Does your neighbour know about the Sustainable Development Goals?

By Felix Zimmermann, Coordinator at OECD Development Communication Network. Originally published at OECD

Words OECD governments use
to describe the SDGs online.
Source: OECD DevCom 2017

I don’t really know my neighbour. What I do know is that she can get pretty grumpy when my kids are too noisy. I also know that she uses the recycle bins. But what does she think about sustainable development? I wouldn’t have a clue. That needs to change.

An urgent task: mobilising citizens into action for the SDGs

To have any hope of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, we need all citizens to change their behaviours, no matter where in the world they live. SDG priorities may differ from country to country, but we need citizens in all countries to call upon governments, companies – and neighbours – to act.

The good news is that the SDGs give us a powerful story to tell – just check out the inspirational word cloud we created using only language from the SDG web pages of OECD governments.

The even better news is that people are beginning to engage. One year into the “SDG era”, about 3 in 10 citizens say they’ve heard about the SDGs, according to both Globescan and Eurobarometer. Almost 10 million world citizens have shown they care about sustainable development by participating in the UN MyWorld survey. These numbers will rise further thanks to the work of initiatives like the UN SDG Action Campaign, Project Everyone and the World’s Best News.

Will new SDG narratives and campaigns convince my neighbour to shop differently or support global efforts to end hunger? They should!

But these are tough times for SDG communicators in public institutions. Their audiences include many people who have lost trust in public institutions and become resentful about international co-operation. In a changing media landscape, they have to compete for attention with “fake news” and “clickbait”. And, with social-media algorithms deciding what people read and dividing readers into different bubbles, communicators may just be preaching to their own audiences.

Good listeners make great SDG communicators

To overcome these challenges, the first thing government institutions need to do is improve their listening skills.

Take the opinion polls that some institutions commission on a regular basis. These surveys should tell communicators what citizens really think, particularly when coupled with other kinds of public attitudes research, such as focus groups.

The problem is that polls are designed not only to provide accurate information on public attitudes. They are also designed as advocacy tools, for example to strengthen the case for specific policies.1  With budgets being squeezed, public institutions have strong incentives to make public support for their work look higher than it really is.

Yet, polls are not the only way to understand public attitudes today. Businesses mine online data to find and target new customers. Political parties have done the same in their quest for votes. The development community has begun to embrace the data revolution, but the digital transformation has not yet reached all of its communications departments.

Facebook and Twitter have become daily business for institutions that deliver development assistance, according to a recent survey conducted by the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom).2  However, when DevCom members were asked why they use social media, interacting with citizens and seeking feedback on policies ranked amongst their lowest priorities (see figure below). Amongst 13 respondents, only six had specific budgets for social media, and only two were confident in their abilities to make use of web analytics.

The bottom line is that if they want to mobilise citizens for the SDGs, then communicators need better listening architectures. They need to invest in opinion polls and public attitudes research that provide reliable information. They need to consider how social media and web analytics can and should inform their public engagement strategies.

Applying the right SDG narratives for different audiences

It is only by listening more carefully – setting up stronger listening architectures – that SDG communicators will know what SDG messages work best for different audiences.

For example, many people will want to be reassured that their taxes are being spent wisely and achieving SDG results. Some will want to be moved by stories that evoke shared values – they may want practical suggestions on how to become global citizens.3  Others will want to take pride in their country’s performance or global leadership on the SDGs. Others still will need reminding that the SDGs are in everyone’s interest, including their own.

Listening better will also help choose the right SDG messengers. Consider who represents the development community in the media today: political leaders, policy experts and celebrity ambassadors. But where some audiences see trusted figureheads, others only see big words, big numbers and big egos.

Most audiences today also want to hear from “real” people: People who share their interests, such as business leaders, fellow hikers or young bloggers; people actually delivering on the SDGs, such as doctors, teachers or engineers; people in their entourages; peers; parents.

Open government: building trust and seeking genuine dialogue with citizens

Of course, clever and targeted messaging alone won’t convince everyone to join the global SDG effort. To have any chance of reaching the sceptics, government institutions will need a deeper change, linking words to actions. They will need to become more open, building trust, pursuing an honest dialogue and finding new ways to collaborate with citizens, both offline and online.

Leading the way, Indonesia, Georgia, Peru, Tanzania and dozens more countries have joined the Open Government Partnership. Governments in Mexico, Germany, Finland and the Netherlands have launched ambitious platforms for citizens to share ideas and make personal commitments to sustainable development. Austria’s Mitmachen portal invites individuals, schools and small businesses to sign up and shows them how they can participate in both local and global efforts. Last year, Canada and the European Commission conducted major public consultations to help design new development policies.

And there are more reasons for optimism: in the first set of SDG progress reports to the UN High Level Political Forum, most governments provide examples of how they are listening to and engaging with citizens, NGOs, businesses and local communities.

These experiences need to be shared. That’s why, together with its members and UN partners, DevCom is setting up a Peer Learning Hub for SDG Communicators. Please contact us with your guidance, ideas and examples.

And: go and talk to your neighbour about the SDGs. As an SDG communicator, I should have done so a long time ago. She may have some great ideas on how we can engage the whole neighbourhood!



1. For a discussion on development polls, see Good Practices in Development Communication, OECD Development Centre, 2014.

2. OECD DevCom is a platform where communications managers from development institutions explore ways to engage with citizens for sustainable development.

3. A survey of young people by the Varkey Foundation shows that young people want to make a wider contribution to society, but need more knowledge and skills to make a difference.