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Spoke at a Deans' Roundtable on the Sustainable Development Goals, in Paris, on 11 December 2017

"Caught up in the day-to-day preoccupations of fast-paced and technologically-mediated modern life, even the most enlightened and conscientious among us can easily forget or even come to ignore how precarious our conditions of living really are and that the problems that seem always to be somewhere else and someone else’s are really very much our problems too. Some of us deal with these problems in the safety of abstract ideas and feel-good platitudes. Some of us become nihilistic and learn to be helpless in order to cope psychically with our self-destructive practices and institutions, sometimes by distancing ourselves from an increasingly abstract idea of our doomed futures.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the very specific way in which they are formulated can take us down two opposite paths. The first path brings a renewed visibility, sense of urgency, and collective responsibility to the complex and multifaceted problems that we face as a planet. The SDGs have the potential to bring clarity and focus by disentangling the world’s tightly knotted up problems into a list of manageable units. The 17 inter-related goals with 169 targets and 304 indicators can provide valuably comprehensive guidance for setting agendas, formulating policies and programmes, coordinating action, and evaluating outcomes so that progress can be monitored. By inspirationally pointing to better futures, the SDGs also have the symbolic potential to uplift us from a sense of despair and paralysis that come from feeling overwhelmed, debilitated, and demoralized by the enormity of these problems. Thus, as new starting points, they give us a clearer and more concrete sense of what needs to be done, how we might go about doing it, what might come in the way of success, and – above all – an optimistic outlook on our prospects for success.

The second path can lead to the depths of cynicism if, after a time, the SDGs – like many other high-profile efforts to save our world – fail to be implemented in spite of all the hope, ceremony, and publicity. Some have, in fact, argued that the SDGs are an unwieldy list of goals that are unfeasible from a financing perspective. So, effective and impactful implementation is going to be of critical importance. ..."

Roundtable (from left): Helmut K. Anheier (President of Hertie School), Yann Algan (Dean of Sciences Po's School of Public Affairs), Merit E. Janow (Dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs), Moderator, and Kenneth Paul Tan (Vice Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy).

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