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Can true societal impact be measured?

By Professor Kiran Fernandes - October 2020

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a set of objectives related to promoting and supporting sustainable development around the globe through education, human knowledge, communication and culture. These objectives are commonly known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and are an interdependent set of 17 goals that 195 Member States have agreed to achieve by 2030. The 17 goals are accompanied by 169 targets, indicators and a monitoring framework. These goals represent an ambitious, ground-breaking framework for shared international actions.

World leaders had not previously pledged common action across such a broad and universal policy agenda. The SDGs aim to provide a global framework for cooperation to address sustainable development within an ethical framework based on the right to development for every country; human rights and social inclusion; convergence of living standards across countries; and shared responsibilities and opportunities. Sustainable development includes economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

The idea is for governments, universities, businesses, aid organisations, foundations and other non-governmental organisations to address the most pressing global problems together and measure how they progress. However, measuring contributions to SDGs is difficult as organisations not only operate in different cultural and political regimes, they also differ in the size and heterogeneity of organisational structures. For example, a medium-sized organisation will have limited resources to accurately measure and report their SDG contributions compared to a large global organisation.

Slow progress

The UN General Assembly Resolution in October 2019 acknowledged that while advances were made in meeting some of the SDG targets, it also noted that progress towards achieving the SDGs was currently too slow.

Durham University has been working with the UK National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) to develop a ‘value capturing’ system (called Wider Value Plus) that can accurately capture and report how organisations contribute to the 17 SDGs. The developed ‘Wider Value Plus’ system is a simple cost-effective way for both small and large organisations to report on their SDG progress. The developed system uses both primary data from organisations as well as scaping big and messy data to measure and show how organisations contribute to the 2030 SDGs.

Using such an approach allows the developed system to identify the different value-generating processes of an organisational structure and maps how these processes contribute to the 2030 SDGs. Additionally, this system can be used by organisations to not only accurately benchmark and report their SDG contributions, but also develop effective strategies to partner with other organisations to cooperate on projects of mutual interest. The developed system can also be used by regional authorities and national governments to make sense of how organisations contribute to SDGs.

Wider value

The Wider Value Plus system has been used to capture and benchmark over 74 UNESCO designations (organisations) in the UK and Overseas Territories to show how these designations contribute to the 2030 SDGs. This research revealed there are currently over 1,300 UK organisations tied to the UNESCO network through their partnerships and cooperation with designations in the UK. Furthermore, UNESCO designations offer critical opportunities for civil society to engage in the UN’s values locally, nationally and internationally.

UNESCO’s global network of designations includes World Heritage Sites (e.g. Durham Cathedral, Tower of London), Biosphere Reserves (e.g. North Devon Biosphere Reserve, Biosffer Dyfi Biosphere), UNESCO University Chair Programme, UNESCO Creative Cities (e.g. Bradford – Film, Glasgow – Music) and Global Geoparks (e.g. English Riviera Global Geopark).

The Wider Value Plus system was able to show that the UK’s network of UNESCO designations was adding a minimum of £151 million to the UK economy on an annual basis. The system also revealed that UNESCO designations are not only significant contributors to the UK economy, but also add value to different UK regions beyond the economic benefits: UNESCO designations have a far-reaching impact on society, culture and nature. For example, UNESCO designations in the UK are using these core activities to promote peace and sustainable development. They include organising interactive and hands-on Science Weeks for schoolchildren (Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark); mapping vulnerability to climate change (Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site); investigating how natural capital can be managed to benefit the environment (North Devon UNESCO Biosphere Reserve); teaching business skills to young girls from disadvantaged areas (Giant’s Causeway UNESCO World Heritage Site); and working with local doctors to improve communities’ wellbeing through outdoor activities (UNESCO Dyfi Biosphere Reserve Wales).

Demonstrating contributions

One of the vital measures of this system has been to show the contributions of organisations to the 2030 UN SDGs. The internationally agreed SDGs are a core priority for UNESCO and are integral to the organisation’s strategic delivery and reporting. This study identifies how, through their core activities, UNESCO designations in the UK are helping to deliver a range of SDGs including education and culture for which UNESCO is the global lead.

Our study also reveals how the different geographical, political, legislative and financial environments in which designations operate, affects their ability to realise their potential.

For example, this study shows that UNESCO designations promote the peace and sustainable development agenda through conservation of cultural and heritage sites, research that impacts on society and sustainability, education for all, building capacity in areas of peace and sustainability, and developing best practice for the management of sustainability. This study shows how organisations contribute to the UN SDGs and the positive impact they have on communities both locally and nationally.

The Wider Value Plus system can also be used as a policy toolkit. For example, our study shows how UNESCO, as a global organisation, can play a bigger role in strengthening the UNESCO network nationally and, in turn, globally. This study also highlights that it is of critical importance that the UK understands the role that UNESCO designations play across all spheres of life for citizens in the UK, that decision-makers appreciate the intrinsic global value that UNESCO brings and how these combine to take the UK into the wider world arena.

For more information on Professor Fernandes’ research click here.