Valuing Voices: Why The 2030 Agenda Starts with “Them”


Jindra Cekan, PhD, Carolien de Bruin and Peter Kimeu

For 50 years we have tried our best to ‘develop’ ‘less developed countries’ (LDCs). Increasingly, a realization has kicked in that doing ‘development’ for 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.


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 of on the ground intervention insights is 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 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 work-stream / process that including local feedback on success. Using technology to take advantage of what is possible today is needed from the village level up.


The SDGs came from a consultative process. However, rarely is there in-depth feedback from the grassroots about how much more sustained people feel their lives. To inform the macro-level lessons, we encourage those on the forefront of the inequities of our world economic, food, climatic and other systems – the ordinary citizens on the ground – to inform us how sustainably better off they are, as a result of global development projects. We need to ask citizens about the impact of macro SDG efforts at the country level, in terms of their resilience and 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. This is shown by an IRIN article on Rwanda’s multiple successful pathways to decrease malnutrition via communities.

Innovators such as Ground Truth Solutions and &Wider are creating feedback loops from project participants. Valuing Voices’ research about post-project (closeout) sustainability has tantalizing lessons from where project impacts were sustained as well as where they were not. Such findings depend on grassroots interviews; such research is vital to show 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. Key is drilling down with grassroots informants about results of SDG projects, and asking them what they think would help achieve the SDGs. These voices must include local civil society/NGOs and local governments who often bear the brunt of sustaining SDG results with few resources; what can we do better so initiatives are sustained?

The SDG Transformation Process of Valuing Voices of Decent Living NGO participants in Kenya

  1. DISCOVERY: Identify and appreciate what works: The community gather in a village (with their key leaders), divide into groups of men and women and youth and elders. The groups are beacons for their village and use available material to demonstrate what works best in the village per SDG’s 5 themes (see below) – appreciating even what is outside of the village but what provides needed services for the common good. Each group shares their findings.
  2. DREAM: Imagine what might be: In their groups, a leader guides them to imagine what might be of the village 20 years into the future, if everything worked perfectly. The dreams are shared with a vision of full co-development. If possible, the four dreams are combined into one dream.
  3. DESIGN: Develop systems, structures leveraging the best of what was and what might be: The design actualizes the dream, using local materials and identifies needed resources, linkages and capacities to construct a road map of the new village identifying priority activities/ infrastructure and compare them to what SDG efforts have provided so far
  4. DESTINY: Implement the proposed design for SDGs: The implementation starts with individuals ready to go with what is available, self-help groups identifying what need be done in new partnerships, formation of various responsibility groups to approach the local and national.


The Valuing Voices agenda is critical 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. Our 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. This includes:

1.  Valuing Voices in Existing Partnerhsips, Toolkits and Vehicles:  Great work done is already being done by the Working Group on Citizen Generated Data as part of and through national-level EvalSDG collaborations. What are ways to take these efforts to the next level? Pooling efforts to bring the voices of citizens strategically into existing data agendas is table stakes, and thankfully increasingly recognized.

2. Valuing Voices in Existing Design Processes & Agendas:  We are highly committed to further the role of citizen voices in the United Nations’ High-level Voluntary National Reviews, taking place each year in New York. This must take advantage of technology and ongoing efforts inside each of the SDGs to connect what are currently mainly public sector efforts to the often highly innovative corporate, and grass-roots efforts that are happening on the ground (like in Rwanda).

3. Valuing Voices in Local Exploration of Grassroots Sustainability:  What new voices can we bring to the table in an in-depth way?  Civil society must be engaged in discussion about whether SDGs are are creating better lives to ‘ground-truth’ beyond the SDG metrics. Transformation through the SDGs will be richer and more sustained by catalyzing grassroots change process around (1) the impact of SDG work in five of the Action Themes below, (2) what is needed in partnership and (3) sharing those lessons with the wider world.

We leave you with these questions. Can the SDGs succeed if we keep differentiating 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 no one has to be led or to lead.  In closing: Who joins? Who funds? Who joins us in moving from ‘them’ versus ‘us’ to ‘we’?

Jindra and Carolien shared thoughts on how these views are reflected in the Transformations Working Group’s discussions.

The authors met online after the SDG webinar forums and agree with the Transforming A&E Working Group Action Plan outlining substantive priorities for action. In doing so, they would reiterate the importance of integrating on-the-ground voices into both evaluation (M&E) processes as well as program design and management processes. It is important to free up (and/or attract) the resources that are needed to do so effectively, systematically, and collaboratively with the sustainable development community at large. Only then will we truly be able to transform the system for the better.

About the Authors:

Jindra Cekan has spent her 30-year career designing and evaluating projects for international nonprofits and donors, leading to ‘sustainable’ ‘development’ focusing on participants and partners’ feedback. She founded Valuing Voices,Sustainable Solutions for Excellent Impact focused on sustaining impacts of global development projects.

Carolien de Bruin is the founder of C-Change, an advisor and tech startup with the mission to trigger and equip all actors and sectors to ‘connect for impact’. C-Change collaborates with UNDP and others to roll out ‘plug and play’ SDG collaboration portals across the world, that would allow local changemakers to deliver local impact, yet, do so in a way that also enables a connecting of the dots with ecosystems and communities elsewhere and at a global level.

Peter Kimeu Ngui co-founded two Kenyan NGOs, KUSARD and Decent Living and spent 38 years as Catholic Relief Services Peace and Justice Advisor in Africa. He advises local peacemakers and grassroots groups across all sectors.

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2 thoughts on “Valuing Voices: Why The 2030 Agenda Starts with “Them””

  1. Have you thought about leveraging Ushahidi, an open-source, crowd-sourced intelligence platform founded by Kenyan entrepreneur Juliana Rotich? It seems to me like an appropriate tool for collecting and aggregating data from grassroots.

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