere now after building understanding and momentum. 

El Agroudy: We break down each of the SDGs to subgoals. As a result, a project might contribute partially in one or more of the objectives or sub-objectives. By simplifying a target, it becomes easier to achieve and results in clearer deliverables. For example, to meet targets for Goal 6—ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—in one of the office buildings we worked on, they added a small note in the washrooms to remind users to push the faucet button halfway for light use and to push it fully for heavy use. Something that simple helped reduce the building’s annual water consumption by more than 1 million liters (264,172 gallons).    

What’s the most common misstep teams make—and how can they course correct? 

El Agroudy: Too many project leaders fail to secure support from top management and neglect to evaluate their team’s capabilities or mitigate potential risks. To fix those mistakes, project leaders should get consensus on these alignments from the top management and preferably have a defined sponsor who will continuously give the required support. 

Rojas: I see a lot of shortcomings with metrics. Leaders are asking: “What indicator do I pick?” and “How do I measure the impact goals?” Instead, they should be asking: “Are we doing what’s the most impactful?” and “Are we doing it the right way?” and “What data do we need to answer these questions?” You must understand first what you want to achieve, your value chain to deliver your goals, what information you need to be able to track and take corrective actions as needed, the risks of not having enough data: Who are you affecting? We need to ask common sense questions quickly in a structured way to get meaningful insights that empower our decision-making processes so we can direct our efforts for the most impact. 

How do you ensure SDG alignment from the start? 

El Agroudy: You need to review the organization’s strategic objectives and pillars to decide which of those matches with any of the SDGs—or at least lie under the umbrella of a specific SDG. Beyond that, you need to clearly describe to what extent this alignment will tangibly benefit your project. An example might be using recycled or sustainable materials, renewable energy sources or less water consumption in a project that aims to get LEED certified. In such a case, aligning with SDGs 6, clean water and sanitation, and 7, affordable and clean energy, will result in a higher rating on the LEED point system, adding value to deliverables. 

Voskamp: That’s why you need to always be thinking: How does any one action impact all of our goals? A coherent implementation of SDGs prevents us from contributing to one goal without putting another goal at risk. For instance, we recently collaborated with a contractor in a pilot project who had to strip down an entire building and rebuild it. This comes with a lot of waste and leftover products, and we aimed to bring those products back into the value chain rather than turning them into waste. This preserves valuable primary resources and prevents emissions. Additionally, logistically we also had to make sure to minimize and optimize transportation, and thus emissions, in order to be sustainable together. Otherwise, it would be missing the point.  

How can project leaders reestablish SDG rigor?  

El Agroudy: This might seem obvious, but project leaders should review the link between their project objectives and a corresponding or matched SDG. Make that link clear to top management and sponsors to get the required support. Then work with your teams to develop a realistic and gradual plan to achieve the agreed-upon target. Accountability builds trust and commitment. Any actions and tasks should be assigned to the team members with clear roles and responsibilities defined. It’s all about facilitating coordination and integration for the team to work in synergy. 

Voskamp: That’s why communication is so important—particularly among the different departments. For example, if we decide to procure more sustainable products, it’s important that our account managers educate the clients on the SDG and client benefits. In your company, make sure you designate someone in a department or team who’s responsible and accountable for aligning with each goal. You can set an ambitious goal but, in between, create a roadmap including milestones so you can monitor the progress periodically to see if you’re still on track.  

Safira: You also need to make it real. Ask yourself: How can people integrate the SDGs into daily life? For example, if you want to raise the standard of living in a country, you can set one of the targets of Goal 1, no poverty, such as by raising pay to more than two dollars a day—which has a direct impact on daily life and reducing inequality in the world. We need to focus on the SDGs one by one—and we need to be collaborative and also inclusive. The government, companies and NGOs can’t achieve an SDG without each other. They must work together to focus on one change at a time. 


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