Professor Willem Fourie, Coordinator of the South African Sustainable Development Goals Hub, based at UP’s Hatfield Campus, spoke to Primarashni Gower about the work the organisation does.
What exactly does the SDG Hub do?
We are a national facility, supported by the Department of Science and Innovation. Our main aim is to connect policymakers with the best South African research on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We do this by collecting and disseminating open access South African research on the SDGs through an open access platform. We also provide policy advice, host SDG public lectures, and publish SDG briefing notes. We’re particularly proud of hosting the Master’s in Development Practice, a well-regarded interdisciplinary Master’s degree on the leadership capacities needed to implement the SDGs. Early in 2020 our first cohort of 17 students, many of whom with senior positions in the private sector and in government, will graduate.
Why is there a need for it?
UP is the natural choice for such an initiative as the University is located in the capital. This makes UP an ideal convening space for stakeholders in the higher education sector interested in contributing to South Africa’s attainment of the SDGs.
Is it aligned with the National Planning Commission 2030 Report?
Absolutely. In fact, we recently released a briefing note that highlights how the SDGs can be aligned with the NDP’s cycle of development. In this report, in addition to the alignment exercise, we identify five emerging lessons:
- significant SDG-NDP alignment on target level;
- the possibility of sequencing SDG implementation rather than identifying priorities;
- the interesting fact that SDG priorities are scattered across the NDP cycle of development;
- the enabling role of environmental sustainability; and
- the cross-cutting importance of science, technology and innovation, and economic growth.
On which goals has the world fallen short? What are the implications of this?
We had the privilege of playing a leading role in the drafting of South Africa’s first comprehensive SDG progress report which was presented at the United Nations in September 2019. In this report a mixed picture of South Africa’s progress is presented. On some goals we are doing very well, notably the innovation components of SDG 9, strides in attaining gender equity (SDG 5) and even our progress (admittedly from a low base) in promoting renewable energy (SDG 7). On SDG 3’s indicators we are seeing progress in reducing our maternal and infant mortality rates, even though we still have a long way to go. In some respects, notably economic growth and employment (SDG 8 targets), we are not doing that well.
What exactly do you research?
In my research I investigate the human and technological requirements of implementing complex development agendas such as the SDGs. On the human side, I focus quite a bit on leadership. My contention is that we do not only need heroic leaders, but that distributed forms of leadership are also important for getting things done. On the technological side, I’m interested in the role of newer technologies, notably cloud computing. I contend that technologies delivered over the cloud can play a major role in optimising existing systems.
What themes do you follow?
I authored a briefing note on the potential of cloud computing to accelerate the SDGs’ attainment in South Africa. This briefing note is available on our website. I conclude that capitalising on its potential requires that a few fundamentals need to be in place. Policies, for example, need to integrate science, technology and innovation throughout the development planning process. They also need to allow for the free (yet regulated) flow of data. At the same time, the privacy and security of all data need to be ensured. But all of this won’t work if we do not develop the relevant skills. Investment is required that improves employees’ existing skills or completely reskills those whose job descriptions will change because of the introduction of cloud computing services.
How is your research translated into action and how is this measured?
We regularly engage colleagues in the public sector on these and other matters. We also have an active advisory board with representatives from across society. Additionally, we provide structured policy advice and host public lectures. We were privileged last year to host world-renowned experts to deliver lectures on SDG 2 (Zero hunger), SDG 3 (Good health and well-being), SDG 5 (Gender equality), SDG 13 (Climate action) and SDG 15 (Life and land).