On 1 January 2016, the United Nations embarked on a bold but structured plan to change the world: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

At the heart of this plan are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From ending poverty to reducing hunger, from improving access to education and healthcare to fighting against inequalities, the SDGs are “an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership,” the UN says.

The SDGs are essentially a framework for government agencies and NGOs to design and refine their policy decisions. Additionally, they are a clarion call for global collaboration and coordination among ordinary citizens too.

Image: UN

Raising awareness of any problem is one of the most important ways to make progress toward solving it. But just how widely known, understood and appreciated are these goals?

Global survey

The World Economic Forum commissioned Ipsos* to gauge the level of SDG awareness among the global public. It focused on two key questions:

1) How familiar are you with the SDGs?

2) Which SDGs are the most important?

Almost 20,000 people between the ages of 16 and 74 from 28 countries responded.

Globally, the results found that 26% of respondents are “somewhat or very familiar” with the UN SDGs – that leaves a lot of people toward the unaware end of the spectrum. The findings also show higher levels of SDG awareness in developing countries.

There was far less awareness in Western nations, where issues like inequality and gender equality ranked lower down the public's list of concerns.

The three countries with the highest levels of awareness are:

1) Turkey (92%)

2) Mainland China (90%)

3) India (89%)

Brazil, Malaysia and Sweden are only slightly behind third-placed India. But only around 1-in-10 of people surveyed in Japan, France, Italy, Canada, and the UK said they were familiar with the goals.

Image: UN

A challenge or an opportunity?

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

One of the other findings from the research was that the public has a tendency to support those SDGs that are more obviously concerned with immediate human needs. The provision of food, water, health, or energy fall into that bracket.

They are easily understood and easy to identify with. But where more idealistic goals are concerned, such as addressing income inequality and gender equality, people start to switch off.

SDG 5 states: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. While there has been progress in some areas, such as rates of child marriage dropping, more needs to be done.

Image: UN

A recent progress report said: “According to recent data from some 90 countries, women devote on average roughly three times more hours a day to unpaid care and domestic work than men, limiting the time available for paid work, education and leisure and further reinforcing gender-based socioeconomic disadvantages.”

The Ipsos research found the drive to secure gender equality ranked as one of the lowest in terms of the global public’s awareness of and response to the SDGs.

Such findings offer a useful insight into how the UN can redouble its efforts to raise awareness - and achieve its 17 goals.

* Ipsos interviewed a total of 19,517 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, 21-74 in Singapore, and 16-74 in 22 other countries on its Global Advisor online survey platform between 26 July and 9 August 2019.