Sustainable Development

We need to reset the global operating system to achieve the SDGs. Here’s how

Ruqia Aroo, 80, carries her malnourished grandson Khalif Sheikh Adan, 5, near the carcasses of her dead herd of cattle near Afder, 1100 kms south east of Addis Ababa, April 18, 2000.GM - RTRBSG8

80% of countries have gone off track, according to a new report Image: Reuters

Homi Kharas
Co-Founder, World Data Lab; Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
John W McArthur
Senior Fellow, UN Foundation
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Sustainable Development?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Sustainable Development is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Sustainable Development

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The political earthquakes of 2016 highlight the shocks that are possible when deep-seated challenges are left unmet for too long. In the absence of reliable, inclusive and long-term progress, societies can rapidly pivot to reject foundational norms. As we navigate through a period of considerable international uncertainty, many people are scrambling for reference points to guide essential long-term decision-making.

Fortunately, the world already has a crucial reference point at hand, even if only modestly known outside certain policy circles. In September 2015, all countries agreed on a set of 17 goals that would help them tackle common economic, social and environmental challenges. These are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and while each country has committed to applying these goals in a way that best matched its own situation, the broad outline is to eradicate extreme poverty, build prosperity for everyone and safeguard our planetary resources for the future. The deadline for achieving the goals is 2030.

As with all useful goals, the SDGs are stretch targets. A recent study looking at a subset of priorities found that 80% of the world’s countries are off track on at least one among four targets for child mortality, maternal mortality, access to water and access to sanitation. Thirty-seven countries are off track for all four.

Time to change the system

At the same time, almost all countries face core challenges in tackling issues like jobs, obesity, mental health, girls’ education and sustainable cities. On many social and environmental issues, trends are actually moving in the wrong direction. In many countries, inequality of incomes has spiked to record levels; atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are the highest in several million years; almost half of global fisheries have collapsed or are overfished.

Incrementalism won’t be enough to achieve a new generation’s goals. A more fundamental re-think is required, one that can generate progress at exponential rates. We need a new operating system – an upgrade to the way modern capitalist economies are working. The global economy delivers an impressive volume of output – some $75 trillion this year and almost $100 trillion by 2021, according to IMF forecasts. But its outmoded operating system is constraining its ability to deliver adequately fair social outcomes, or protect the planet.

Part of the upgrade needs to shift from adding efforts to reorienting efforts. For example, international development and more recently sustainable development has long been considered a process of adding on. Add renewables to the power supply. Add more foreign assistance so that more schools can be built and more children can be vaccinated. Add a focus on institutions and open government. Add dialogue space for civil society.

But the greatest successes of the past generation have come from transforming rather than adding. Comparing 2000 and 2015, as the world pursued the Millennium Development Goals, roughly a billion people escaped extreme poverty, nearly 4 million fewer children die each year, HIV/AIDSids morphed from a death sentence to a treatable disease, and a record number of children now attend primary school. Each of these successes was spearheaded by new approaches – unique blends of policies, institutions, financing and public-private cooperation.

Have you read?

A fresh focus

Now, to achieve the SDGs, we need to upgrade the global growth and development model in order to fuel issue-specific transformations across the board. Under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, we have been convened as part of a small group focused on the future of these challenges. As an international mix drawn from government, business, academia, international institutions and civil society, our members are prioritizing the development of key elements of a new operating system to achieve the SDGs. These elements include sustainable finance, smart partnerships, the fourth sector and good governance.

From our varied perspectives, we all agree that policy-makers and regulators must lead the way by creating the right policy and institutional framework within which others can act. They must ensure incentives whereby economic progress is tied to driving solutions to social and environmental challenges, and its benefits are distributed in a fair manner, without inhibiting the motivations for innovation.

But we believe contributions from many other actors are equally crucial. Banks and capital markets will have a key role in financing investments that contribute to, rather than detract from, the SDGs. Companies will need to provide core products and services for the SDGs while performing against, and continuously upgrading, industry-relevant economic, social and governance standards. Scientists and engineers will require supportive incentives to generate crucial technological breakthroughs. Civil society and media will need to keep innovating to ensure citizens are engaged and informed in a manner that holds powerful interests accountable.

The upside of any moment of deep uncertainty is an opportunity to do things differently. The key is to harness creative instincts toward better outcomes, not just new activities. For the big issues, the results are all that matter. Our world needs a reset in how we operate – and cooperate – to tackle our greatest long-term challenges, starting today.

This submission was prepared as a group product by members convened by the 2016-2018 Global Future Council on International Governance, Public-Private Cooperation and Sustainable Development, organized by the World Economic Forum. All members contribute in their personal capacities. The views expressed are not necessarily those of all contributors, who may have had different opinions on some issues.

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017 features a series of interconnected sessions calling on Responsive and Responsible Leadership to advance and accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentLeadershipGlobal CooperationEconomic Growth
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How to harness a community-based approach to conservation

Dev Narayan Mandal

July 2, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum