“SDG Halftime Report”: We Must Double Down on Teamwork or Risk Losing the Global Challenge

On January 1, 2016, something extraordinary happened: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force. The whole world had agreed on seventeen goals for all–ranging from No Poverty and Climate Action to Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Some found these goals too ambitious; for others, the goals were not ambitious enough. However, the whole world committed to them and that in itself was remarkable.

The United Nations also agreed on 2030 as the deadline for achieving all seventeen goals. Now in spring 2023, we find ourselves in the second half of the SDG challenge and it does not look like we are winning. No country is on track to achieve the ambitious goals set in 2016. A global pandemic and rising geopolitical tensions have blocked progress, re-set political priorities, and messed up the game plan—if there ever was one.

Have we failed to rise to the challenge? It’s too early to tell. We still have almost seven years left to turn things around. Key indicators across the board (carbon emissions, income gaps, new military conflicts, among others) show that we are lagging behind our ambitions. If this were a game of American football, we would be behind by more than just a field goal. We need to pick up the pace and adjust our strategy.

Every organization buying into the SDGs has to take stock and review: Where are we only “talking the talk?” And where do we need to do more of “walking the walk?” This is also true for American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. As an organization, we are trying to follow in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt—and those are enormous shoes to fill. Indeed, Humboldt would have had the perfect mindset for achieving a comprehensive and varied set of goals like the SDGs. He did not believe in borders—neither between disciplines, nor between cultures. He recognized and uncovered the complex interdependencies of the world and drew pragmatic conclusions. Such a cross-disciplinary and holistic mindset would be very helpful in tackling the SDGs and operationalizing them in the form of impactful actions.

To stay with the SDG game metaphor, American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is a tiny player on a huge global field. We are a small organization but what we do have is a large network of almost 6,000 American Humboldtians. These Humboldtians are alumni of the foundation’s various fellowship programs that have been in place since 1953. They comprise almost 6,000 brilliant minds and influential voices in their respective fields—from science and public policy to the social sciences and humanities—with the additional benefit of an international mindset. Together with our Humboldtians, American Friends of AvH aims to create tangible impact when it comes to tackling the pressing issues our world is facing. Together with the members of the US Humboldt alumni network, we want to contribute as much as we possibly can to achieving the SDGs.

Early into the second half of the SDG challenge, we need to review and adjust our strategy and not remain confined in our cozy science bubble. We have to reach out—across sectors, and across cultural, political, and societal boundaries—just like Alexander von Humboldt did two hundred years ago.

Our main asset is our network of Humboldtians and our expertise is platform building. We know how to connect organizations and people to work toward common goals. Now we wish to create new platforms with new partners. Our deepest connections traditionally have been with the science community and the next logical step is to partner with actors in other sectors as well, such as philanthropies and private-sector companies. Such partnerships will allow us to pool resources and increase impact in the spirit of SDG #17: Partnerships for the Goals. To start, we need to identify the things we have in common with foundations and businesses, and there is likely to be plenty of common ground. One important effect of the SDGs is their unifying effect on different players. After all, the goal of making the world a better place transcends sectors and industries.

Reaching out across sectors is the right approach for generating sustainable impact. For American Friends of AvH, as a platform-builder with an excellent network, it has the potential to create new and exciting platforms and synergies. Current economic and societal trends are working in our favor. Sustainability (either as defined in the SDGs or with ESG criteria) is playing an ever more important role for companies—global corporations and SMEs alike. Investors and consumers increasingly make their decisions dependent on how a company is not only “talking the talk,” but also “walking the walk” on sustainability. Good corporate citizenship is key to good business, and corporate citizenship needs platforms that showcase concrete, authentic, and impactful sustainability efforts. American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation stands ready to both provide and co-develop these platforms together with our partners. These can take the shape of dialogues, exchange initiatives, workshops, studies, and public outreach events. American Friends of AvH has the experience, the creativity, and the network to make it happen.

We invite everyone who shares our vision to pool resources with us and co-create impactful platforms and initiatives for solving issues ranging from affordable and clean energy and gender equality to quality education. Let’s join forces and double down on our efforts to make the second half of the SDG challenge a success and, by extension, make the world a better place.