In 2015, the United Nations developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” to be achieve by 2030. The SDGs were preceded by the eight Millennium Development Goals, which directed the world’s governments and development institutions toward equality in meeting the world’s needs. Global Volunteers is committed to the vision and volition of the SDGs, and the MDGs before them, and measure our outcomes accordingly. In this blog series, we share the work of companion organizations toward achieving the SDGs. In this post, we present Mercy Corps, founded in 1979 to aid refugees and the poor of the world.
Mercy Corps’ mission is to “alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities.” To help us understand how they use the SDGs to guide their work, Mercy Corps’ Media and Communications Manager Lynn Hector responds to our questions.
How often, and in what ways does your organization respond to the UN SDGs?
The United Nations Sustainable Development goals are deeply woven into our programs in the more than 40 countries where we work. As an organization working on the front lines of today’s biggest crises to create a future where everyone can prosper, Mercy Corps plays a critical role in the communities and countries where we’re advancing the SDGs. There is one SDG we think is the foundation to achieving all other global development goals: SDG16, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Conflict has eclipsed natural disaster as the leading cause of human suffering, and today a record 79.5 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, primarily due to violence and war. With current projections, 80% of the world’s poorest people will live in fragile states by 2030. We can’t fulfill the promise of the other SDGs – tackling hunger, providing equitable education, improving water conditions, managing energy supplies, promoting sustainable economic opportunity etc. – in places where war and conflict is raging or emerging.
We are currently advancing nearly all of the SDG16 targets. As just one example, for years we’ve worked in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, which has long experienced conflict between farmers and herders over land, water and other depleting natural resources. Our programs have initiated joint activities for conflicting communities. In one area, leaders negotiated an agreement allowing for a cattle route to avoid conflicts when pastoralist cattle destroy farmers’ crops. In another area, our team brought together farmers, young pastoralists and community leaders to develop a conflict prevention plan to tackle violence that had resulted in hundreds of deaths, primarily stemming from destroyed farmlands and cattle killings.
After our program, we found that in places where we were helping farmers and pastoralists work together to better manage resources and to mediate conflicts before they became violent, there was a stronger perception of security and greater affinity for one another. 86% of households in participating communities reported decreased tensions, compared to just over 50% in comparison (non-participating) communities. In program areas we also saw an increase in trust of other groups and an increase in freedom of movement – this meant people could tend their farms and cattle, as well as get to market more easily. This is a model of programming we have used around the world, including in Iraq, Myanmar, Kenya, Uganda, and Yemen.
Over the years, how have the SDGs informed your organizational vision?
I think our vision of a bright future of possibility where everyone can prosper and our mission – to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities – have always been aligned with the SDGs. In recent years there has been a greater focus on taking urgent action to combat climate change – SDG13 – and our organization has also worked to better understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change on the communities we serve, which are often most vulnerable to its effects. Tackling climate change has certainly become a stronger part of our vision and more deeply integrated into our programs and strategic approach. We live and work in places characterized by instability, and we know climate change is one of the primary forces destabilizing these communities. Droughts alone have increased and affected more than 1 billion people in the last decade. These kinds of extreme weather events can have significant direct impact—such as water and food shortages—and even more destabilizing indirect impact, such as an increase in conflict and violence, increased maternal and child death rates and even widespread hunger and even famine. Similar to SDG16, we know it is imperative that we address climate change to achieve the SDGs and our overall goals of tackling instability and empowering people to survive crisis and transform their communities.
How do you describe your SDG outcomes?
We are constantly working to improve our programmatic efforts and advocating for policy solutions to address the causes and conditions that are driving human suffering. That is why Mercy Corps is dedicated to research and learning. Our research team conducts in-depth scholarship on our programs and the trends driving humanitarian need.
How do you collaborate with other NGOs, agencies and/or corporations to accomplish SDG outcomes?
We believe partnership is the key to addressing the most urgent challenges of our time and we partner with local and national governments, other NGOs, forward-thinking corporations, social entrepreneurs and people living in fragile communities to develop bold solutions that make lasting change possible. A great example of this is Signpost, developed during the European refugee crisis in 2015. This was a hugely complex situation given the large numbers of people on the move, from different countries speaking different languages and with widely varied levels of access to information, resources and technology. We knew we had to work collaboratively across sectors and borders to help people on their journey. After consulting refugees who were landing in Greece and along the Balkan route, Mercy Corps partnered with the International Rescue Committee to develop Refugee.Info, an online resource that connected refugees with vital information and resources. Together we scaled Refugee.Info into a bigger initiative called Signpost. There was significant private sector support in the development and expansion of Signpost, including from Cisco, Microsoft, Tripadvisor and Google. Today, Signpost has helped 2 million people make lifesaving decisions in eight countries on three continents and with six languages. This is an initiative we are really proud of and that demonstrates what you can achieve when you work outside of your sector and organization and partner to create a truly transformative and scalable solution.
“We believe partnership is the key to addressing the most urgent challenges of our time and we partner with local and national governments, other NGOs, forward-thinking corporations, social entrepreneurs and people living in fragile communities to develop bold solutions that make lasting change possible.”Lynn Hector, Mercy Corps Media and Communications Manager
How important are the SDGs as a motivational or organizational tool for international cooperation on the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice?
The SDGs represent the value of collective action and the potential of partnership. Through this ambitious agenda – from increasing peace and security and tackling climate change to promoting gender equality – the international community affirms that it is only possible to address the world’s most pressing challenges through global engagement and partnership. At Mercy Corps, we believe that the SDGs define our shared goals, and we are committed to doing our part to make these aspirations reality.
What motivates you, personally, in your work to achieve your organization’s goals to improve the world?
Every day, I am motivated and inspired by my nearly 6,000 colleagues around the world and the commitment and ingenuity they bring to their work and to the communities we serve. Despite a global pandemic, they have kept our programs going and in 2020 we reached 15.1 million people with our COVID-19 response, protecting health and addressing both immediate and long-term impacts of the pandemic. I’m equally motivated by our program participants and the resilience they show, in spite of the challenges they face. I often think back to a teenager I met in Guatemala in 2016. His community in Guatemala City was next to a huge garbage dump that towered over them. One day he was buried in a trash landslide, and thankfully rescued (several others died). He joined a youth commission, part of our urban violence prevention program, and at the time I met him he was spearheading a proposal to take a small corner usually used for drug deals and turn it into a safe and clean space to congregate, an “esquina de la amistad” (a “corner of friendship”). He was working to create a safer and cleaner neighborhood after his neighborhood buried him alive in trash. If that isn’t resilience, I don’t know what is!
Global Volunteers respects and supports Mercy Corps’ work to bring the benefit of the SDGs to struggling communities around the world. We share their vision to help achieve well-being for all without compromising the potential of future generations to meet their needs. We invite opportunities for NGO partnerships in these areas. Read on to learn how Global Volunteers’ impacts address the United Nations SDGs and how our Reaching Children’s Potential Program is helping to end stunting in Tanzanian villages.