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 need for a successor to 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 observes the strategic framework created by a UN 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.”
These aims represented important advances over the MDGs which sought only to halve global poverty and which were weak on environmental issues. Goals that envisage the elimination of social injustice are significant in that they embrace the human rights principle of universality. They will also be extremely difficult to achieve.
The outcome was 17 Goals and 169 Targets, reinforced by a popular mantra to “leave no one behind”. 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.
There has been criticism that the high number of Goals reflects the prevailing weakness of multilateral negotiations to reach agreement on focused priorities. The vast range of indicators to measure progress, currently numbering 232, also imposes a formidable challenge for the capacity of national statistical offices, even in richer countries.
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 comprehensive 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 continues to be suffused with wishful thinking.
Accountability for achieving the promises of Agenda 2030 is viewed as very weak. National 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.
Concern about slow progress has already been expressed in The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017, compiled by the UN Statistics Division. Much will depend on governments, municipal authorities and corporations 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 re-integration of human rights within a platform for human development, however reluctantly the topic is introduced into negotiations. Also reaffirmed in Agenda 2030 are 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.