Sustainable Development

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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Sustainable Development

“I am pleased to share some good news for people and planet,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said to a packed room of press delegates. The good news? After three years of negotiations and debate, 193 countries had agreed to a set of development goals more bold and ambitious than anything that has come before them.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – part of a wider 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight goals, set by the United Nations back in 2000 to eradicate poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease, expire at the end of this year.

Figure 1: The Millennium Development Goals

Picture 1
Source: United Nations

The MDGs were concrete, specific and measurable, and therefore helped establish some priority areas of focus in international development. But that was also one of their biggest criticisms: by being so targeted, they had left out other, equally important, areas.

Despite the criticism, significant progress has been made over the past 15 years, especially when it comes to the goals of eradicating poverty and improving access to education. That progress, however, has been very uneven, with improvements often concentrated in specific regions and among certain social groups. A 2015 UN assessment of the MDGs found they fell short for many people: “The assessment of progress towards the MDGs has repeatedly shown that the poorest and those disadvantaged because of gender, age, disability or ethnicity are often bypassed.”

In developing the SDGs – a multi-year process involving civil society, governments, the private sector and academia – the United Nations sought to take all these failings into account. So how, then, were these new goals reached and what do they look like?

17 goals for ‘people and planet’

In response to the accusation that the MDGs were too narrow in focus, the SDGs set out to tackle a whole range of issues, from gender inequality to climate change. The unifying thread throughout the 17 goals and their 169 targets is the commitment to ending poverty: “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development,” notes the agenda’s preamble.

Figure 2: The Sustainable Development Goals

SDGsSource: Jakob Trollbäck 

As well as being more all-encompassing than the MDGs, the consultation process was also much more inclusive – Ban Ki-moon called it the “most transparent and inclusive process in UN history”. An unprecedented effort was made to get the input of as many people as possible, particularly those who wouldn’t normally be consulted for this type of international agreement. In total, 5 million people from across 88 countries in all the world’s regions took part in the consultation, and shared their vision for the world in 2030. This is very different from the development and implementation of the MDGs, which one expert described as “an internal UN bureaucratic creation”.

Figure 3: Extract from the My World survey results

Picture 3
Source: United Nations

But what really sets apart the SDGs from their predecessors is their universal nature. Recognizing that the MDGs failed certain people and countries, the 2030 agenda sets out to “reach the furthest behind first” and concludes with a pledge that “no one will be left behind”.

From words to deeds

Getting consensus on such a broad development agenda was an achievement in itself, but the real work will start in January, when it kicks in. “We have a big, bold agenda before us. Now we must work to make it real,” said the UN secretary-general. How, exactly, does the United Nations plan to do so?

Goal 17 goes into detail about that. It allows for a range of measures, including financial support and debt relief, the transfer of technologies and scientific know-how to developing nations on favourable terms, and the establishment of an open, non-discriminatory and equitable trading system to help developing nations increase their exports.

But the most important way of achieving the SDGs was touched upon in the UN press conference: “We will need all partners to make this a success.” Multistakeholder partnerships, involving government, the private sector and civil society, have been described as the “glue” that will hold this process together, and will be the only way of ensuring these incredibly ambitious goals are met.

Have you read?
3 challenges facing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
How much has global poverty fallen over the past 25 years?

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A boy touches a 45-metre (148-feet) long wall lighted by colour rays at an exhibition hall in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei province May 1, 2007. REUTERS/China Daily 

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