From MDGs to SDGs

updated November 2016

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) evolved as the centrepiece of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015. The SDGs merged the ambition of the 2012 “Rio+20” conference on sustainable development with the desire to build on the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs had been the UN’s flagship programme for reducing global poverty up to 2015.

The detailed content of the SDGs was recommended by a representative Open Working Group appointed by the UN. The Working Group had been presented with a strategic framework by a High Level Panel comprising the heads of government of Liberia, Indonesia and UK. The Panel decreed that “after 2015 we should move from reducing to ending extreme poverty, in all its forms……and we have to integrate the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability.”

The outcome was 17 Goals and 169 Targets, reinforced by a popular mantra to “leave no one behind” and a range of indicators to measure progress, currently numbering 231. There are Goals to end poverty and hunger by 2030, Goals to achieve gender equality for all women and girls, and Goals to provide universal access to primary and secondary education, safe water and energy. Unlike the MDGs which engaged only developing countries, both rich and poor countries will participate.

Goals that envisage the elimination of social injustice, rather than its reduction, as in the MDG programme, are very significant. They introduce greater respect for the principles of human rights which have universal application. They will also be extremely difficult to achieve.

There has been criticism that the high number of Goals reflects the prevailing weakness of multilateral negotiations to reach agreement on focused priorities. A counter view might observe that the baseline state of the planet and its inhabitants is so far adrift of the concept of sustainable development that a lengthy and aspirational agenda becomes essential.

Further criticism focuses on the mismatch between such an ambitious set of Goals and the absence of solid proposals to finance their astronomic costs. Despite a major UN Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015, almost every announcement about finance for the SDGs was suffused with wishful thinking.

The final SDG, number 17, embraces five targets for financing the Goals but the search for consensus on meaningful indicators for these targets has proved elusive. Indeed, the cost of monitoring performance indicators alone is viewed as overwhelming for national statistical resources, even in richer countries.

A UN-appointed High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development will oversee the coordination and coherence of the global endeavour. However, commitment to Agenda 2030 and the SDGs is non-binding. Individual countries are responsible for devising their own policies to attain the Goals. Progress reporting is voluntary.

This framework for monitoring the SDGs will be supported by a formal set of indicators drawn up by representatives of national statistical offices.  This process is behind schedule, struggling to reconcile the aspiration of identifying benchmarks to enable comparison between countries with the wide differences of social and political circumstances. In particular, it has exposed the absence of consensus on a tolerance threshold for inequality and a reluctance to measure the incidence of extreme wealth.

Accountability for achieving the promises of Agenda 2030 is therefore viewed as very weak. Much will depend on governments being held to account by domestic civil society, a process currently being suppressed in many countries of the world.

A more positive view points to the synergies between Agenda 2030 and the Paris Climate Agreement. The role of human rights as a platform for human development has been reaffirmed, as have the Rio Principles, an important set of guidelines for sustainable development drawn up in 1992. These include the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between richer and poorer countries.

In pursuing the endgame for negotiations on the SDGs and climate change in a single year, the UN took the risk that both would collapse in confusion. Instead, these 2015 agreements present a mutually supporting and inspiring vision of how we can secure a future for people and planet.


The World We Want – The UN Sustainable Development Goals – a young person’s guide to the SDGs calls on the Millennium generation to take action in support of the Goals
from Clara Edmonds

Jeffrey Sachs on the SDG Index
a new tool measures progress towards the goals and shows best practices across countries

from Bertelsmann Stiftung

more SDGs briefings
What is Sustainable Development
Teething Troubles for Sustainable Development
Sustainable Development and GDP
Green Economy
The Safe and Just Space for Humanity
Source material and useful links

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