Decrypting the Sustainable Development Goals for youths – and getting these into everyday reach


This is a personal reflection on the current Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) drive that has thankfully taken traction across sectors – a good momentum following up on their predecessor – the ten (10) Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Almost every NGO and development activist in my circle does not need to think twice when the terminology SDGs comes by. And we are starting to see the same trend in the business community – the people I work with through Promentum ApS, my other employer. The company of the future has to be sustainable (DI, 2021) – or at least contribute to some of the SDGs – and thus an important input to their strategy.

Even more interesting are the emerging related frameworks that further specify/simplify how especially the private sector could think more sustainably. We hear of the regenerative paradigm, the evolution of corporate social responsibility (CSR) towards more aware and intentional social participation, and the growing influence of the ESG (environment, social, and governance) framework – and there must be more on the way.

Sustainability – SDGs – and other frameworks – a cryptic game at the grassroots

On one side – and to no detriment, the frameworks being developed in their multiplicity are a great evolution/development on the long road to a world living within accommodative boundaries and resources. But these frameworks come with a downside that few people understand what these different frameworks really mean and how to evaluate whether they are positively contributing. The question therefore is – how many people can with assurance articulate these frameworks and fully contribute to their communities’ sustainability on a daily basis? What we see is that some of these frameworks remain highly elitist – and high-level, lacking in proper mobilization of local communities.

To aid the reflection on the above questions here are even more questions to specify and widen our thinking. Does sustainability mean the same to the Director of a big conglomerate as it does for a 15-year-old at the grassroots of say – Copenhagen? Probably yes. But does it look the same in everyday practice? We doubt this a lot. So, how do we connect the common meanings to everyday practice to bring the two points of departure closer to each other, towards a common agenda?

Many have heard, but few know what the SDGs are – another challenge to navigate.

Additionally, to reach the SDGs targets set for 2030, we need to rethink what we mean by terminologies like “LEAVING NO ONE BEHIND” and “DO NO HARM”. The practice over the years has been concentrated on how the SDGs are relevant in different contexts, and it is only recently that we have started mobilizing stakeholders to action and start implementing/grounding the SDGs indicators in their work (VORESMÅL, 2020), as opposed to business as usual.

On the global scene in a 2019 survey run by IPSOS[1] for World Economic Forum among 19,000 adults across 28 countries, results show that a whole 74% have as a minimum heard about the SDGs, while the remaining 26% have never heard of them. However, of the 74% who have heard of the SDGs, only 26% attest to having good knowledge of the SDGs while the rest reveal that they have little knowledge or have only heard about SDGs being talked about. The survey also reveals that the knowledge about the SDGs also varies very much from country to country, with the most knowledge being higher in developing countries than in Western ones.

Just to paraphrase the survey, on top of the list of knowledgeable countries – among those surveyed – were Turkey (92%), China (90%), and India (89%) – who as a minimum answered they had heard about the SDGs. These are followed by countries like Peru, Sweden, Brazil, and Malaysia with at least 87% knowing about the SDGs. At the bottom, the study finds Japan and Great Britain (49%), the USA (50%), and Canada and Australia (51%). Within the Nordics, the 2030-Netværk’s comparative review on how well Denmark works with the SDGs both within the EU and among the UN member countries (2019) – places Denmark and other Nordic countries on a close path to that of Sweden.

According to a survey of how well the Danish people know about/understand the SDGs conducted by Advice for DANIDA (2019), at least 75% answered that they have heard about SDGs. However, only 11% attest to knowing the SDGs well, while the majority 63% answer that they have heard about them but do not really understand them well. 25% do not know about the SDGs.

And, when one digs under the hood of what contributes to this discrepancy in knowledge, people that engage themselves in the cultural lives of their communities more often attest to knowing the SDGs well (20%). This, however, falls acutely to only 4% who attest to knowing what the SDGs are about when it comes to groups with either lower education achievement or those that live on the margins/sidelines of society.

Young people are at the forefront – but there remain discrepancies in common meanings.

One of the groups we ( and other Nordic partners) work with – young people in what is gazetted as “Ghetto” areas in Denmark, or high-density migrant, and often low-resourced spaces in both Denmark and Norway, as well as rural sparsely populated areas in northern Norway. When we ask about SDGs, it is common to hear words like “…that is all companies greenwashing”, or “…how do the SDGs apply to my every day?”, and of course, narratives of differences in social-economic treatment and discriminatory policies vs. the national calls for “no one left behind!”. Others mention that the SDGs are too complicated – too many (almost across the spectra).

But if you ask the question differently – for example – how we make our communities more sustainable and livable by all, the same groups of young people almost drain you into narratives of amazing actions they are part of or have started. They will tell you about community cleaning days in their schools, career, and mentor Cafes to make sure all learners are tagged in, and community gardens around the corner for both social cohesion and dietary values learning. Technology support to elders as the local library, sports, and outdoor activities for health… and the list goes on in interpreting what I commonly call the day-to-day grassroots sustainability movement.

Encouraging localization and contextualization – and decrypting the SDGs

So, if our ambition is to mobilize and grow this “Grassroots movement for the SDGs” further where do we start? What will it take? And specifically, how do we get young people from marginalized communities on board localizing the SDGs, and creating usable frameworks of interpretation and participation, for the benefit of having “no one left behind”?

The best place to start we believe is creating a connection between the everyday lived experiences of commonly excluded communities and the SDGs – and the sustainability agenda as a whole. In simple terms, this will entail a continuous reflection on and interpreting of everyday actions in our communities against the SDGs framework – and boiling the very many SDGs indicators down to more locally relatable statements accessible by our local communities.

This will mean for example questions like – does poverty in Denmark manifest itself in the same way as poverty in Uganda? If not, how do we define specifically contextualizing and grounding indicators for SDG 1 that will converge into giving meaning for the global indicators that were set out in 2015? And how do these indicators get cultivated into national and local plans without diminishing the intentions of Agenda2030?

How do we mobilize all relevant actors to continuously reflect on their impact both at the macro, meso, and micro levels? How do we get a global conglomerate in say Boston to reflect on what their impact is in rural Malawi? Could a starting point be a review of their global value chain and creating streams of dialogue towards impact with their different stakeholders along the way?

Finally, what we are suggesting here also means complicating everyone’s work – it means going away from business as usual to a hard path that changes the status quo. This often comes with requirements for both much more resources, as well as new ones – including skills and ways of engagement. So, how do we catalyze a global resources mobilization to both effectively move the sustainability agenda from rhetoric to actions that ensure decent lives for all – so no one is left behind?


As a development activist, policy analyst, grassroots ally, father, and human – on this bounded planet of ours, I believe that agenda2030 is by far the boldest intervention of our generation towards a more equitable world. With the momentum already garnered, we have the perfect opportunity to reverse so many things we, as well as the generations before us, have done over the years when knew less. And we can turn things around so that we can deliver our children’s planet and future to a moment they do not have to look back and wonder what we were thinking. I hope we follow through with all the promises we keep making.

Thank you for visiting my blog.


Leave a Comment