Reducing inequality, ending poverty and providing good quality education – no one argued that these weren’t the correct goals to aim for, but translating the Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) into a Scottish context with clear actions and outcomes which are inclusive and empowering in terms of race and ethnicity, were the key challenges discussed at a roundtable event in Glasgow I attended recently.

Working in partnership with the Council for Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations (CEMVO Scotland), SCVO brought together several key representatives from a variety of organisations which work with black and ethnic minority (BME) communities in Glasgow.

Whilst universal in their nature, it became clear that the SDGs presented unique challenges for different communities. Many opportunities appeared available only to second generation immigrants, and not for first generation individuals, and the picture was mixed across the board.

A common point raised was the difference between perception and reality in regard to opportunities. A general feeling of being over-consulted, but under-represented by key public bodies and institutions, meant many felt apathetic towards engagement. During the discussion it also became clear that small improvements here and there would not address the serious challenges raised – a new approach is needed, one which centres on inclusion and empowerment of BME communities. We need fairer representation and increased participation from everyone in society and discussions showed that the deeper you drill down past the headline of each goal, the more complex the situation becomes. It therefore makes sense to have as wide a range of people involved in the process as possible to make sure decision makers get the right information.

However the discussions also highlighted a deeper point, not always talked about in relation to the SDGs. In order to make them truly sustainable, we need to make the process of achieving them transformative, with citizens driving the agenda. Instead of regarding certain sections of society as passive recipients of well-intentioned policies, we need everyone to be given the power to influence and to act. This means not simply listening to more people to gain a better understanding of the current situation, but also questioning what we value as progress.

At the roundtable another point raised time and again was over what we regard as ‘best practice.’ A presumption that developing countries should always look to developed states for advice was questioned, with many innovative examples – such as micro-financing in India – being identified. This requires a long-term cultural change in the way many decisions are made. The real transfers of power needed to make the goals truly sustainable require conversations to move far beyond remedying the most startling areas of deprivation, to addressing deep seated apathy and inequality.

I would like to think that our event made a start in terms of energising and enlightening others to the scale and nature of the challenges posed, but the key question for everyone in the room was what role they could play to take these conversations forward. If Scotland is to achieve a truly open government, it requires all of us to not only get involved, but to question.