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Using the SDGs as a tool to reflect our research

October 19, 2017

Bruce Currie-Alder

Program Leader

Georgina Cundill Kemp, an IDRC senior program officer for the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia (CARIAA), recalled Nokwanele Mamkeli’s words of wisdom.

“We learned to listen to people so that we could speak to them in ways that they could understand,” the research team member from an IDRC-supported project in South Africa’s Eastern Cape had said. 


The quote served as a reminder for the participants of CARIAA’s annual learning review that dialogue begins with an appreciation of the other. In order to be heard, we must know our audience, including the ideas that interest them and the language they use to describe those ideas. The trick is to step beyond the narrow conclusions of the research to identify insights for public and private action, whether they’re described as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Africa’s Agenda 2063, country-specific National Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans, or simply the livelihood strategies of families and firms.

Research application vs. aspiration 

When the SDGs emerged in 2015, CARIAA’s four consortia were already well underway. Timing aside, the SDGs are the result of a political compromise that seized on the common elements of how diverse societies envisioned the future they want. As with the Millennium Development Goals that preceded them, the post-2015 agenda is epistemically incomplete: strong on aspiration yet lacking in conceptual and analytical rigour. Any effort to measure and account for progress will be partial and somewhat subjective, privileging certain indicators over others while ignoring interlinkages and interdependencies among the goals.

From a research perspective, the SDGs are devoid of theory: they describe what to achieve, but not how to do so. For explanation and causation, one must rely on a breadth and depth of natural and social sciences, as well as the emergent practice created as communities and individuals struggle to survive and thrive in a changing world.

However, knowledge and learning generated within and across ASSAR, DECCMA, HI-AWARE and PRISE is particularly salient to five of the 169 targets that define the seventeen SDGs. Clearly, our research informs climate action and efforts to eradicate poverty. At the learning review, we heard about integrating climate science into watershed planning — an example that strengthens resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards (SDG 13.1). We also discussed adaptation planning that enhances water and food security in Ghana — an example that integrates climate change measures into national policies, strategies, and planning (SDG 13.2); and multiple presentations spoke to coping with heat waves and droughts — examples that build the resilience of the poor and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events (SDG 1.5).

CARIAA results also provide insight on how adaptation contributes to migration and mobility, gender equality, and economic growth. Research by our consortia speaks to facilitating orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people (SDG 10.7) in South Asia and West Africa; undertaking reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources (5.A); and achieving higher levels of economic productivity through diversification (8.2).

Communicating our results with the SDGs

While the SDGs do not offer solid ground upon which to design scientific research, our program does speak to them, and we can go further to distilling these insights. CARIAA must identify key messages, the audiences that can learn from them, and engagement opportunities to inform future policy and practice. The SDGs offer a language to engage audiences that are attentive to the discourse of international development. Our science needs to listen to the needs of society in order to speak in a way that enhances society’s understanding of the options before it. The SDGs are a means of framing messages from CARIAA’s research: SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), or SDG 13 (climate action) are numeric shorthand that signals how our work might contribute to a better future.

This task is already underway within each consortium and across the program. Leadership within each consortium, supported by team deliberation and planning for the year ahead, is distilling our key messages and headline outcomes. We count on a talented and enthusiastic community of Research-into-Use (RiU) specialists eager to help us reach the audiences and enable change.

Some audiences are receptive to hearing about the SDGs, while others have different aspirations… In all cases, we will do well to understand our audiences, their interests, and motivations. Only then can we speak in ways that help to increase the resilience of vulnerable people and make a difference in their lives.

Bruce Currie-Alder is the program leader for CARIAA.