How to Integrate the Sustainable Development Goals

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We can’t address Sustainable Development Goals without considering their social context. Energy and gender provide an example.

Everyone’s trying to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that’s a good thing.

But the goals are complex, and they can’t be addressed one by one. To make progress on any SDG, we need to dive deep into the local context, to understand how culture and circumstances affect action.

Sound complicated? We can learn from recent research that looked at how efforts to address SDG #7, Affordable and Clean Energy, affected SDG #5, Gender Equity.

In 2017, researcher Meital Rosenberg went to rural India to see how greater household access to energy (SDG 7) affected women’s lives (SDG 5). She found that local gender norms had a big impact. Because men make 78% of household decisions in rural India, their interests shaped whether new energy resources went to activities and appliances that would improve women’s lives – or to the men’s priorities.

“The state we were in, Gujarat, made a real push to extend energy to local homes,” Rosenberg explained “But they didn’t consider how that energy would be used.”

As your organization works on the SDGs, keep an eye on the broader context. Based on their experience, Rosenberg and her colleagues offer specific advice on how to advance SDGs with the best chance of success.

The research recently won the NBS Research Impact on Practice Award for all co-authors: Meital Rosenberg and Michaël Aklin from the University of Pittsburgh, and Daniel Erian Armanios and Paulina Jaramillo from Carnegie Mellon University.

Why Energy Access Didn’t Advance Gender Equity

Energy access is a clear priority. In 2019, 13% of the global population still didn’t have access to energy.

In theory, improving energy access can be particularly valuable for women in developing countries. Women can spend less time on routine labour (e.g., cooking and fuel collection), gaining time to participate in the economy or get an education.

So, when Rosenberg and her colleagues studied the State of Gujarat, a region in India that has successfully increased rural energy access, they should have found that women’s lives improved as a result… right?

Wrong. Only a quarter of women felt that the energy expansion efforts had improved their lives, according to the researchers’ survey. The issue comes down to the difference between energy access and energy use.

Although households in Gujarat now had access to the grid, they didn’t typically use that energy for tasks and appliances that improved women’s lives. Men decided how energy was used and generally prioritized appliances they used more frequently (e.g., TVs, non-kitchen fans, and phones) over those used equally or more by women, like kitchen appliances. As a result, women don’t realize the expected benefits of increased energy access.

“Seeing this disparity was frustrating,” Rosenberg said. “We knew that the intention of improving electricity access was to help everyone. But that wasn’t the result.”

Every Issue Has a Social Context

There’s a lesson here for anyone who wants to address resource-based goals, like Zero Hunger (SDG 2); Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6); and Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7); those goals inevitably interact with more social goals, like #1, No Poverty; #3, Good Health and Wellbeing; #5, Gender Equity; and #10, Reduced Inequalities.

“Understanding the power of linkages in the SDGs can lead to better outcomes and address systems problems. Neglecting to understand these linkages can create new problems,” the researchers write.

Companies, policy makers, philanthropists, and NGOs need to recognize that social inequalities often prevent some groups from realizing the benefits of their SDG action.

For example, organizations building new infrastructure, like a bridge, can often leave marginalized communities behind. Armanios found this pattern in other research. “We tend to build infrastructure around outdated systems, locking in their inequities,” he wrote.

Bridges spur local economic growth – but in America, Black and Hispanic communities are less common locations for new infrastructure.

How SDG Action Can Bring Benefits to All

So how can outside organizations contribute to meaningful change in complex social contexts? Rosenberg and Armanios provide guidance, based on their research in India and more current work. Rosenberg now works with philanthropists and Armanios examines other intersections of infrastructure and equity in his research.

  1. Connect with local and grassroots organizations. Local groups can ground your assumptions, and predict the follow-on impacts you couldn’t. Working closely with them can show you critical social and contextual factors. For example, Rosenberg worked with a local women’s group, ANANDI, during her research to help interview subjects appropriately.

  2. Give community members decision making power. No amount of research will give an outsider the full perspective or authority of community members. Empower a community to define their needs and what success looks like. This is especially important for long-term infrastructure related projects, because any ill-informed decisions get “locked in, creating relics of a past social norm,” Armanios explained, advocating that community agreements be enforced legally.

  3. Work with (and around) social constraints. Local norms can be deeply entrenched. If they dictate that women or other groups won’t benefit from a solution, advocating for equal access can lead to household conflict. Armanios suggests emphasizing other, less controversial, benefits when communicating a solution that will also benefit a marginalized group. For example: a policy to create a subsidy for “rice cookers to save the whole family time” rather than for “appliances that will reduce women’s workload” would likely be better received by some communities. Emphasizing benefits for everyone can ultimately enhance equity.

SDG Linkages for Your Industry

Wondering how these issues might apply to your industry?

You might explore KPMG’s SDG Industry Matrix. It outlines specific ways that companies in various industries, from food service to energy, interact with the 17 SDGs.

For example, the Matrix encourage organizations to consider social equity in SDG #4, Quality Education:

“Collaborate with other companies and educational institutions to provide vocational training in order to develop a diverse talent pipeline including women, men and vulnerable persons (such as persons with disabilities, indigenous persons, and racial and ethnic minorities).”

So, as your company tackles the SDGs, remember that the goals don’t exist in silos. To achieve impact, take the time to understand local social context and how different SDGs might intersect.

Read the research article: Evidence of gender inequality in energy use from a mixed-methods study in India, published in Nature Sustainability.

About the Research Impact on Practice Award

Research can make a difference in the world. Since 2013, the Network for Business Sustainability has recognized such research with the annual Research Impact on Practice Award, co-sponsored with the Academy of Management’s Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) Division. The research may focus on any issue of societal or environmental importance. Discover all winners.

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  • Abby Litchfield is a Senior Associate at the Network for Business Sustainability, overseeing partnerships, processes, social media, and all things graphic. Abby is deeply passionate about bringing people and organizations together to advance sustainability, and loves creating new content with NBS collaborators because it's an opportunity to do just that.

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