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Turning the Wordy, Complex SDGs into a Bumper Sticker, UN Edition

Content by: South-South News

22 September 2015, New York, USA | Brendan Pastor — What's in a name? In the United Nations, apparently, a lot.

The indomitability of one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes is most resonant in the world body known for fierce debates and heated exchanges over the minutiae of details and language in every document, from its founding Charter to simple resolutions on otherwise innocuous issues.

So when it comes to communicating the language of the most ambitious and potentially transformative global development agenda — the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, better known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — to the wider public not fluent in the UN's diplomatic language, complications arise.

For example, how do you take something like Goal 15 and make it "bumper-sticker" friendly?

"Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss."

If that were to be printed on a bumper sticker, it would probably wrap halfway around the side of an SUV — not exactly a phrase that inspires a movement. This is problematic for the UN. In order to package these 17 goals into easily-understandable and relatable ideas that galvanize action from people, it needed to somehow whittle down that clunky, obtuse wording into simpler language.

By and large, they have succeeded. The graphic shown at the top of the article is now the official branding for the Sustainable Development Goals, which have taken on the more colloquial monicker "Global Goals" (social media hacks will no doubt praise the hashtag #GlobalGoals over the character-heavy #SustainableDevelopmentGoals or the more obscure #SDGs).

As viewers can see, the wording deviates significantly in the attempt to simplify the language. The clunky Goal 15 mentioned above is now printed as the far more bumpersticker-friendly "Life on Land". For the average reader, this is a preferable summation to the long-form in the official agenda. And for those of us in the media, it is a welcome change that makes communicating the messages of the SDGs far simpler.

"We've heard enough from media and civil society about how difficult it will be to communicate [the new development agenda]," Amina Mohammed, the UN special advisor on post-2015 planning, and one of the key officials overseeing the agenda's formulation, told South-South News.

"So this is what we're trying to do — to give you the words that get you to go back and look at the full list of goals, and to start to interpret the full language in the goals and targets written in the outcome document for implementation."

But those well-versed in the politics of the UN system know that simplifying complex and politically sensitive language can raise the ire of groups and stakeholders who worked hard to get it written in the first place.

The decision to exclude certain words or phrases, therefore, is just as political as the decision to add them.

Take, for instance, Goal 8 which the graphic labels as "Decent Work and Economic Growth." Some civil society members who requested anonymity expressed frustration that the wording for "Full and Productive Employment" — which is listed in full in the document — is omitted from the graphic. This isn't necessarily nitpicking: the concept of full employment is a bold idea, something that challenges the global economic system to transform in a significant way, and would inevitably have major consequences for political systems and societies. But it's not as aesthetically sound.

Clearly a balance must be struck. And finding that balance is tricky.

Mohammed insists that the bumpersticker branding in no way deviates from the key messages of the goals.

"We will never get it 100 percent right, but we try to get it as close as we could so it works for everyone," she said.

Christina Gallach, the UN's chief public information officer, reiterated the special advisor's point and underscored that the inclusivity of the process resulted in feedback from all relevant groups.

"We are getting a lot of good reactions from member states," Gallach told South-South News.

Indeed, it very well may be that the more aesthetically pleasing and consumable Global Goals graphic will be widely accepted — supported, even — by those who may not fully embrace the agenda itself. And under the overarching priority of "selling" the SDGs to the wider public, this method will likely prevail.

After all, the success of the new development agenda comes down to the ability of the world's people to compel policy-makers to implement it. Giving them an agenda they actually understand is key to this.

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