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Scientists Step Into New Roles To End Poverty

Scientists Step Into New Roles To End Poverty

By Charles Ward, NYAS Contributor

Based on aerodynamic laws bumblebees should not be able to fly, and yet they do. Similarly if past lessons of human history are reliable guides to future performance, ambitious global commitments to address poverty, inequality and sustainable development should quickly founder amidst human foible. And yet, in the three years since their adoption, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have already changed the conversation about what collective will can accomplish. The shift has taken place, thanks in part to members of the world’s scientific community, who have stepped into informal roles as conceptual interpreters, brokers between advocacy and realpolitik, and coalition builders.

When 193 U.N. member states signed onto the SDGs in 2015, there was fresh evidence that seemingly intractable issues of poverty, growth and inequality could in fact yield to collective effort. The U.N.’s preceding framework, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), had met its most well-known objective of “cutting extreme poverty in half” five years ahead of schedule. The SDGs raise the poverty goalposts even higher — by redefining poverty beyond purely monetary terms as a threefold condition that includes economic, social and environmental factors.

The SDGs have pulled in active participation from a growing spectrum of stakeholders that include governments, multi-lateral organizations, NGOs and private-sector actors. But with every stakeholder pressing ahead with its own SDG priorities, what actually addresses global poverty is the question that connects all parties. This common need for shared, fact-based understanding has put scientific disciplines into a position of de-facto referee. The perceived apolitical objectivity of scientific methods and the historic training of scientists in the transfer of knowledge offer a glue strong enough to hold together would-be SDG collaborators and partners, and dissolve tensions born out of perceived biases or competing agendas.

Mark Milstein

Mark Milstein

Scientists involved with the SDGs acknowledge they are a complex, even sprawling web of interdependent causes and effects. The scientific teasing apart of causes, conditions and valid findings would be challenging even before all the cultural, political and environmental variables that prevail across the globe are factored. “How do you talk to people when sustainability is an unfolding, dynamic entity?” asks Dr. Mark B. Milstein, who directs the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. “The SDGs really capture that — they’re overlapping, they’re not clean, with sub-areas that are not mutually exclusive.”

A strategic management expert by training, Milstein straddles the intersection where situation-specific solutions and broad, transferable scientific insights merge or collide. Explicitly, Milstein specializes in framing the world’s social and environmental challenges as unmet market needs, often best addressed by the private sector. Tacitly, as someone who consults extensively with business entities to help them effect change, he’s a translator. “For somebody like myself, rigorous scientific inquiry means training to examine and analyze data sets, and look for trends,” says Milstein. “How do you go about doing work that can adhere to scientific rigor while still trying to move the needle on these critical issues that we believe have to be addressed?”

The private-sector SDG actors who are making decisions and on-the-ground investments, Milstein notes, tend to be focused on immediate problem solving. They’re equally committed to their own SDG projects, he notes, but often working with shorter deadlines, and applied research that leans more to market needs and decisions. Part of his job, he elaborates, is using the kind of knowledge science can produce to help private business along. “Since we’re talking about how it makes sense for the private sector to get involved and stay involved, we have to make sure the questions we’re asking are as clear as can be, that we’re being very specific about the language that we use and the data that we collect, and the conclusions that we draw from that,” he explains. “There’s no reason why applied research cannot be rigorous the way academic research is.”

Esuna Dugarova

Esuna Dugarova

For SDG scientist stakeholders, dynamic tension is built into the multiple roles they are asked to play. Working as a policy expert for the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), Dr. Esuna Dugarova walks a tightrope every day between scientific detachment and the realities of SDG realpolitik. “Being part of the U.N. system, I’m here to promote the framework of the SDGs, and to provide recommendations to governments on how to implement the 2030 Agenda,” says Dugarova, emphasizing that her perspective on SDG multi-tasking is her own, and not that of UNDP. “On the other hand, in my capacity as a researcher, I do research and analysis. Sometimes, the recommendations are not always what governments want to hear. I’m also critical about what kind of data should be used, and how to incorporate that data to make good policy advice.”

As one example, Dugarova points to her research work on unemployment and poverty in Central Asia. Accurate findings are difficult to obtain, she recounts, partly because large portions of local employment are not parts of formal economies, and thus underreported. Additionally, host governments are sensitive about their image, creating a delicate atmosphere for the presentation of the data. “One must be mindful about how to process data,” says Dugarova.

Dugarova has a very definite point of view about one of the major levers that drive progress against poverty, inequality and towards sustainable development: gender equality. “There are certain universal accelerators. Gender equality is one of them, capable of achieving many goals at the same time, whether it’s economic development, food security, climate change or political participation.”

But here again, Dugarova is keenly aware of her role as an informal broker of facts to sometimes unreceptive national governments, who happen to be her major professional stakeholders. She can easily point to gender-equality progress. For example, two-thirds of developing countries have achieved gender equality in primary education, female political participation is growing strongly in Latin America and U.N. economic models show strong correlation between female labor force participation and economic growth.

She’s also aware of structural, institutional and cultural bottle-necks in the way of further progress, citing gender-based violence as an example. As a policy expert and advocate for gender equality, Dugarova realizes it’s one thing to know that 49 countries still have no legal framework to address domestic violence, it’s entirely another to go up against social and cultural norms that are often woven into national identity. “If you address gender norms that are embedded in national identity, you have to address or even change national identity, and these are deeply embedded in the nation-state,” she elaborates. Dugarova does not have to state the obvious, that the nation-state is the foundation of the U.N. system.

Robert Lepenies

Robert Lepenies

There does seem to be consensus among stakeholders that achievement of the SDGs will require unprecedented levels of cooperation, and entirely new models of partnership. Dr. Robert Lepenies is a Research Scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, and a member of the Global Young Academy. He has watched the specific ways in which the world’s scientific communities coalesce around the SDGs, and is an active participant in related coalition-building.

The SDGs, Lepenies points out, have put new initiatives in motion to bring together scientists, policy specialists and non-governmental actors, with impacts yet to be revealed. Lepenies mentions cooperation between statistical agencies worldwide to agree on metrics to determine whether the SDGs have been successfully met. In no way is this a finished process, notes Lepenies, and scientists must use the prestige of their positions to continue to press for accountability and statistical rigor. “I think the major advantage is that the discussion has been changed for good now,“ Lepenies says. “It is simply assumed that partnerships must be interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, participatory and draw on different types of input.”

Lepenies is particularly optimistic about relatively new entities such as the Global Young Academy, and innovative hybrid frameworks such as Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks. “I am personally very excited about the pioneering roles played by national science academies, particularly young academies in places like Africa, and even associations of science academies such as the InterAcademy Partnership,” Lepenies observes. “Poverty is back on the agenda, defined in ways that will contribute to huge capacity building for social, economic and environmental statistics around the world.”

The Holy Grail for SDG scientists who attempt to address the economic, social and environmental dimensions of poverty are universally applicable solutions — processes, methodologies and approaches — that are in fact sustainable, scalable and replicable.

But the reality seems to be much messier, with progress that takes the form of scalpels rather than hammers, and localized, population-specific solutions rather than sweeping antidotes. In the past three years, scientists invested in the success of the SDGs may have built or picked up an increasingly fine-grained understanding of what works, what doesn’t and why. They’ve learned new ways of communicating with SDG partners who think and speak in a different idiom. And they’ve demonstrated willingness to partner with each other and with non-scientist stakeholders.

Scientists are also learning, perhaps, to remain participants in an SDG universe of calibrated expectations and incremental advancements. The U.N.’s own SDG charter contains terms like “slow and uneven progress.” As Lepenies says, “The SDGs are primarily about the long-term vision we have for our planet. Even though the agreed-upon goals represent a non-binding consensus, I think we should look at the 2030 Agenda as the best chance to achieve a ‘realistic utopia,’ a global endeavor to bring about social and intergenerational justice. A more just world is possible, and the SDGs give us a pretty good shot at achieving this.”

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by the participants quoted in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their affiliated institutions or the New York Academy of Sciences.

Hauwa Muhammed

Hauwa Muhammed

Empowering Girls Through Education

According to United Nations’ estimates, more than 188 million people currently live in Nigeria. Of this number it is estimated that 80 percent are living in extreme poverty. The school drop-out rates for girls are very high, largely due to poverty and a culture of early marriage — oftentimes girls are sent to work to help support their families instead of attending school.

One of the organizations working to change this system is Nigerian-based Girl Child Concerns (GCC). This non-governmental organization provides opportunities to young women from indigent homes and crisis areas in the country, to receive an education and a way to break the cycle of poverty. Their scholarship program helps young women attend school.

Hauwa Muhammed, 17, is one of the young women GCC is sponsoring, and she recently joined the New York Academy of Sciences 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures initiative. Through GCC, Hauwa was selected for a STEM program at her school because of her interest in STEM subjects. She attended the Academy’s Annual Gala, in November, 2017 as a special guest of the Academy. Hauwa aspires to be a gynecologist like her role model, GCC’s Chairperson, Dr. Mairo Mandara.

Much of the driving force behind this career goal was her observation that in the only hospital in her community, there are no women to handle women’s health issues. “I aspire to be a gynecologist like Dr. Mandara,” said Hauwa. “Most of the gynecologists in Nigeria are men. I believe a woman would be better at treating a woman because they can relate to the patient.”

Because of GCC and similar organizations supporting empowerment of girls through education, young women are getting the opportunity to realize their dreams.

For more information about Girl Child Concerns visit: