March 27, 2024
4 minute read
Learning for a Better World: The Case for Adding Knowledge Management and Learning as SDG 18

The journey towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) began with promise, but there’s something missing in the way the world is working towards them. Andrés Roure, Co-founder of Propel assesses how far we are from where we need to be – and what will enable us to accelerate exponentially towards sustainable development.

The 17 SDGs, which commenced on 1 January 2016, provided a 14-year window for governments, the private sector, and development agencies to fundamentally alter the world's existence patterns. To safeguard the future of life on the ailing planet, with “the roadmap accepted by all for bridging economic and geopolitical divides, restoring confidence and rebuilding solidarity”.

The goals were set out with the United Nations at the helm to serve as a beacon for a better future while being set against the backdrop of complex international development dynamics and realities. Yet today we are chasing the clock. With the 2030 deadline approaching and the hype getting louder and more hysterical, there is no denying it – the gap between ambition and reality finds humanity losing ground. 

In September 2023, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres reported that progress on more than 50 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals was weak and insufficient. “Worst of all, we have stalled or gone into reverse on more than 30 per cent of the SDGs … No country can afford to see Agenda 2030 fail," he said. Only 15 per cent of the SDGs are on track. This alarming reality prompts us to question what's missing in our collective SDG efforts. While numerous factors contribute to this slow progress, the frequently overlooked role of learning and Knowledge Management (KM) could be the key we've been ignoring. 

We must ask ourselves, "Are we neglecting the crucial role of learning in realising these goals?"

The response to this query—and the subsequent actions—could dramatically influence our global success with the SDGs. Knowledge Management and Learning, encompassing the strategic gathering, analysing, and sharing of knowledge, is vital for enlightened policymaking, innovation, and the amplification of successful strategies. This process can transform isolated data and experiences into practical wisdom that drives the SDGs forward.

Learning is key for understanding not only what is hindering progress but also how to catalyse effective action. The underpinning reason to believe learning is the missing link lies in its core attributes: it facilitates a learning ecosystem that can rapidly integrate new information, adapt strategies, and improve interventions' effectiveness. Moreover, it nurtures a culture of continuous improvement that is crucial for the dynamic and complex nature of SDG targets.

Given the UN's findings and the apparent disparities in SDG achievements, we must evaluate whether our current efforts are effectively capturing and utilising learnings from both successes and failures.

It's crucial to shift our focus to action, despite the sombre reality these numbers represent. With the combined knowledge of brilliant minds in international NGOs, academia, and the innovative capabilities of digital platforms like Propel, we possess the potential to leapfrog beyond incremental SDG milestones.

It's not even as complicated as it sounds. Quite simply, shared insights from the developmental work of over ten million NGOs are an unseen force that must be plugged into if we are to power up our exponential impact for good – and that can accelerate us towards achieving the SDGs. 

Universal Health Coverage: Well, Well, Not Well

With SDG Target 3.8 focused on achieving universal health coverage, current trends present a sobering picture. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's 2023 Goalkeepers Report shows a projected score of 64 for Universal Health Coverage index by 2030, a far cry from the target of 100. This poses the question: How can we bridge this gap? Can knowledge management, with its capacity to streamline information sharing and enhance policy implementation, be the catalyst for better health outcomes globally?

Sanitation: In Progress or Peril

Similarly, SDG Target 6.2 aspires for complete access to adequate and equitable sanitation. Again, the projections fall short, with only a 67% achievement expected by 2030, significantly below the target. The question arises, could a more robust knowledge management framework that captures and disseminates best practices in sanitation management help accelerate progress?

Why is learning enhanced by Knowledge Management crucial for SDGs? The SDGs are not just objectives but milestones in humanity's progress. However, reaching these milestones requires more than just setting targets; it demands the effective application of the knowledge we possess. Knowledge management becomes the crucible within which this collective wisdom is refined and made ready for action. 

But the question remains: How is Knowledge Management bolstered by organisational learning and how does this translate into accelerated progress towards the SDGs?

Knowledge Management is the systematic process of capturing, sharing, and leveraging knowledge, which is indispensable for sustainable development. However, the act of managing knowledge is only the beginning. It is through learning — applying and adapting this knowledge — that we drive informed decision-making and spark innovation. Effective learning, derived from robust Knowledge Management practices, can transform how we approach the SDGs, offering more efficient and viable paths to tackle these global objectives.

Imagine a scenario where real-time data on water quality, sourced from multiple locations through sensor technology, is fed into a Knowledge Management system. AI algorithms analyse this data to detect patterns and predict future water stress points. Development agencies can then utilise these insights to implement targeted interventions in vulnerable areas, pre-emptively addressing SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) more effectively.

Knowledge Management and Digital Innovation: Game-Changers in SDG Attainment

In our digital age, AI and big data analytics have transformed Knowledge Management into a formidable tool. In the context of sustainable development, this synergy is manifested in the ability to take lessons learned — both successes and challenges — and apply them across varied contexts to drive progress. AI and digital innovations serve as the catalysts for this transformative process, providing the mechanisms for not just storing but actively disseminating and employing knowledge to meet the SDGs.

For instance, at Propel we are pioneering adaptive learning and user-centric strategies in the development and humanitarian sector. The practical application of digital solutions across SDG domains is not just a theoretical advantage — it's a tangible key to unlocking sustainable progress.

Let's consider a tangible example of this in action. In the fight to eradicate hunger (SDG 2), digital platforms can capture, manage, and share agricultural knowledge — from climate-smart farming techniques to supply chain optimisation — across different geographies and contexts. This facilitates a rapid exchange of best practices and innovations, empowering farmers with the knowledge to increase yields and sustainably manage resources.

Furthermore, by employing digital tools, we can track the progress of such interventions in real-time, allowing for swift adjustments based on actual outcomes. This adaptive approach ensures that learning is not static but a dynamic driver of progress that continuously informs and improves development strategies.

Adding SDG 18 for Learning and Knowledge Management

Given the crucial roles of learning and Knowledge Management, we might consider advocating for an "SDG 18" focused on these development enablers.  Such an addition would institutionalise the practice of learning from each success and setback on a global scale, ensuring that all nations and organisations can access and apply the collective intelligence gathered from sustainable development efforts worldwide.

We could go so far as to establish a global framework for knowledge sharing. This could:

  • Foster Global Knowledge Exchange: Sharing best practices and innovations might be the lever to push stagnant SDGs forward.
  • Enable Data-Driven Decision-Making: Real time data analytics would bolster policy effectiveness and hasten SDG achievement.
  • Amplify Capacity Building: Bolstering education and training across all levels in all development projects could be the secret to SDG success.
  • Encourage Collaborative Learning: Engaging diverse stakeholders in solution co-creation is a missing piece in the SDG puzzle. 

By advocating for an "SDG 18," we would recognise and formalise the vital role of Knowledge Management and learning as the backbone of effective and sustainable development. This would not be just another goal but a foundational strategy, enhancing every effort made towards the existing 17 SDGs. Through this lens, learning and Knowledge Management become more than just enablers—they become the bedrock upon which all other SDGs rest, ensuring that every step taken is informed, efficient, and aligned with what has been proven to work.

In Conclusion: Rallying for Knowledge-Driven Development

As a humanitarian sector, we can make a deep and lasting impact through knowledge-driven development. 

Yet ensuring that we are not wearing rose coloured glasses, there is one other question we must ask. That is, are the targets within the SDGs unreasonable? The answer — no. While they are stretch targets and highly ambitious goals, we need to eradicate the collective mindset of approaching them with reasonable doubt because beyond a doubt, the disparity in progress towards the SDGs calls for an a focus on Knowledge Management. 

In addition, with crucial equality enablers or disablers such as universal health coverage and sanitation as glaring examples of the shortfall, it becomes evident that innovative solutions alone won't suffice. The global development agenda must be recalibrated to include an SDG that champions knowledge sharing, digital innovation, and collaborative learning.

Establishing "SDG 18" for knowledge management is not just a bold move but a necessary stride towards us actually seeing the sustainable future that was agreed on 1 January 2016. We are just past 3 000 days into this pursuit. Now, with just 2 114 days to go until Goal Day, it is imperative for us all to leverage every tool in our arsenal — and to put Knowledge Management at the centre to ensure that no goal is left behind.