Since 2015, the Global NGO Executive Committee has placed the United Nations SDGs high on its agenda through its conferences, briefings, and NGO Reporter articles.  The multiple crises of 2020 slowed progress on many SDGs, but 2021 is an opportunity to accelerate progress on the SDGs, using what we have learned during past years.  The authors Jeffrey Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub, and Guillaume Lafortune recently commented in the journal Nature, that despite recent criticisms of the SDGs and calls to scale back SDG ambitions, these “criticisms have not demonstrated any technological or operational obstacles to achieving the SDGs.” While 2020 was a challenging year, the reality is that achieving the SDGs remains cost-effective and essential for expanding human rights and human wellbeing.  

 The biggest challenge in 2021 is to get governments to invest additional resources aligned with SDG targets.  An additional challenge is for NGOs to be strategic in their recommendations, looking for investments that yield improvements across several SDGs.  For example, ensuring that girls have the same access to education as boys yields significant economic, social, and environmental benefits.   It is important that NGOs develop stronger partnerships and coalitions to strengthen their voices and impacts, working at various geographic scales from the local to the global.  

 Advancing the SDGs is both cultural and political. It involves changing how we think and act in our daily habits, as well as our annual budgets.  New research gives us additional insights into how we can successfully encourage NGO organizations, the public we serve, and governments to shift habits at a faster pace.    One tool to look at is nudges.  

 As UNEP advises, nudges begin with a simple premise: “make the more sustainable behaviour the default option.”  For example, cafeterias can make vegetarian lunches a default choice.   Careful food choices can make a vegetarian meal, “aspirational, delicious and filing.”  A “spicy chickpea curry” could be a new lunch menu hit.  With that simple act cafeterias can improve health outcomes (SDG 3), reduce carbon emissions (SDG 13), and improve life below water (SDG 14) and on land (SDG 15).   Four SDG benefits from one simple nudge.   

 In 2020 the UN Environment Programme published “The Little Book of Green Nudges: 40 Nudges to spark sustainable Behavior on Campus.”  While the book examines sustainability strategies for colleges, the example above hopefully demonstrates that NGOs will find much to admire and emulate in this short handbook for creative strategies to advance the UN SDGs.  Food is in fact one of the most effective ways to help communities and nations to adopt sustainability practices incrementally and with only modest expenditures of government resources.  It is the rare restaurant today that promotes vegetarian options.  Over the next decade NGOs can flip the prevailing food menu culture.  Working with restaurants, food associations, and governments NGOs can campaign for new and “aspirational” vegetarian options as a new restaurant norm.

 Nudges is based upon behavioral science and the National Bureau of Economic Research came out with a report this year concluding that nudges on average produced an 8.1% improvement over baseline results. UNEP teamed up with scientists at the Behavioral Insights Team for its Nudges report.  The reports 40 nudges have been sifted through that lens of behavioral science.

 The UNEP report encourages nudges that are Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely (EAST).  While the carbon crisis will require massive changes in energy infrastructure, energy efficiency practices remain among the most cost-effective climate-friendly strategies.  The UNEP report provides a variety of efficiency nudges such as setting electronic appliances to their eco, low-energy, settings and simple shifts to campus life to promote bicycling.  Smart meters that make it easier to see electric energy consumption are another great, data-proven, strategy for reducing energy consumption.

 Nudges are a complementary strategy to large billion-dollar projects that nations must advance to achieve the SDGs.  Nudges are science-based and cost-effective strategies that give communities and NGOs tangible connections to the SDGs and their 168 targets.  You can search online and on Facebook for additional resources. For example, 3,000 people have joined a Nudging Sweden Facebook page.  Other regions of the world should follow their lead!