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Achieving the SDGs, it is Everyone’s Business

A Universal Approach: Why the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Must Not be Done in Isolation

In 2013, a distinguished panel of prime ministers, leaders from civil society, private sector and government from across the globe provided a landmark report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Supported by the United Nations, the Report of the High Level Panel assessed the progress that had been achieved on reducing global poverty after the first 13 years of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and concluded that some significant milestones had been achieved:

 “…since the millennium (we) have seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history: here are half a billion fewer people living below an international poverty line of US $1.25 a day. Child death rates have fallen by more than 30%, with about three million children’s lives saved each year compared to 2000. Deaths from malaria have fallen by one quarter. This unprecedented progress had been driven by a combination of economic growth, better policies, and the global commitment to the MDGs, which set out an inspirational rallying cry for the whole world.”

Despite the amazing successes of the MDGs, the first set of international development goals that came into effect in 2000, were generally perceived to be largely the concern of governments, official development agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

When global leaders met to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, they recognised that governments and the ‘international aid system’ alone would not be able to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. They recognised that the development agenda needed to be universal and not just targeted for achievement by poorer countries.

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In the Photo:  New York, 18 July 2016 – HLPF, Reception at the General Assembly lobby at UN headquarters at the opening of the SDG exhibit. Photo Credit: UNDP/Freya Morales

A significant ‘transformative shift’ needed to underpin the Global Goals and this required the construction of a new set of partnerships involving governments (national and local) working with the business community, academia, private philanthropy, as well as people living in poverty, civil society and traditionally marginalised groups. Multilateral organisations and others were also challenged to lead the way to remove the barriers that hold people back and end inequality of opportunity that blights the lives of many people at local, national and international levels.

As we reach the second anniversary since the launch of the SDGs, how are these new partnerships being forged and how is progress being achieved?

This essay argues action needs to be taken on two main fronts:

  1. Governments, organisations and institutions worldwide need to make consistent and concerted efforts to integrate the SDGs in their plans and operations. It looks at what has been achieved so far.
  2. Leading businesses need to embrace the SDGs globally. Many global businesses are already doing this, we analyse some of the leading initiatives and look at how businesses and communities in Papua New Guinea, which achieved none of the MDGs, are working together to achieve the SDGs. 

Governments starting to integrate SDGs into policies and plans

Increased media and social media attention to the SDGs has been accompanied by an increase in the number of global and national networks that have been established to promote better information sharing and contribute to improved policy and practice to achieve the SDGs.

One such network is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) which mobilizes the world’s leading scientists and technical experts to tackle key challenges of sustainable development. It includes some interesting examples of how different countries are integrating the SDGs in their national plans.


Related Article: “A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SDGs


The SDSN notes that the SDGs framework calls for 15-year strategies that provide national roadmaps for coordinating multi-disciplinary and diverse groups of stakeholders and activities for collective action. SDSN notes that the SDGs require implementation over several decades. For example, SDG 13 on climate change requires the development of deep decarbonization pathways to 2050. It is worth noting that in approaching these change processes, it is vital to ‘lock in progress’ because ‘progress’ is not inevitable and can easily slip-back as external factors reverse change processes.

SDSN identifies one of the emerging best practices in ‘long-term planning’ which they call ‘backcasting’. This works by “generating a desirable future, and then looking backwards from that future to the present”, to strategize and plan how the desired change can be achieved. SDSN notes that, backcasting provides a ‘problem-solving framework’ that envisions how development in a country or region should progress, with intermediate actions based on long-term quantitative targets.

As part of its follow-up and review mechanism, the 2030 Agenda also encourages UN member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, that are country-led and country-driven”. These national reviews are expected to serve as a basis for the regular updates to the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), meetings under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

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In the Photo: High Level Thematic Debate on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) on 21 April 2016 in New York – UN HQ. Photo Credit: UNDP/Freya Morales

The reviews by the HLPF are voluntary, state-led, undertaken by both developed and developing countries. The voluntary national reviews aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with the aim of accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The reviews also seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilise multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs.

Recognising that the SDGs are interdependent and apply equally to industrialised nations as well as ‘developing countries’, the VNRs should provide interesting lessons on how in different country contexts, similar challenges are being addressed and some of the lessons that can be shared from these experiences. To date, 44 countries have agreed to undertake the VNR process and it will be interesting to see how different governments are starting to integrate the SDGs in their policies and plans as well as identifying critical challenges that they face.

In some countries, Parliamentarians have also shown their interest and have begun to challenge governments and key institutions to improve practices. See for example the summary of the UK’s House of Lord’s discussion earlier this year which emphasised the need for a ‘whole of government’ approach to prioritise implementation of the SDGs. The debate in the UK Parliament highlights the fact that more needs to be done by governments (national and local) to prioritise the SDGs and that SDGs have yet to fully enter the lexicon of diplomacy or public policy makers and planners. It is clear from these and other initiatives that while many governments are starting to integrate the SDGs into their policies and plans, the global picture remains variable.

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In the Photo: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pose for a group photo together with the seventeen volunteer staffs of the Vienna-based organisations to help promote the Sustainable Development Goals held at the Vienna International Centre on 27 April 2016.Photo Credit: IAEA/Dean Calma

Civil Society and local communities contributing to the SDGs

Across the world, civil society organisations (CSOs) made significant and valuable contributions to the achievement of the MDGs. CIVICUS (The World Alliance for Citizens Participation) which works in 170 countries worldwide has noted that the possibilities for non-governmental groups to meaningfully engage on the SDGs are limited in part by ‘inter-governmental bodies stuck in old ways of doing things’.

One significant contribution from the CIVICUS network is through their DataShift platform which works across regions with multiple stakeholders to contextualise the Global Goals by improving the credibility and coverage of ‘citizen-generated data’ from multiple sources to monitor implementation and progress on SDGs. DataShift aims to assist in creating replicable models, facilitating engagement and sharing learning. It is especially focused on promoting collaboration at the sub-national level in its pilot countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal and Argentina).

CIVICUS, Oxfam and other civil society groups have also noted that the shrinking space for civil societies and other non-governmental development actors to operate in is a major limiting factor for many CSOs working towards the implementation of the SDGs. This should be seen as a worrying trend worldwide and one that governments, as well as international organisations, should do more to highlight and counter.

Big Businesses taking the lead with SDGs

One of the major changes over the past few years has been how businesses worldwide are starting to embrace the SDGs. A brief trawl of different business platforms and networks provides a range of illustrative examples.

The UN Global Compact describes itself as the World’s largest corporate sustainability initiative with 12,000 signatories and operating in 170 countries. Global Compact was established prior to the SDGs but now has two main objectives:

As a voluntary initiative, the Global Compact, which initially sought to maximise the value of ‘corporate social responsibility’, seeks participation from a diverse group of businesses. As a participant in the Compact, a company must agree to:

  • set in motion changes to business operations so that the UN Global Compact and its principles become part of strategy, culture and day-to-day operations.
  • publicly advocate the UN Global Compact and its principles and communicate with their stakeholders on an annual basis about progress in: a. implementing the ten principles and b. efforts to support societal priorities.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, based in Switzerland it plays a key role in publicising discussions at its Annual Meetings in Davos. WEF seeks to engage the leading political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

It strives to demonstrate entrepreneurship in the global public interest while upholding the highest standards of governance and is showing leadership and embracing the SDGs. The WEF website highlights how businesses worldwide are recognising that the concept of sustainability is ‘no longer just a nice to do, but a must do’ and includes summaries from businesses operating in different markets, sectors and locations and the ways. A quick search on the website reveals more than 900 articles on business and the SDGs from different parts of the world.

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In the photo: DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 21 JANUARY 2016 – Paul Polman, Chief Executive Officer, Unilever, United Kingdom gestures during the session ‘The New Climate and Development Imperative’ at the Annual Meeting 2016 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. PHOTO CREDIT: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Valeriano Di Domenico

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is another high-powered business group whose focus is to “accelerate the transition to a sustainable world”Its members represent 200 leading companies and a combined revenue of more than US$8.5 trillion with 19 million employees. The network of almost 70 national business councils describes itself as “uniquely positioned to work with member companies along and across value chains to deliver high-impact business solutions to the most challenging sustainability issues”. The WBCSD is heavily engaged in the implementation of the SDGs, including developing many practical resources, such as the CEO Guide to the SDGs.

The Inclusive Business Action Network (IBAN) is a global multi-stakeholder network, funded by the German Government and the European Union, that seeks to unlock the power of inclusive business for sustainable development. It and acts as a gateway and facilitator for the global inclusive business community and aims to support the SDGs and promote inclusive business globally.
It engages different stakeholders by:

  • Developing and sharing information on inclusive business including studies, guidelines, checklists and market research.
  • Offering peer-learning opportunities on relevant sectors and topics and promoting networking and partnerships with organizations and between inclusive businesses.
  • Facilitating dialogue with policymakers and other stakeholders on a national and international level to create and strengthen frameworks conducive to inclusive business.

It is possible to conclude that through the Global Compact, WBCSD and IBAN, it is primarily larger transnational, better endowed and largely ‘industrialised country headquartered’ corporates that have shown a strong interest in the SDGs and Agenda 2030. It is also the case that many of these same companies participate in all three of the above networks.


Recommended Reading: “THE SDG STORY: AN INSIDER ACCOUNT OF HOW IT ALL CAME ABOUT


While it is probably correct to generalise that most small, medium and perhaps larger national businesses worldwide are continuing to get on with ‘business as usual’, a 2016 report by Accenture  Corporate Disruptors: Turning Challenges into Opportunities and the work of the Philippines Business for Social Development demonstrates, shows this is certainly not the case everywhere.

Bringing small and medium businesses into the fold

The Philippines Business for Social Progress (PBSP) was formed in 1970 by 50 business leaders and has since grown to include 263 small, medium and large businesses amongst its members. It is a shining example of what can be achieved when businesses at a local, regional and national level work together to drive change.

The PBSP has improved the lives of more than 4.5m Filipinos and supported over 6,200 social development projects since its formation. In its 2016 Annual Report Road to 50: Scaling Up Solutions Together, PBSP’s Chairman states:

“We have adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to uplift the lives of many poor Filipinos. It provides us with standards and measurements that are universally accepted and locally adopted.”

PBSP like some other national business networks has embraced the SDGs and is supporting practical projects to improve health, education, environment, livelihoods, development finance and institutional support in many poor and vulnerable communities. Other national Business Councils and local Chambers of Commerce, such as in Papua New Guinea and in East Timor, are now in the process of making similar commitments. Two sets of reasons help to explain why more businesses worldwide are showing such interest in the SDGs.

Why adopting SDGs is now an imperative for business

“The Sustainable Development Goals are the fundamental cornerstone to secure future economic and business growth…It is not possible to have a strong, functioning business in a world of increasing inequality, poverty and climate change” Paul Polman, Unilever CEO & Commissioner in the Business and Sustainable Development Commission

 The first is the growing recognition that for businesses to thrive over the next decade, it is vital to invest in inclusive business models. By reaching out to the 1 billion people that are currently living below the global poverty line ($1.95 pp/pd), it is possible to substantially increase and broaden the customer base for businesses worldwide. By ‘building the base of the pyramid’ it could potentially boost the global economy and simultaneously contribute to one of the core principles underlying the SDGs – the idea of ‘leaving no-one behind’.

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IN THE PHOTO: A teacher and her students holding chalkboards and small earth globes. PHOTO CREDIT: UNDP Picture This/Supriya Biswas, 2010

To achieve this, businesses and international development agencies could partner to reach more people at the base of the pyramid through ‘blended finance’ (blending loans and grant financing). This is already starting to take shape in many parts of the world. See for example, Blended Finance is the Answer to Sustainable Development and IFC Blended Finance.

The Better Business, Better World Report (2017) prepared by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission estimates that by pursuing sustainable and inclusive business models it could potentially unlock economic opportunities worth at least US $12 trillion a year by 2030. Across four areas: Energy (US $4.3 trillion); Cities (US $3.7 trillion); Food & Agriculture (US $2.3 trillion); and Health & Well-being (US $1.8 trillion). This could generate up to 380 million jobs, mostly in developing countries.

The report also estimates that by achieving one Goal alone, Gender Equality, it could add US $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025. By 2030 some estimates suggest that there may be an extra 3 billion people who will be classified as ‘middle-class’ living mostly in cities. This would significantly strengthen growth worldwide.

With new technology, there are now additional possibilities for increasing people’s productivity. Accenture’s Corporate Disruptors Report estimates that by 2030 Information and Communications Technology (ICT) will connect 2.5 billion extra people to the ‘knowledge economy’. This will enable 1.6 billion additional people to access healthcare and almost 500m new customers to access e-learning tools. The potential productivity gains from these changes are huge.

The pressures for more sustainable production and consumption patterns worldwide provide further incentive for businesses to engage with the SDGs.

21218724283_5bc86ec04f_oIn the Photo: Children in traditional dress raised a flag to represent Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, in Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya, to support the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Photo Credit: James Ochwe

If the world continues current unsustainable production and consumption patterns, by the year 2030 and with another up to 3 billion more middle-class people, we will be confronted with more acute social and environmental challenges. There are many examples of national and multinational companies already making stronger public commitments to green production and procurement. See for example Ocean Basket, South Africa, who have committed to procure all seafood from aquaculture operations by 2020; the decision by Nigerian Breweries to source their raw materials locally as a way of improving livelihood opportunities for local communities and contributing to national food security; Ikea’s people and planet positive’ model; and Lego’s 100 percent renewable strategy.

Leading businesses are looking for new opportunities for more efficient ways of producing goods and services – reducing the use of raw materials such as water, sourcing materials locally to reduce transport costs, reducing waste and packaging, reusing and recycling materials and reducing energy costs and their carbon footprint. One small example of this is the way in which leading companies worldwide have started using LED lighting – equating to an 85 percent saving on electricity use.

With 500 multinational corporations controlling 70 percent of global trade in the 15 most traded commodities, it is possible to see how even small shifts to more sustainable production and procurement amongst this elite group of companies would have significant and profound implications for sustainable development (SDG 12) worldwide. Read more here.

Just as leading producers are changing, so too are consumers. But the challenges for sustainable consumption are more complex and difficult because of the large volume of consumers (7 billion people).

The rise of eco labels, fair and ethical trade, certification schemes, improved information for consumers, and the increase in demand for products and services that are produced ethically and sustainably and the growing ‘buy local’ movement in many countries demonstrates how consumption patterns are changing and in some cases influencing producers. Take for example Volvo’s recent announcement that all cars produced from 2019 will use integrated battery-powered engines.

These changes suggest that over the next decade the metrics for corporate sustainability reporting will change substantially and may be more closely aligned to the contribution that businesses make to the achievement of the SDGs. These changes in production and consumption patterns are also reflected in wider changes in the way that ‘development progress’ is beginning to be measured. See for example Environmental Consultant Pavan Sukhdev’s TED talk on assessing the value of the earth’s assets and the new Social Progress Index launched as part of the Social Progress Imperative.

A case study: Partnering with businesses to advance the SDGs in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the few countries in the world that did not achieve any of the MDGs.

PNG ranks 154 out of 188 countries in the Global Human Development Index (2016), on equal footing with Zimbabwe. With difficult terrain and topography, PNG has poor infrastructure and connectivity. Most of the country’s 8 million population live in remote areas and depend on subsistence farming and fishing for their livelihoods. The quality of government provided services remains variable.

The country’s development challenges include:

  • Fifty percent of the population is under the age of 24.
  • Almost 36 percent of the country’s population continue to live below the national poverty line.
  • 83 percent of the population do not have access to stable power supplies via the electricity grid.
  • 60 percent do not have access to clean water and sanitation.
  • approximately 35-40 percent of the population (male and female) lack literacy; there are high levels of Under-5 mortality, maternal mortality and stunting and wasting amongst children.

After independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea’s economy did benefit from the extractive industries, supplying the world with gold, silver, copper, nickel, cobalt, oil, liquefied natural gas and timber. But following more than a decade of strong economic growth, in 2016, PNG experienced a notable slowdown because of the fall in global commodity prices.

This impacted government revenues and the provision of health, education, infrastructure and other services. It highlighted the need for the country to broaden its economic base and increase partnerships to support improved service delivery.

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In the Photo: Women in Bougainville participate in the peace building process. Priscilla Bisiro is President of the Kieta branch of the Bougainville Women’s Federation. PHOTO CREDIT: UNDP (PNG) / Nick Turner

Since 2013, the UN in PNG has made significant efforts to raise public awareness of the MDGs and SDGs. UN agencies have continued to work closely with government both at national and provincial levels but have also sought to use creative ways of engaging the public including: through use of radio, TV and media outlets; school visits; organised debates; public information sharing on internationally recognised days; partnering with the PNG Olympic Committee; appointing Youth and Sports Ambassadors; working with Parliamentarians; engagement with universities and faith groups; and using SMS alerts to inform people about the SDGs. For more information, see UNDP’s PNG website, Facebook and the UN in PNG’s Facebook.

As in other countries, the UN also recognised the need to strengthen its work with the business community on the SDGs. It commissioned research to focus its efforts. In 2014, the UNDP produced the National Human Development Report – From Wealth to Wellbeing: Translating Resource Revenue into Sustainable Human Development which analysed the country’s growth strategy and identified the need to focus on improving Human Development both nationally and at provincial levels. One result is that it has focused more attention on human development outcomes from economic growth. It has also contributed to the PNG Government’s plans to establish ‘human development index’ scores at provincial levels, to guide investments in local development. The HDR was followed in 2015 with the publication of the Seeding Social Enterprise in Papua New Guinea report which focused on six key sectors that impact the lives of the poor (agriculture, clean energy, education, financial inclusion, healthcare and water and sanitation) and analysed the market potential for social enterprise in each sector. It also highlighted key challenges as a contribution to supporting a nationwide entrepreneurship programme Kumul GameChangers and guiding potential investors.

Many national and international businesses in PNG are already implementing a range of community projects through their corporate social responsibility activities. In addition to supporting their workforce to enhance skills and experience, businesses are also involved in helping address diverse social-economic challenges in their areas of operation. This ranges from improving health care (preventing malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS); to providing better quality and improved access to training and education; tackling gender based violence; supporting environmental protection; constructing infrastructure; and responding to humanitarian disasters.

Roy Trivedy UN Resident Co-ordinator

In the Photo: UN Resident Coordinator Roy Trivedy launching the PNG GBV strategy March 2017 Photo Credit: UNDP/Stephen Rae

Our challenge was to encourage local and national businesses in PNG to amplify and coordinate their individual efforts to join the global movement supporting the SDGs just like the other 9,400 companies in 160 countries that had already done.

Businesses in PNG have a key role to play as an engine of economic growth and employment. They are a source of finance, technology and innovation in PNG and we cannot achieve the SDGs and improve the country’s future without them.

PNG’s confirmation as the host of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC) meetings in 2018, offer other tremendous opportunities to showcase the achievements of the business sector and their contributions to the country’s development and SDGs.

In the lead up to APEC, UNDP is partnering with the Business Council of PNG for the first time, to form a Business Coalition for the SDGs (#BusinessCoalition4SDGs) to catalyse private sector support for the SDGs. This partnership resulted in a facilitated exchange in June 2017 involving the Business Council, the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce (PMCOC), the Philippines Business for Social Progress and SocialCops, a leading data analytics group from India. This is now being followed up by the development of a live dashboard that will map the contribution of businesses (small and large) in PNG to the SDGs, with information on numbers of people reached and support provided.

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In the Photo: An example of how PNG is developing the Live Dashboard – mapping business activities and the SDGs Photo Credit: UNDP Papua New Guinea

As part of the partnership with the Business Council, UNDP is also exploring an idea of tackling ‘grand challenges’. This seeks to combine the power and resources of local and national government, businesses and development partners, such as the UN, to tackle some of the most stubborn development indicators which the country has not been able to significantly improve over the past 40 years. For example: the need to improve access to clean energy (12 percent of the rural population has access to electricity); sanitation – 60 percent of people in rural areas do not have access to safe water; the need to improve literacy and numeracy (37 percent of the population is illiterate); and tackling the high levels stunting and wasting amongst children (43 percent of children under 5 years of age are stunted). It will be interesting to see how this partnership develops but it is clear that business leaders in PNG are keen to increase investment in building the capacity of the workforce as well as local communities. Many businesses are also keen to explore possibilities for developing inclusive business models and reducing their resource footprint.

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In the Photo: Buka, July 13, 2017- The Members of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, Departmental Secretaries who participated during the two-day workshop on Sustainable Development Goals at the Bougainville House of Representatives. Photo Credit: UNDP/Kim Allen

The UN has demonstrated success partnering with businesses on targeted initiatives. For example, the Pacific Financial Inclusion Program (PFIP) and United Nations Capital Development Fund are working with a range of private sector financial service providers on projects which promote financial inclusion. PFIP supports providers with innovative ideas that are financially viable and commercially scalable, by providing grant funding with loans and technical assistance to pilot technology driven initiatives. Some recent examples include:

  • support to insurance provider BIMA for establishing and piloting mobile phone based micro-insurance for the people which allows insurance premiums to be paid using mobile top-ups. This has enabled over 500,000 people in PNG to access insurance services and is now being expanded in other Pacific Island countries.
  • a pilot offering household solar panels through a micro-leasing facility for people living in rural areas. Under this initiative MiBank, a financial service provider, offers a Pay As You Go platform for the customers to pay weekly or monthly payments for solar panels using a mobile wallet.

These initiatives are helping build the capabilities of businesses in a profitable manner and helping them expand services to women, youth, elderly, rural populations and marginalised groups, while also contributing to the ‘leaving no-one behind’ principle of the SDGs.

Another example is how the World Food Programme and UNDP worked with the DigiCel Foundation and the OK Tedi Foundation responding to the El Nino events. With information and logistical support from these foundations, the UN system provided food relief for more than 2.4 million Papua New Guineans in 2015-2016.

These targeted programmes have been complimented through a new partnership between the UNDP and bmobile-vodafone which has led to the launch of a special edition of top-up cards that harness the power of mobile networks to reach out to communities with information about the SDGs (a first of its kind in the country).

Achieving the SDGs will not be easy. The success of the SDGs relies heavily on universal action and collaboration by all sectors. It requires accelerated action from all actors. We need to be tenacious, creative and ambitious and go beyond traditional structures, relationships and ways of working. I remain optimistic – as Sam Cooke once said, “It’s been a long time coming but a change is gonna come.”

I remain optimistic – as Sam Cooke once said, ‘It’s been a long time coming but a change is gonna come.’


Featured Photo: High Level Thematic Debate on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) on 21 April 2016 in New York – UN HQ. Photo Credit: UNDP/Freya Morales
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  1. Jonathan John

    I am studying diploma in Comprehensive hazards and risks management at University of PAPUA NEW GUINEA and most of my course that I took is the sustainable development courses with bachelor of sustainable development students… Thanks very much for the information about sustainable development approaches and it’s goals.


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