Small actions for big impact: Lessons from Canada

By Jacqueline Théoret, Executive Director, Strategic Communications, International Development Global Affairs Canada and Co-Chair of the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom)

global-goals-logo-shareWe cannot hope to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and build the more peaceful, inclusive and prosperous — the better — world they envision without engaging people everywhere and inspiring them to take concrete action. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that it is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But, so far “the people” do not seem to be aware of it.

In Canada, nearly 60% of people surveyed in 2017 knew nothing about the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Worse still: 73% of the 19% of Canadians who said they were aware of the SDGs were unable to say anything at all about them. 1

Globally things are not much better: only 28-45% of people have heard of the SDGs, but that does not mean that they understand anything about them. Only about 1% of people in 24 countries say they know the SDGs “very well.” 2

So, it’s clear that we, as a global community of leaders and communicators, have our work cut out for us. The SDGs are an ambitious set of 17 goals that apply equally to every country, including Canada. It’s hard to distil them into easily understandable and digestible messages. In fact, many Canadians struggle to explain exactly what sustainable development means.

But if we talk about ending global poverty or hunger or making sure that people have access to clean water or quality education, or if we talk about a young girl in Bangladesh who can stay in school and avoid an early marriage, people can get on board. The SDGs then become more than an acronym — people care about them, begin to relate to them and view them as contributing to people’s lives around the world.

We must demonstrate what the SDGs mean for people and their communities. We must appeal to hearts and minds by telling engaging stories backed by solid data. The butterfly effect says that a single action, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe. If we could get everyone to believe that taking a small action could have a big impact, imagine what we could achieve.

We have a few success stories in Canada.

ME to WE is a for-profit social enterprise founded by Canadian brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger. It empowers people, especially the young, to change the world with their everyday choices by offering socially responsible products that give back to communities.

The Millennium Kids campaign is building more awareness of the SDGs by getting hundreds of Ontario schoolchildren involved in preparing gift boxes that represent the SDGs.

Global Affairs Canada funds several partners who work to engage Canadians on the SDGs, including the eight provincial and regional councils for international co-operation.

The Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, for example, is profiling young Albertans who are making the world a better place in its annual Top 30 Under 30 Magazine. The Council also organised the first-ever annual SDG Symposium to showcase work being done on the SDGs across sectors and to help government, business and civil society work together on the SDGs. Similarly, the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation created a searchable digital map of more than 2 200 groups in British Columbia working on issues related to the SDGs.

These are great examples of engaging people on the SDGs.

The Government of Canada is doing its part too. To build its Feminist International Assistance Policy from the ground up, Canada used 300 events in more than 65 countries to consult with and engage more than 15 000 people and partners. We spoke with our usual partners, but we also engaged widely and directly with community leaders in developing countries, including women’s groups. We heard the voices of some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised: indigenous women in Guatemala and farmers in Tanzania, for example. We used social media to drive people to our website where they could share their views. We had over 44 000 web visits and more than 20 million Twitter impressions.

And we found out that those who engaged with us were supportive of Canada’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda. They wanted us to apply a feminist lens and human rights-based approach to all our development and humanitarian efforts. All this led to Canada’s What We Heard report and to an understanding that to increase public engagement, we need to do a better job of communicating our goals and results.

So how do we do this?

We need to use social media better. We know that using strong visuals to tell the story of how our international assistance is improving people’s lives earns us more impressions and more engagement. We also know that the best time to post is between 10am and noon. 3

We must do a better job of engaging our target audiences where they are. For example, we know that many of the 60% of Canadians who are unaware of the SDGs are more inclined to use Facebook than other social media platforms. We need to be talking to them on Facebook. 4

We know that when we leverage credible voices in international development, our messages reach more people and are viewed as more reliable. These are the voices of academics, researchers and even our own subject-matter experts. Developing campaigns with our partners around key dates or initiatives, leveraging their stories and powerful images, and using common hashtags and messages can yield impressive results.

We need concrete data to demonstrate progress toward achieving the SDGs. To do this, we need solid indicators. That is why Canada is a key member of the UN Interagency Expert Group on SDG Indicators that developed the global indicator framework to monitor the implementation of the SDGs.

And finally, we need to fine-tune our messaging to address the concerns of Canadians and people in the countries where we work. We need Canadians to get behind the idea that even though 4.9 million Canadians live in poverty and we have lots of work to do on this issue at home, this does not absolve us of our international responsibilities. In fact, our world is increasingly interconnected, so whether we are working to improve lives in Vancouver or Port-au-Prince or Dhaka, we are contributing to achieving the SDGs. We all have a responsibility to help end poverty and inequality and improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable — at home and around the world.

We must also convince Canadians that the SDGs are not a pipe dream because financing them will take innovative solutions. We will need USD 5 to 7 trillion to achieve the SDGs, but total global Official Development Assistance was only USD 142.6 billion in 2016. We must be able to show how we are encouraging the private sector and other donors to invest in international development. This is what Canada is doing with its new Development Finance Institute Canada or DFI Canada. DFI Canada, capitalised at USD 300 million, will partner with the private sector to address critical financing gaps in supporting businesses in developing countries.

Canada is drawing on the lessons of all these experiences as it prepares to present its first Voluntary National Review on the implementation of the SDGs before the United Nations in July 2018. What is key is building ongoing momentum to engage more Canadians and inspire them to take small actions to build a better world.



1. Canadian Attitudes Towards Development, PCO Survey, December 2017

2. What People Know and Think About the Sustainable Development Goals—Selected Findings from Public Opinion Surveys Compiled by the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom), June 2017

3. Based on internal Global Affairs Canada analysis

4. Based on internal Global Affairs Canada analysis