Sustainable Development Goals – an update

ID-10027716On the 19th July after 7 days of discussions, the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed an outcome document containing 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets. The OWG, which comprises of 30 representatives from the five UN regional groups nominated by UN Member States, and the commitment to create the SDGs came out of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The OWG’s primary responsibility has been to create the proposed SDGs and this proposal will be submitted to the UN General Assembly for consideration at its 68th session on the 24th September 2014.

Taking place at the UN headquarters in New York, OWG 13, chaired by Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Kőrösi of Hungary, was extended by a day due to overnight negotiations. In particular discussions around the issues of climate change; sexual and reproductive health; peaceful and inclusive societies; rule of law; accountable and inclusive institutions, as well as the implementation of the goals called for an extended negotiation period. But agreement was reached and the final 17 SDGs proposed are:

Proposed Sustainable Development Goals

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Millennium Development Goals

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Global partnership for development

Although similar to the Millennium Development Goals, the proposed SDGs go further in trying to eradicate poverty and hunger, build resilience, attain universal well-being and healthier ecosystems, whether man-made or “natural”. For example the goals of ending world hunger, malnutrition and poverty by 2030, of eradicating urban slums, of separating economic growth from environmental degradation and of increasing the income of the bottom 40% of people faster than national averages.

How likely is it that these lofty goals will be achieved though? Many critics think the bar has been set too high, with a collection of social and economic targets related only by their association to an ambiguous definition of “sustainability”, which are difficult to measure let alone enact. Even the process of creating the goals has been criticised as bureaucratic, power-seeking and opaque. There are also concerns that the list of goals needs to be developed into a more comprehensive strategy, for example the goal of removing agricultural support subsidies may be at odds with ending hunger by 2030.

The Millennium Development Goals, unlikely to be universally achieved by 2015, have been criticised for not being attained while at the same time applauded for the progress that has been made. According to the 2014 report on progress towards the MDGs, several targets have been met – the world has reduced extreme poverty by half, the proportion of people without access to an improved drinking water source has been halved and the participation of women in politics has increased. As of January 2014, parliaments contain in at least one chamber over 30% of women in 46 countries. Substantial progress has also been made towards reducing, for example, child and maternal mortality, hunger and malnutrition.

Given the failure of reaching some of the MDGs, for example reducing carbon emissions and halting biodiversity loss, and the geographical patchiness of achieving targets, for example much of the overall poverty reduction has originated from China and India, an even more ambitious set of goals, while exemplary, may be beyond our reach. Many of the SDGs are goals the UN and many many others have been working towards for decades. In a sense the goals are relatively easy to elaborate, the process of achieving them less so. Even where we know and have practical solutions to global problems, political economies may prevent them from being implemented. That said, whether we achieve them or not may be irrelevant. The MDGs have inspired action and progress and the SDGs could build on this momentum and create positive change to some degree.

Much discussion is still to take place, in particular, governments will engage further with the proposal during the course of developing the post-2015 development agenda. Issues of how to finance the implementation of the SDGs is being discussed within the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing. The outcomes of such discussions will also be presented to the UN General Assembly. Following this meeting there will be a year of international negotiation leading to, among other things, a new global climate treaty, to be announced in Paris at another summit in September 2015, due to come into effect in 2020. At the end of this process all 193 UN members, will be committed to a sustainable development agenda and the SDGs. Clearly a critically important part of this process will be designing a strategy for how these goals are going to be attained by 2030, something we have seen little evidence of so far.


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  1. […] with 169 targets and an estimated 300 or so indicators. In a blog post last year we discuss the 17 proposed SDGs. In recent discussions and articles the SDGs have come under considerable criticism for being too […]

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