Global Pressing Problems and the Sustainable Development Goals

Claudia Neubauer, Matthieu Calame

This article attempts to critically discuss how HEIs can firmly engage in producing and sharing relevant knowledge, proposing and debating solutions, scrutinizing mechanisms and supporting awareness and preparing students for the challenges that lie ahead.


More than ever before humanity is being torn between the gravity of self-created problems and the inability to overcome them. Billions of people live in degrading conditions, we are depleting and polluting our natural resources, and undermining our ability to maintain human life on earth. Since the Club of Rome published its first report in 1971, many more scientific analyses have been conducted on this subject and numerous solutions have been proposed that are either not applied or, if applied, are too often not appropriate. Unfortunately, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not the exception to the rule. Even if they propose a good understanding of worldwide problems and emphasize that we must urgently change our trajectory, a failure to address the root of the problem is weakening the whole process and threatening its relevance. Closing this gap could be considered as a major issue for numerous local and global actors including Higher Education Institutions (HEI), which should use the SDGs to continue to improve the human condition. The problems the SDGs focus on (and those they do not focus on) are at the heart of society and will need co-constructed responses. This paper attempts to critically discuss how HEIs can firmly engage in producing and sharing relevant knowledge, proposing and debating solutions, scrutinizing mechanisms and supporting awareness, delivering critical analyses, sensitizing and preparing students for the challenges that lie ahead, and supporting systemic change, which are all activities that higher education can and should seriously engage in. 

SDGs: a brief reminder of the context and objectives

In September 2015, in the framework of the ‘Post 2015 development agenda’, the UN adopted 17 goals broken down into 169 targets, designed to guide policy towards a sustainable development agenda that includes social, economic and ecological dimensions. This universal framework is intended to accompany governments, civil society and transnational structures in a common effort up to 2030. Although the SDGs still target developing countries in their main actions, as did the Millennium Development Goals, they also address rich industrialized nations in order to transform their social, ecological and economical order towards greater economic and social justice within and among countries and more sustainable production and consumption patterns. “We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations... We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature” (United Nations, 2015: 2).

Social aspects form the backbone of the document, and are present in numerous goals. They encompass ending extreme poverty and hunger, reducing social inequality within and among countries, ensuring healthy lives, reliable energy and water supplies, ensuring education for all, achieving gender equality, and providing access to justice. A few goals address the ecological dimension by conserving the oceans and marine resources, protecting terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity and combating climate change. Finally, the text emphasizes economic growth and full employment and proposes further innovation.

From the limitations of the SDGs to meaningful action

The SDGs suffer from at least three main weaknesses. Firstly, even if guided by the United Nations Charter and other international declarations, they are not a mandatory treaty. Secondly, they are inconsistent among themselves, since some goals on economic issues contradict others in the social or environmental domains. Thirdly, they do not address the root causes of the present imbalances. This is no surprise, however, as listing problems and goals is much easier than building a consensus on the causes and the actions required to resolve them. The latter would generate profoundly contradicting approaches, interests and world visions. Between smooth rhetoric while doing business as usual with a bit of “greening” and the call for a radical upheaval in our economic, legal and social system lie deep political divergences. Nevertheless, the SDGs present a globally agreed agenda on change and list the major challenges of our century in an exhaustive and unique manner. They could, like other initiatives, act as a catalyst for people and politics to pursue a better economic and social model.

The issue of sustainability is not new to HEIs. Many universities already have a range of declarations and charters, as well as numerous sustainability departments, programmes and initiatives, and in recent years have started to integrate sustainability criteria into campus life. The International Sustainable Campus Network (ISCN) provides a global forum for colleges and universities to holistically integrate sustainability into campus operations, research and teaching1

The special responsibility of higher education institutions lies in the fact that they are preparing future generations of scientists, managers, politicians, philosophers and artists who we will rely on to build a more socially just world that does not destroy its ecological livelihood. Sustainability in higher education integrates a holistic approach based on humanistic values that is pluralistic, transdisciplinary, emancipatory and sensitive to the great challenges of our time, and proposes a multi-perspective approach to ecological, economical and social dimensions. Several assessment tools exist to evaluate the implementation of sustainability in higher education institutions2. However, in many HEIs sustainability in the curricula and in research programmes is far from being as prioritized as one might wish. The SDGs should be used as a unique opportunity to reinforce and intensify sustainability dynamics in HEIs worldwide.

By doing so, the process will also challenge the positioning of HEIs: will they continue to supply economic competitiveness and growth (and be part of the problem), or will they build a new identity of modern HEIs, more in tune with people and their problems and acknowledge their responsibility as political and educational actors? The stakes are high, as the underlying assumptions and statements of the SDGs (and of current public policies in general), such as for instance the almost immoveable faith in scientific progress, technological innovation and growth, have to be questioned. HEIs should push the analyses proposed by the SDGs radically further. Analysing, revealing, and communicating the root causes of the problems and proposing tools to overcome them will help develop relevant, just and feasible solutions.

Below, we briefly reflect on a few issues relevant to HEI actions. 

On the case of eradicating poverty. In Goal 1 the SDGs seek “By 2030, to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day” (United Nations, 2015: 15). $1.25 is a very low amount to cover basic needs, even in poor countries. In October 2015, a few days after the vote on the SDGs, the World Bank updated the international poverty line to US $1.90 a day by underlining that “As differences in the cost of living across the world evolve, the global poverty line has to be periodically updated to reflect these changes. [...] the real value of $1.90 in today’s prices is the same as $1.25 was in 2005” (World Bank, 2015). This made the SDG threshold of $1.25 obsolete before the official start of the SDGs in January 2016. And how much will this amount count for in 15 years?

The SDGs also aim to ensure “that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including micro-finance” (United Nations, 2015: 15). Presently, the 85 richest people in the world are as wealthy as the poorest half of the world, and the richest 10% of people3 produce half of the Earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%4. The basic barrier to effective action here is the SDGs not stating that the current economic system is unable to fight poverty and hunger since it inherently produces them. At the end of the day, there is no trickle down. Over-accumulation of wealth on the one side creates poverty on the other side, and is broadly accountable for environmental degradation. The suggested “income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population” (United Nations, 2015: 21) is impossible to achieve within the proposed framework since “there is a distinct lack of focus on consumerism and inter-generational responsibility in all the targets. In addition, the goals, targets and indicators concentrate more on raising the bottom, in terms of income levels, rather than managing the top, where the problems of high consumption at the cost to biocapacity are rife” (Karin and Gunawardena, 2015). Poverty is not only the absence of money, it is a general living condition that affects all parts of daily life. This may include hunger and malnutrition, diminished or poor physical health due to hunger and malnutrition but also due to limited access to health services or bad working and housing conditions, mental health and behavioural problems notably due to daily (survival) stress, exclusion and isolation, unrewarding and stressful work and loss of confidence in one’s own capacities, less access to education and high rates of school drop-outs, less access to culture, and less participation in social life in general (civic and democratic rights), etc.

Taking the case of health as an example, countless issues exist today. “The inverse association between socio-economic level and risk of disease is one of the most pervasive and enduring observations in public health” (Murali and Oyebode, 2004). What should a just health system look like? How can a balance be achieved between psychological, physical and social wellbeing? To what extent do the social and physical environments influence health? What progress is being made in hospitals? Where do solidarity and compassion fit into health systems? Scientists, doctors, clinical and technical staff, public authorities and non-profit associations all work to answer these questions, albeit with different approaches and not always on the basis of a shared understanding. At this juncture, in addition to the classic collaboration methods, participatory health research could also be another relevant approach. “For participatory health research, the primary underlying assumption is that participation on the part of those whose lives or work is the subject of the study fundamentally affects all aspects of the research. The engagement of these people in the study is an end in itself and is the hallmark of participatory health research, recognizing the value of each person’s contribution to the co-creation of knowledge in a process that is not only practical, but also collaborative and empowering” (ICPHR, 2013). The goal of the International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research (ICPHR) is to “establish participatory health research as an integrated part of local, regional and national strategies to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities by addressing issues of health inequality” (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the potential of this approach is currently greatly underestimated and remains underused, despite the existence of some initiatives and projects. In general, participation as an important component is now increasingly being recognized in the healthcare sector. Participation in health research or training, however, is still weak. The promotion of strong partnerships between communities and disadvantaged populations, higher education and other scientific institutions and policymakers would contribute to promoting health equity and social justice5 It would also allow more attention to be paid to the relationship between different public policy sectors in regard to their effects on health and health inequalities.

On the case of energy, technology and innovation

Our societies are highly dependent on technological devices of all kinds and on an unsustainably high level of energy consumption. The SDGs’ demand in Goal 7 is to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”; in Goal 8 to “Achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation, including through a focus on high-value-added and labour-intensive sectors”; and in Goal 9 to “Enhance scientific research, upgrade the technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries, in particular developing countries, including, by 2030, encouraging innovation and substantially increasing the number of research and development workers per 1 million people and public and private research and development spending” (United Nations, 2015: 19-20). Many economists, industrial players and policymakers claim that technical innovation will decouple growth from the use of raw materials and allow us to bypass planetary boundaries. The final masterstroke of this discourse is the decoupling of growth from energy use, based on the illusion of full-steam-ahead techno-scientific progress and of new energy sources substituting exhausted ones. However, energy sources are almost never really substituted but rather subjoined, and even if new ones might improve efficiency, this gain is often cancelled out by higher consumption (rebound effect). Of the 3% average increase in GDP per capita during the post-war boom, about 2% came from the increase in oil, coal and gas consumption, and only 1% from technical progress (Caminel et al., 2015). Thus, in view of the past and the present, energy remains the key element, and energy saving (especially in highly industrialized countries) and renewable energies are the main ways to respond to climate change and the natural limits of non-renewable energy sources. Just to mention one out of many examples, Volteface is a joint research initiative of the University of Lausanne and the leading Swiss electricity provider Romande Energie working on the social aspects of an energy system based on renewable resources and energy saving6.

But the dominant technofix rationale still presents research and innovation as if they were homogeneous blocks, unquestionable in their direction and meaning. What research does society need? Which fields should be prioritized? What kind of innovation, for whom, and with whom?

What kind of research, for instance, will be prioritized in Goal 2 on food security and agriculture? Research for small-scale family farmers (who still provide most of our worldwide food production) or research for large companies, securing important market share for them? How much of the already existing knowledge, be it scientific, professional, empirical or traditional will be called on to solve problems? Do ‘environmentally sound technologies’ mean GMOs or local farming techniques? All over the globe, academics from HEIs are working with groups of concerned people, such as farmers and their organizations and civil society organizations, to build locally adapted solutions that provide a decent life for farmers and their families by simultaneously protecting the environment from pollution, using locally available renewable resources and delivering high value, tasty nutrition. The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, for instance, is promoting “transdisciplinary research on the understanding and development of resilient food and water systems throughout the world.” The Centre incorporates citizen-generated knowledge through the “participation of farmers, water users and other citizens in transdisciplinary research, using holistic approaches which cross many disciplinary boundaries”7Action research (or participatory research or community built research), by blending academic knowledge with local, traditional and professional knowledge, is a powerful tool for finding practical and practicable solutions. But as a (no longer new) paradigm, action research is still struggling to conquer university teaching and laboratories, although it can furnish relevant approaches, methods and results in SDG core issues such as agriculture, environment, health, urban and rural development, transportation, energy and social issues. Research open to society will also contribute to breaking down barriers between academic disciplines, thus allowing for greater interdisciplinarity.

Rethinking economic progress in the light of social and environmental needs

Schumacher argued back in 1973 in Small is beautiful – a study of economics as if people mattered that the modern economy is unsustainable. He proposed a philosophical approach that appreciates both human needs and an appropriate use of technology by accepting natural limitations (since we depend on nature but nature does not depend on us) (Schumacher, 1973). Economic growth, measured through the omnipresent and increasingly criticized indicator of GDP, is mainly an economic dogma of the late twentieth century that shaped the construction of society after World War II. It was about rebuilding the economy and providing welfare for people. However, the idea became not only sclerotic, but even dangerous and counter-productive to providing a decent life for each human being. A growing number of economists, ecologists, civil society organizations and local initiatives are criticizing the unlimited growth ideology of the GDP, and are delivering evidence that due to limited natural resources and the limited capacity of natural systems to recover, it will simply be impossible to realize growth over the long term (Gadrey, 2011). Regrettably the SDGs remain on the surface of the problem and are inextricably linked to the economic growth dogma. Scattered across different sections, the claims of the text can be summarized by “We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth...” (United Nations, 2015: 4). However, we will not be able to reduce poverty and inequality without transforming current power relationships between different societal and economic actors and between states. We cannot save nature and people without stepping out of the growth dogma. As Jason Hickel, a US anthropologist, puts it “All of this reflects an emerging awareness of the fact that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that the mandatory pursuit of endless industrial growth is chewing through our living planet, producing poverty at a rapid rate, and threatening the basis of our existence. Yet despite this growing realization, the core of the SDG program for development and poverty reduction relies precisely on the old model of industrial growth – ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption. […] Given the existing ratio between GDP growth and the income growth of the poorest, it will take 207 years to eliminate poverty with this strategy, and to get there, we will have to grow the global economy by 175 times its present size. This is terrifying to contemplate” (Hickel, 2015).In this context, it is also interesting to recall Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si from June 2015. “The lessons of the global financial crisis have not been assimilated, and we are learning all too slowly the lessons of environmental deterioration. Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth... Yet by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion..., we are all too slow in developing economic institutions and social initiatives which can give the poor regular access to basic resources. We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth”8.

Economic sciences occupy a special position here. The current crises owe a lot to an aging dominant economic thought, rooted in three erroneous convictions. The first is to believe that the economy can run independently of the social and environmental fact and can be approached as a science obeying immutable ‘natural laws’ outside the social and environmental conditions it is applied in (forgetting or denying that there is a structure-function relationship; that is to say, that the organization modes of a society induce their operation). The second is to believe in the superiority of economics above all other social sciences and humanities in the political field. The third is to believe in the capacity of the ‘free market’ to regulate its fluxes and to optimize the allocation of natural, financial and human resources and profits. Hence the inability of economics to resolve current crises and, even worse, to avoid them. It is thus urgent to re-inscribe economic thinking in its global, social and ecological context.

HEIs can intervene here on numerous levels: training students by opening up economic curricula to the teaching and critical analysis of diverse and antagonistic economic approaches, while giving more room to alternative theories, and by educating students in a human-oriented rather than a profit-oriented economy; promoting in all disciplines an understanding of the interdependence between the social, the environmental and the economic; producing theoretical and practical tools for actors initiating social, technical and economic changes, often at a local level but increasingly also on a regional and national level; developing a macro-economic theory for a highly sustainable society and a social and ecological state; helping to progress from good practice to good policy (scaling up) by legitimizing good practices and developing political processes to adopt them.

Together, dynamics of bottom-up changes due to multiple local initiatives that come out of their niches, and dynamics of a profoundly reshaped socio-economic thinking should contribute to developing a common project of systemic change.

On indicators

“The success or failure of the Sustainable Development Goals will depend, to a great extent, on effective monitoring. Well crafted indicators and high quality data will give governments, businesses, academia and civil society the information they need to target resources, policies, and programmes” (Villiers, 2015). Indicators are critical for collective decision making, since beyond their technical aspect they can serve as tools for guiding and managing public action. They apply both upstream, to legitimate policy objectives as part of the exercise to track evolution, and downstream to assess outcomes. More broadly, they are part of the argumentation of all stakeholders to justify and explain their analyses, advocacy and action.

Over the last twenty years, through observation of the state of the world population, the debate on (new) indicators of wealth has been vitalized and gradually institutionalized. Notable contributions to this debate were made by both UNDP annual reports and the Millennium Development Goals, the mobilization of numerous NGOs and social movements and the work of researchers and scientific committees. Since the 2008 financial crisis, wealth indicators have gained even greater visibility and importance in policy and budget debates. Scientists, alarmed by growing inequality in the richest countries, point out that this is jeopardizing the proper functioning of the economy which, if the gap widens any more and over a longer period, may lead to collapse of countries.

The central question about indicators remains: What are we measuring and how? Unfortunately, the cognitive reference system of institutions (European, international, national) remains focused on economic and financial indicators, above all the GDP, despite other indicators having emerged and having found a certain place in the overall debate. The Gini Index and the Human Development Index (HDI) have shown that a high GDP does not automatically mean fair distribution of wealth and welfare. The ‘Better Life’ indicator, which was created by the OECD in 2003 as an interactive tool to measure wellbeing, compares countries based on the importance given to different criteria of wellbeing. This was a pioneering initiative in the dynamics of institutionalizing alternative indicators. But setting up meaningful indicators needs a shared vision of what social and environmental wellbeing actually is. Different countries today use different sets of indicators varying from one policy area to another, thus complicating any comparison. Furthermore, the process of setting up indicators is almost as important as the indicators themselves. Closed expert discussions or open democratic debates with citizens will not produce the same result, neither in terms of indicators nor in terms of shared societal visions.

Conclusion: Transforming society at large

The growth of the consumer society is historically a very young phenomenon, having emerged just a few generations ago. Today, facing its numerous cataclysmic consequences, we must collectively overcome the ideological lock-in in “the secular religion of the advancing industrial societies” (Bell, 1972). At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 it was agreed that we cannot continue with ‘business as usual’. However, we are doing exactly that. For decades, NGOs, grass-roots and social movements, scientists and policymakers have produced a wealth of knowledge on what should be changed and how. But these changes are not being made. We even know where this inability to apply all this knowledge for change comes from. The organizational forms of society we have built up over centuries are not easy to change; those in positions of power are unwilling to relinquish their authority, the bulk of the world population are (for different reasons) too busy with their own lives to engage for common purposes and for the community, and our primary impetus of empathy, solidarity and cooperation is quickly coated by suspicion, selfishness and opportunism. The SDGs once again reflect this tragedy of human beings that questions our civilizing capacity.

Nevertheless, mobilizing all our forces, including higher education institutions, could help us to overcome a situation that we should not take as a fait accompli. Moreover, instead of viewing the transition to a more just and safe world as a constraint, we can seize it as an opportunity that should bring benefits to all men and women, even if it requires the richest, who make up an important part of the populations of industrialized nations, to renounce certain degrees of consumption and comfort. Politics would need to return to its primary mission: guaranteeing justice and peace while guiding social and economic action, geared towards universally applicable decisions and control mechanisms and regulating the peaceful coexistence of people. “Their inability to fight the growing social divide combined with their overuse of resources therefore shows that today’s high-income countries in their current shape can no longer serve as role models for the developing world. In terms of sustainable development, all countries are now developing countries. Thus, a new – more inclusive as well as sustainable – social and economic model must be strived for in the future” (Kroll, 2015). SDGs are the opportunity for HEIs to do more for humanity, and for themselves. HEIs should firmly commit themselves to helping to achieve the SDGs in their immediate environments and open up their territory on national and global levels. Numerous research units, consortia, scientific networks and HEIs from all over the world were pursuing research and educating students on SDG objectives long before these even existed. The question for HEIs is not so much whether they have expertise or not, but rather whether this expertise and its further development will be prioritized enough. Will university directorates inscribe the SDGs at the highest level and give them enough space in the orientation of their educational and scientific programmes? Universities should support a shared understanding with their students of the great challenges of the 21st century through transversal, pluralistic, inter- and trans-disciplinary teaching. The SDGs also provide an opportunity to reinvent and build on the humanist and emancipatory tradition of universities, to emphasize the value and agency of human beings, to prefer critical thinking over acceptance of outdated dogmas, and to promote research and education as political issues (in the best sense of the word), thereby contributing to building a fair worldwide community of emancipated citizens.


2 Assessing Sustainability and Social Responsibility in Higher Education Assessment Frameworks Explained. Pieternel Boer.
3 Remember the poor: “If you have sufficient food, decent clothes, live in a house or apartment, and have a reasonably reliable means of transportation, you are among the top 15% of the world’s wealthy.”
4, January 2014.
5 See for instance the experiences of the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH),
8 Encyclical Laudato Si, from the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home, June 2015, p. 81



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  • International Collaboration for Participatory Health Research (ICPHR) (2013) What is Participatory Health Research? Position paper 1. Berlin. May. Berlin
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  • Karin, F. and Gunawardena, P. (2015) Growth within natural limits - The debates, propositions and possibilities. Southern Voice Occasional Paper 27, February
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  • World Bank (2015) FAQs: Global Poverty Line Update, September 30: poverty/brief/global-poverty-line-faq


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

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  • Generalitat de Catalunya