Written by Diane Connors, Communications Officer at the BC Council for International Cooperation
The room in the Vancouver Public Library filled quickly with excited voices as volunteers put finishing touches on placards going up around the room. Large colourful squares with icons and words on them read things like “No Poverty,” “Affordable and Clean Energy,” and “Reduced Inequalities.” The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the topic of the day, with the 17 goals boldly surrounding the room.
“We need to say no to the status quo. My dear friends and relatives, we need to be quicker. We need to be strong in our convictions. Welcome, and good luck for the good work you are doing for all living beings.” Shane Pointe, Knowledge Keeper of the Musqueam First Nation, asked everyone to stand and join hands, explaining that we were like neurons in a brain, all connected and working together. The room meditated in quiet as Shane sang, encouraging the room to be grounded in place and in the people present.
The meeting marked another milestone in the beginnings of an exciting new network, with nearly 100 people from across the country gathering under the banner of “Alliance 2030” – an emerging initiative to advance the SDGs in Canada. Alliance 2030 is a transformation of the “Alliance 150” network, and is supported by the Community Foundations of Canada. Alliance 2030 (like Alliance 150 before) will serve as an active network promoting action, engagement and impact around issues that matter in Canada.
Maybe Bigger is Better
So, why 2030? The United Nations set the target of achieving the aspirational Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030 – 15 years from when they were affirmed in 2015. It wasn’t lost on people that time was already ticking, with only 12 years left to make some leaps and bounds progress to get anywhere close to transforming Canada and the world by the target date.
“We thought people would be put off by the huge nature of these goals, but it was exactly the opposite” said Mike Simpson of the BC Council for International Cooperation during opening remarks. He explained how the SDGs differ from the last set of UN goals – the Millenium Development Goals – in their transformative, integrated, and universal nature. That is, they think big, act together, and apply to everyone, everywhere, both at home and abroad.
Andrew Chunilall of Community Foundations of Canada spoke to the how such wide-ranging global goals are relevant to small organizations that work locally, saying “we have truly become a global country, we are global citizens, and we interact that way. So when it comes to building communities it makes sense that thinking globally is the right way to go. Thinking globally doesn’t replace local focuses. It just deepens our perspective on how to do community building.”
What does success look like for the SDGs and initiatives like Alliance 2030? Julia Sanchez from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation sees “a sense of inspiration, and the realization that there are so many people out there working on the SDGs. Success would be that we are all part of a mosaic pushing in the same general direction, and using the same common language as parts of a whole. There are challenges – one of the risks that I see is that we go back to working the same way that we’ve been working, in our silos….we need to start making connections here in Canada. Be transformative. Look at the root causes. Be universal. Leave no one behind.”
Finding Our Fit
To begin the participatory part of the day, people were invited to connect their personal lives to the goals by standing if they could agree with questions like: have you been or ever wanted to be a teacher? Do you grow your own food? Have you ever served on a jury? Did you brush your teeth with water from a tap this morning? People laughed as the whole room stood up for the last question.
For most of the morning people spent time discussing their organizations’ relationship to the goals. They identified which goals they were directly working on, and talked about their perceptions of what needed to be happening in Canada to advance progress. The connectivity of the goals was explored as people were challenged to make connections between goals that seemed very different, such as Goal 14 “Life Below Water” paired with Goal 2 “Zero Hunger,” or Goal 16 “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” paired with Goal 13 “Climate Action.”
When the group came back together for some reflection, Simpson summarized what he was hearing around the room: “The connections started emerging in the conversation. All these things are connected, they are all important and they all need to happen sort of simultaneously. What our organization is doing needs to be linked up to what everyone else is doing…How do we coordinate and collectively think? It’s beyond the ability of any one person or organization to do this work…It’s a chaotic, complicated and ambitious story. If we are uncomfortable then we are probably having the right conversation, we are thinking differently, we are challenging the status quo.”
Afterwards, comments were offered by people around the room. “We must ensure that this conversation goes beyond elite and academic circles, inviting in racialized and immigrant people as well as young people” said one person. Another offered that “Canadians are coming to the party a bit late. We are 3 years into the SDGs, and most of the world had these conversations in 2015. We kind of missed the boat. We are just starting conversations, and need to get more concrete in terms of identifying policies and partners…we need to gear up.”
Conversation kept up over lunch, with people chatting, exchanging business cards, and catching up with colleagues from across the country. Some people posed for photos with the SDG placards – a common sight around the world at events like this one. Near the end of the hour, people started voicing their curiosity for the next part of the meeting: hearing more about what Alliance 2030 was going to look like in practice.
A New Network – The emergence of Alliance 2030
After lunch, the conversation pivoted from a discussion on individual goals to a discussion about the SDG framework and how we can work together to advance progress. Executive Director of Community Foundations of Canada, JP Bervoets, spoke to the growth of community foundations around the world and how these thousands of organizations, large and small, together provide access to billions of dollars for projects aimed at doing good work with local impact. “There’s a network in philanthropy that is looking to be part of conversations about the important issues of our time” he explained, in reference to people looking to engage with something like Alliance 2030.
The example of Alliance 150, which Alliance 2030 is growing from, is inspiring – with 2500 organizations, 1800 projects, and 1600 events – it was a light net that connected people, but thousands of stories emerged. Could we use such a model to support and connect the work people are doing, through the comprehensive and ambitious Sustainable Development Goals? “The SDGs can be a way to keep momentum going, sharing knowledge, and building partnerships across sectors and globally. Many of these kinds of conversations have never happened before,” Bervoets said.
A Data Revolution
Practically, Alliance 2030 is a user friendly database, network, platform, and resource of SDG activity happening in Canada (and abroad), featuring stories and news from and about Alliance 2030 members. A robust information management and tagging system allows people to explore and connect. Members can post to the platform and get their stories amplified through the Alliance 2030 network. Together with other platforms such as IISD SDG Knowledge Hub and the new Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a growing base of Sustainable Development Goals work can be supported in Canada, allowing exchange of ideas and support for action.
A presentation by Audrey Bélanger Baur from Statistics Canada gave an example of how we might be able to use data to track our progress on the SDGs through a community scoring system based off the UN framework. When someone asked why it would be helpful to do that, she explained “we need to be able to see who is being left behind. We provide data to support decision making. This is a tool for people who make policies to ask questions – why are some places performing well and some are not? The comparison is helpful to see how changes can be made. It must be used as a tool to help communities do better, not to congratulate communities that are doing well or shame those that aren’t.”
Through the Stats Canada presentation was a prototype database system, it was interesting to see how we might be able to use use this data in the future. Bélanger Baur asserted that “The SDGs called for a data revolution. We are trying to build our capacity to answer that call.”
The Real Questions
As the day wrapped up, participants were encouraged to reflect on some critical questions such as: does this framework help me advance my cause? Does the fact that there is a global commitment – that our governments have committed to implementing these goals – does it give me more tools to set out to do what I want to accomplish? Is this just an academic tool or a practical tool? Is having an alliance helpful? Is having a platform that brings us together helpful?
It was obvious that there was a lot of energy and opportunity on the topic of Sustainable Development in Canada. With one question, people started speaking up and telling the room what they were working on – from trying to start an innovation hub in the North, to gathering stories of how municipalities are localizing the SDGs, to asking for mentors for youth in climate change work, people were looking to make supportive connections all over the place.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a complex answer to the wicked problems of the world – where both the problems and the answers are so large that no one organization or sector could hope to tackle them on their own. The framework calls for mutual problem solving, making connections, and sharing stories of challenges and successes. With every new person and organization getting involved and joining the ever-growing worldwide network working toward sustainable development, we pull together in a unified direction.
The Alliance 2030 network in Canada is one answer to the call of the United Nations. It has the potential to bring in new champions for social, environmental, and economic sustainable development, sometimes from surprising places. It asks important questions of those who get involved, with the ultimate question of the SDGs being “how do we create the world we want?” – and that answer is to have huge aspirations, to think transformatively, and to work together.
Alliance 2030 is a national network of organizations, institutions and individuals committed to achieving the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030. It is a platform and hub for activity taking place to advance the Sustainable Development Goals both in Canada, and by Canadians working abroad. BCCIC is a member of Alliance 2030 – any Canadian organization that can somehow fit their work into the Sustainable Development goals is welcome to join.