Valuing Voices: Why The 2030 Agenda Starts with ‘Them’

Jindra Cekan, PhD
6 min readNov 3, 2021

Jindra Cekan, PhD, Carolien de Bruin and Peter Kimeu (published Feb 2018)

For 50 years we have tried our best to ‘develop’ ‘less developed countries’ (LDCs) around the world. Increasingly, a realization has kicked in that doing ‘development’ for our partners and participants through top-down funding, implementation, monitoring and evaluation is inherently certain to fail to break the cycle of inequality. Increasingly, a conviction has emerged that those who control the resources needed to break this cycle; ‘we’ need to be led by ‘them’. As Time to Listen tells us, ‘development’ won’t be theirs unless they are involved from funding to design, to implementation, to monitoring and evaluation.

What does it take to value the voices of those who are at risk of being left behind, to effectively integrate the insights and expertise of the individuals and communities that lack access to opportunity, and to truly unlock ‘agency’ among those who struggle to build a sustainable life for themselves and their loved ones today? We believe both macro and micro efforts are needed.

MACRO: The good news: Helped by technology, we are seeing incredible new ways of gathering citizen inputs as part of program and product design efforts, to measure and report on progress made, and — importantly — to compensate local data providers for contributing insights and data points. We need to ensure that data collection is truly inclusive and that the value that is generated through insight to on-the-ground interventions are truly recognized. Build markets around insight. The bad news: We have a long way to go in truly integrating citizen insights into how impact IS monitored and evaluated, and how programs are funded, designed, and implemented. There are examples of how global data efforts are working to get local data aggregated to monitor the achievement of the SDGs. These include the Kenya Partnership Platform, the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data or even more focused SDG data monitoring initiatives such as SDG 4’s on Education through. Yet we need to build a thoughtful and deliberate workstream/process that includes local feedback on success. Using technology to take advantage of what is possible today is needed from the village level up.

MICRO: For while the SDGs came from a consultative process, the current feedback from the grassroots about how much more sustained people feel their lives appears to be a much quieter and rarer process. While the My World Result survey and events campaign which has select events with selected youth, engaging them as advocates rather than as a process of ordinary local people grappling with how to shape the SDG activities, aims and results in far-flung ordinary communities.

To inform the macro-level lessons, we propose asking those on the forefront of the inequities of our world economic, food, climatic and other systems –the ordinary citizens on the ground — how sustainably better off our global development projects are helping them be, and how well the macro SDG efforts distilled to the country level are leading them to live in resiliently and in dignity. This may show us that a bevy of ways communities decide to foster their own sustained impacts is more powerful than a one-size-fits-all solution, as this IRIN article on Rwanda’s multiple successful pathways to decrease malnutrition via communities shows.

There are innovators such as Ground Truth Solutions and AndWider who are creating feedback loops from project participants in sectors such as SDGs’ basic needs and natural capital, respectively. Valuing Voices’ research about post-project (closeout) sustainability has tantalizing lessons from where project impacts were sustained as well as where they were not. Evaluating sustained impacts from the perspective of those we ostensibly serve, our project participants is vital to prove not only that our global development project impacts can endure, but that learning from them is vital for better funding, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation across the SDGs. Drilling down with grassroots informants about results of both projects aimed at fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and what they think would help achieve the SDGs is key. These voices must include of local civil society/NGOs as well as local governments who often bear the brunt of sustaining SDG results in the face of growing challenges. How do they best want to actively support the ‘sustainability’ they themselves rarely design but must, so initiatives are sustained with their help?

VALUING VOICES is a critical agenda to our ability to deliver on the 2030 agenda — if we can’t get HOW we deliver on the 2030 agenda, then we will never get to achieve the WHAT and WHY of the agenda either.

A) Our MACRO proposal: Apply design thinking, leverage technology, and join forces to put this squarely on the agenda of decision-makers and resource/asset owners globally, as reinvention requires incubation and requires resources.

1. VALUE VOICES IN EXISTING DESIGN PROCESSES & AGENDAS: What if in the national voluntary reports, citizen voices were systematically and taking advantage of technology and ongoing efforts inside each vertical (SDGs) to connect what are currently oftentimes mainly public sector efforts to the often highly innovative corporate, and grass-roots efforts that are happening on the ground (like in Rwanda).

2. VALUE VOICES IN EXISTING PARTNERSHIPS & VEHICLES: Great work done by a working group on citizen-generated data as part of E.g., SDG Action Campaign: Global survey: What are ways to take these efforts to the next level? What are ways to bundle our valuing voices efforts with theirs, and others?

3. VALUE VOICES THROUGH SHARED TOOLKITS AND OPEN SOURCE TECHNOLOGIES: The future is here already. Can we pool what resources are out there, and bundle efforts to make the latest tools and methodologies known (!) and available for those who are in a position to change the status quo.

B) Our MICRO proposal: Can we move beyond the valiant data-gathering efforts of national governments via the EvalSDG groups to engage groups of locals in each country to ask how well their own SDGs at manifesting for better lives in a variety of sites? Transforming the SDGs will be lost if we fail to catalyze a discover a change process within our networks and fundraise for leaders to catalyze such grassroots processes that we hope will inform SDGand project rollout. We could start with 20 sentinel sites to discover and teach us how SDGs are/ aren’t working, what is needed in partnership, and share those with the wider world.

Appreciative Inquiry approach to SDGs, used in Kenya by Peter Kimeu, author

This is the “two-eyed seeing [as] an integration of global knowledge and local knowledge, having them each be respected” (Glenn Page of Transformations Forum). In fostering their dreams for a sustainable world ‘we’ want, ‘we’ may need to let go of control and instead ask what do we need to let go of, what can we co-create in a flexible way to adapt to constant change and pressures on the ground so ‘we’ can thrive?

We leave you with this thought. Can the SDGs succeed if we keep making the differentiation between us? How are ‘we’ separate from ‘us’ and from ‘them’? To foster ‘real’ partnerships for SDG success, then the ‘we’ and ‘them’ are not separate; we become ‘one’ in ‘our’ development. In this scenario, therefore, has no one to be led or to lead. In closing: Who joins? Who funds? Who joins us in moving from ‘them’ versus ‘us’ to ‘we’?

Sustainable Development Goals by Impact Themes, Source:

What are your thoughts?



Jindra Cekan, PhD

Do global development projects have sustained impact? Maybe. Writer, speaker, evaluator, int’l development guru, forester, mother, giraffe-lover