The SDGs

This September, representatives of UN member states and influential international NGOs will meet in New York to finalize the Post-2015 development agenda. Comprised of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) broken down into 169 targets, this agenda will determine the central international priorities for poverty reduction programs and human development over the next 15 years. These SDGs follow from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the past 15 years, with inspiration from the Rio+20 conference in 2012.

What does this mean? And where are we now? Let’s start back in the year 2000.

The MDGs: 2000-2015
Fifteen years ago, in September 2000, world leaders gathered at the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York to discuss the future of international development. Out of this gathering – the largest in history at the time – came the UN Millennium Declaration, which resolved to reduce poverty and improve human and environmental welfare substantially by the distant year of 2015 [1]. Eight goals covering various aspects of poverty – measurable, time-bound targets and indicators included with each – outlined ambitious aspirations for dramatic improvements in quality of life for all people, everywhere.

Goal 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty

Goal 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education

Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

Goal 4: Reduce Child Mortality

Goal 5: Improve Maternal Health

Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases

Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability

Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Controversy surrounded these goals, as well as the entire process behind them, from the beginning. In addition to being too ambitious, vague, and unrealistic, critics said, the MDGs represent yet another product of Western priorities packaged as prescriptions for progress. They are an absurd exercise of an insulated bureaucratic elite that undervalues the interests and agency of communities by excluding them entirely. In ignoring regional variation in need, interest, and capacity, the goals set developing countries up for cyclical failure as measured against another in a series of patronizing “global” standards. Finally, the MDGs are just a new iteration of the same ineffective (and often counterproductive) top-down paradigm of interventions that seek to “develop” a place in a very specific way with no regard to community ownership and sustainability. There is some merit in these criticisms, but they are one part of a larger picture.

Today, progress toward these goals is mixed (download the official report here); however, despite the criticism and the shortcomings of the goals, they retain an important role in the future of development. Improving human welfare while protecting our environment is a complex and at times intimidating task that requires international collaboration at every level. To have any real chance of actually eliminating poverty and safeguarding our planet in the coming generations, international organizations, states, NGOs, communities, and individuals must work together, sharing information and resources, identifying areas of need and areas of growth, exchanging lessons learned and new best practices, and working toward common goals. And this is precisely what the MDGs were intended to be – a set of common goals to coordinate measurable, time-based development efforts with a view of making the world a better place for everyone to live.

With the conclusion of the MDGs quickly approaching, the world needed a plan, which meant that it was time for another international meeting/summit/conference/round of consultations. Enter Rio+20.

In June 2012 world leaders once again converged, this time on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”). The conference focused on the next steps for international development, this time with a particular emphasis on providing for sustainability and greater inclusion of the environment, and produced an outcome document called “The Future We Want”. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes here, Rio+20 also resulted in the decision to start the process of creating a set of Sustainable Development Goals to continue the work begun under the MDGs. This new round of goals would be part of a larger Post-2015 process intended to discern a coordinated direction for the next 15 years of international development.

The SDGs: 2015-2030
In addition to incorporating various Plans, Agendas, and Principles, and observing existing agreements and international laws, participants of Rio+20 agreed that the SDGs must be:

  • Action-oriented
  • Concise
  • Easy to communicate
  • Limited in number
  • Aspirational
  • Global in nature
  • Universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. [2]

The process of developing the SDGs began in earnest in March 2013 with an intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) comprised of representatives of member states from five major regions. After 13 sessions over the course of 16 months, the OWG produced a preliminary Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals. This proposal was sent to the UN General Assembly and confirmed as the working agenda for the Post-2015 process moving forward.

The Current 17 Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3 Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4 Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Goal 5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7 Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
Goal 8 Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9 Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10 Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11 Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13 Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
Goal 14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 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
Goal 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
Goal 17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

In January 2015, Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Outcome Document (IGN) began working with a Zero Draft of the SDGs based on the OWG proposal. The IGN will discuss the specifics of the SDGs, including targets, financing, measurement, and implementation, until the end of July. At this point it will present a final SDGs and Post-2015 document called Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Global Action to be adopted at a UN summit from 25-27 September 2015 in New York. This means that, by the end of September, exactly 15 years after the adoption of the MDGs, we will have a brand new set of goals – the SDGs.

Where are we now?
We are nearing the end. Currently we are in the middle of the final meetings of the IGN, to be followed by the UN Summit and adoption of the SDGs at the end of September:

19-21 January             Stock-taking

17-20 February           Declaration

23-27 March               SDGs and Targets

21-24 April                  Means of Implementation and Partnership

18-22 May                   Follow-up and Review

22-25 June                  IGN

20-24 July                    IGN

27-31 July                    IGN

25-27 September        UN Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Right now the SDGs are being finalized. In a few short weeks they will be set in stone to guide international development for the next 15 years. This next phase was originally intended to build upon the MDGs, except this time based on people and on data. As they stand presently, the SDGs fall far short of realizing the vision articulated at Rio+20. Thus they do not fulfill the mandate of creating a collaborative strategy for truly sustainable development; they let down the very people they are intended to lift up.

It is not too late! THIS is our opportunity to call on world leaders to include PEOPLE and DATA in the SDGs. With this addition we have a chance of achieving sustainable development, but we must act.

Where are the people?

Where are the data?


More to Learn:

Goal 18

A Critical Response

The Movement

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