SDG Interview Series: Cornelia Walther on addressing sustainability with a holistic perspective

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Dec 18 2019

Author: Guest contributor

As part of the Springer Nature Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Programme, we're interviewing leaders and researchers about the work they're doing to address the 17 SDGs outlined by the United Nations. Read on for our interview with Cornelia Walther, who recently designed the global communication and advocacy strategy for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

120319_Cornelia Walther

by Angie Voyles Askham, Content Marketing Intern

Cornelia Walther is a humanitarian practitioner who has worked for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP), operating as head of communications in large-scale emergencies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In the interview below, she answers our questions about how her recent work with UNICEF addresses the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and explains why reframing global development in terms of a country's means and motivation—rather than geographic location—is essential to achieving sustainability.

How is UNICEF addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

UNICEF works for and with people in over 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives. In the defense of the rights of every child and young person, partnerships have been established with governments, non-governmental organizations, private sector companies, individuals and research institutions. Every action is pursued in the ambition to help children fulfill their inherent potential, from early childhood through adolescence. 

What do you think is the most relevant way to measure success against these goals?

Measuring progress achieved in view of the (ambitious yet achievable) SDGs must seek to strive for a balanced focus on both quantity and quality. Most SDGs are quantitative. While useful in many ways of accountability, a limitation of this type of target setting agenda is the risk of overlooking that the actual fulfillment of rights, requires quality (and that the latter matters, even if it is not part of the multilaterally agreed SDG accountability tracker). It should be noted in this regards that some SDGs do address quality (e.g. quality health care or quality education, which are explicitly mentioned in the SDGs, targets 3.8, 4.1, 4.2), which goes to show that it is not impossible to pursue quantity and quality simultaneously. A critical eye on quality matters because if something has not been efficient in addressing an issue in the past, then doing more of the same is not going to bring a different result in the future. A more rigorous and mindful perspective on the how and why of our action must come to complete the previously pursued focus on what is being done.

Moving forward in the direction of high-quality large-scale transformation that is sustainable requires players that walk the talk of development at all levels of the global food-chain. If institutions are the hardware of change, then their staff is the software that determines the modus operandi that is adopted. Organizations whose justification to be is to promote sustainable development to the benefit of those who are most in need, must illustrate the idealistic human-rights oriented principles that underpin their mandate. Software shapes hardware, therefore budgets and service delivery must be designed by individuals who care at a human level. Compassion counts for sustainable change.

The Millennium Development Goals were decided and designed by government representatives in multilateral fora. Based on learnings from the past, the SDGs have from the beginning chosen a more inclusive approach. What was announced in 2015 is the result of lengthy consultations and negotiations, aimed to gather inputs from individuals and institutions alike. While still not perfect, this approach is promising, and the underpinning philosophy of inclusive development design must impact the implementation and measurement of programs and progress.

Are there differences in how these goals are approached in the global north versus the global south?

The world is a continuum, yet it is not lived and experienced that way. The means and motivations differ widely between countries and within them. While the distinction between North and South fits the realities of the 21st century ever less—India and China are just two illustration of a fast-paced shift that may gradually reverse the cards of global power, two aspects in relation to the two camps still seem to apply. The first is the question of Means—donor countries, no matter where they are situated geographically, continue to influence the choice, content and concentration of programs. Countries that struggle to cover the essential needs of their citizens have far less autonomy and influence on other countries; and worse, sometimes the dependency on external donors impacts their internal choice of priorities. The second aspect is Motivation. While it is generally assumed that development within the framework of the SDGs should be pursued in an inclusive and disinterested manner, it is also widely understood that politics, national interests and the lobbying of multilateral corporations impact the motivations that underpin many development paradigms.

Overcoming these two parameters of global development, hereby making it truly sustainable, will require holistic reframing. Only through the prism of a continuum, whereby it is understood that the needs of one country are linked to the resources of another one; and conversely whereby the exploitation of resources by few at the expense of many will eventually lead to the suffering of everyone, can change the gradual deterioration of the planet, and end the deprivation of those who are most in need.  

What does the working relationship between UNICEF and the research community look like?

High quality data is among the priorities of the SDGs. UNICEF has established partnerships with many leading research institutions across the world. And yet, much more could be done to bridge the gap that separates action and academia, results (for people) and research. Both sides, the research community and the United Nations, have a lot to win from a collective and coherent ‘research in action’ loop. While steps have been made in this direction, the challenge of incommensurability still looms large. Differences in administrative procedures, methodologies, institutional cultures and funding prerogatives often build barriers where bridges could rise. This potential has been seen by many in UNICEF and outside, the question in the remaining years until 2030, and beyond, is to translate this awareness into action.  

What do you think is the most productive way that researchers can engage policy makers? Are there resources that you know of for researchers to make their research more accessible for policy makers?

Researchers who seek to influence the political landscape in view of accelerating global progress, should consider online and offline, direct and indirect means of outreach. Face to face advocacy that is combined with quality online publications has the double advantage of personal and public targeting. In a global world where much of the game is played online, neither one nor the other alone is prone to be successful. Like a car with just three wheels will not go far, research communication that is limited to one platform or audience is hampered in its reach.

Adapting the research for multiple audiences is another often overlooked aspect. Rather than putting out just one article or report, which is formulated in highly specialized expert lingua, researchers benefit from using a wide range of tools to share their findings. Useful platforms to consider for submitting materials are blogs – either related to development organizations, such as UNRISD, to a wider public like Medium. Social media, while oftentimes berated as superficial may serve to get the word out, in particular LinkedIn and Twitter can offer a place to position the hook that may attract readers to dig deeper.

What are the short- and long-term goals of your work?

Having worked with UNICEF for the past 18 years, mostly in humanitarian crises scenarios, I hope to contribute in the coming years to a change in the perspective that still prevails in many non profit organizations. The books that will be published with Palgrave MacMillan in 2020 are the result of my professional and personal evolution, of what I have learned and lived in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Chad, Mali, but also the US, France and Germany. The POZE paradigm which is at the center of the book that comes out next Spring is based on the understanding that human existence is a composite of four layers—aspirations, emotions, thoughts and sensations; and that social change that aims to be sustainable must address these layers simultaneously, to optimize their interplay.

We must shift from a patchwork approach to a holistic perspective. Individuals are a micro representation of the Universe. The same four-folded paradigm that makes humans who they are operates on a global scale, with the same optimization potential. This micro-meso-macro-meta connection is one of the biggest unexploited opportunities of the 21st century. Individuals (micro) are the center of communities, be they families, institutions, schools, parties or sport clubs (meso); individually and through these communities, people are part of economies, cultures, political systems and cultures (macro), shaping them and being shaped in turn. Together these three dimensions are part of the meta level which brings nature and humankind, the measurable and the intangible in one connected realm (meta). Everything is connected, nothing occurs in a vacuum. Whatever happens in one dimension has an impact on the others, sooner or later, directly or indirectly.

In view of this continuum of people, places and priorities, sustainable development requires three things:

  1. Understanding one’s own unique power, to contribute to a different, a fairer and brighter society
  2. Caring enough about others to actually translate this understanding into action, within the range of one’s own skill set and resources
  3. Connecting to individuals and institutions that are far outside one’s own comfort zone and worldview, in view of bringing together the best of all worlds. The challenges of today are too complex for the monocultured solutions of yesterday.

Cornelia S. C. Walther combines praxis and research. As a humanitarian practitioner, Cornelia worked for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP) for the past 18 years, operating as head of communication in large scale emergencies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. She collaborates as coach and researcher with the Center for Humanitarian Leadership, Deakin University, Australia, and as a lecturer with Aix-Marseille Law University, France. She part of the European Union’s Network of humanitarian assistance (NOHA), and the Harvard Women in Defense and Diplomacy Network. Cornelia holds a PhD in Law and is fluent in English, French and German. She is a seasoned yoga and meditation teacher.

Learn more about the Springer Nature SDG Programme here.

111119_angie askham_150x200

Angie Voyles Askham is the Content Marketing Intern for Springer Nature’s Research Marketing team. She received her PhD in neuroscience from NYU in 2015 and has since worked in radio journalism and academic publishing, with the goal of communicating science and research to a broad audience.


Author: Guest contributor

Guest Contributors include Springer Nature staff and authors, industry experts, society partners, and many others. If you are interested in being a Guest Contributor, please contact us via email:

Related Tags: