Have You Heard of the Sustainable Development Goals?

On September 25, over 150 world leaders met at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City to approve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a plan intended to guide human development for the next 15 years. The Agenda contains 17 goals that together aim to end poverty and combat climate change. These objectives will be enormously difficult to reach, but when the stakes are nothing less than the future of the planet and the well-being of all of its inhabitants for generations to come, the global community must muster the political will to overcome its differences and cooperate effectively.

In theory, the 2030 Agenda will organize and direct all UN and national government actions during its fifteen-year mandate. Thus, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include everything from “[ending] poverty in all its forms, everywhere” to “[promoting] peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, [providing] access to justice for all, and [building] effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The UN has committed to achieving these goals through “sustainable development,” a term that denotes any economic, social, or environmental growth that is not also economically, socially, or environmentally harmful. Hence, putting more young girls in school in Mozambique and building environmentally friendly automobile factories in China are both forms of “sustainable development.”

The Millennium Declaration Years

The 2030 Agenda is the successor to the UN’s Millennium Declaration in 2000, which also sought to eradicate extreme poverty with its eight goals. By the time the Declaration’s mandate expires at the end of this year, it will have become the most successful effort in history to improve human well-being. Despite an increasing world population, the number of individuals living in severe poverty has fallen from 1.8 billion at the time of the Declaration’s signing to 836 million this year. The Millennium Development program has made huge strides toward improving global health by preventing about 45 million deaths from tuberculosis and malaria, drastically reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and halving maternal and under-five mortality rates worldwide. Substantial progress has also been made in promoting gender equality and enhancing worldwide access to education. Finally, the fifteen years of planning, debating, funding, and implementing various development programs have served as an invaluable exercise in global cooperation for the armies of politicians, economists, journalists, bureaucrats, executives, activists, diplomats, academics, and aid workers that have been involved.

Nevertheless, the Millennium Goals had their shortcomings. Aggregate statisticslike the 45% decrease in the proportion of undernourished people in developing countriesmask the unequal distribution of progress across the globe. The Caribbean, Oceania, Southern Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa had minimal improvement in this area, with the number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa actually increasing by 44 million since 1990. Similar inequalities exist in virtually all other areas of development.

Another major fault in the implementation of the Millennium Goals was the failure to consistently coordinate efforts. In Africa, for instance, UN agencies and national governments crafted their plans to reduce poverty, expand healthcare, and improve water quality without thoroughly considering the interplay between these programs. As a result, villagers across the continent inadvertently poisoned their water sources and shrank their fish stock by fishing with the anti-malarial, insecticide-treated mosquito nets that they had received from aid workers. The global health community’s tunnel vision resulted in serious damage to other initiatives to reduce hunger and protect the environment.

Anecdotes like this one have become the favorite refrains of foreign-aid critics in recent years. In light of the damage done by misguided Millennium Goal projects, it is now clear that poorly planned projects can not only lead to massive redundancies for aid organizations and governments, but also harm the very people that they aim to help.

Many Millennium Goal projects also suffered from a grave lack of oversight. Progress on the goals wasn’t seriously assessed at a high level until 2005, a third of the way through the allotted time, at which point the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the UN Department of Public Information published a two-page progress report. In the report, 60% of the target areas were in the “not expected to be met by 2015, if prevailing trends persist” category or classified as “no progress, or a deterioration or reversal.” In poorer countries, data-collecting capabilities were so underdeveloped that no one knew what impact many of the programs were having, a factor that exacerbated the UN’s chronic lack of accountability.

Finally, even as progress was made toward a healthier, more prosperous global population, Millennium Goals projects usually left environmental health to the wayside. It is undoubtedly good news that that the proportion of people living in poverty in the developing world has plunged from about 50% in 1990 to 14% this year, largely as a result of economic growth in China and India. But this success has come at a heavy price, for over the same period, carbon emissions in the developing world have tripled as production has expanded. This tradeoffpoverty reduction for pollutionwas typically accepted during the Millennium Declaration years, but the newest climate science indicates that leaders need to seriously rethink their approach.

Nevertheless, governments continue to pursue carbon-intensive means of economic expansion at the cost of environmental integrity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns with “high confidence” that current trends in climate change could accelerate the rate of extinction for a wide array of species, pose significant threats to human health, and cause an “increased risk . . . from heat stress, storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, air pollution, drought, water scarcity, sea level rise and storm surges.” A recent study published by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the National Snow and Ice Data Center has estimated the economic cost of climate change at $369 trillion, and the UN Security Council, as early as 2009, was “deeply concerned that the adverse impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, could have possible security implications.” These fears may have already reached fruition, as researchers suspect that the drought in Syria, which drove hungry, malcontent farmers into the cities, was a result of human-induced climate change and played a significant role in sparking the present humanitarian crisis there.

Since the Industrial Revolution, virtually all economic expansion has come as a package deal with increased waste and emissions. But as argued above, this model has bred environmental catastrophe. The new Agenda insists on treating environmental threats as on par with economic and social ones and calls for the transition to greener consumption and production patterns, renewable energy creation, and ecologically sustainable economic growth. The COP21 climate summit has been scheduled for December of this year, just a few months after the 2030 Agenda’s adoption, to emphasize the importance of environmental issues. It is hoped that the leaders at this conference will finally adopt concrete, legally binding plans to keep global warming to less than two degrees Celsius for the indefinite future.  

Some have argued that the technical problemsthe uneven distribution of improvement, the poor coordination, the absence of serious review processes, and the continued neglect of the environmentstem from a deeper problem: a lack of political will within the UN system. But so far, the 2030 Agenda process has shown glimmers of the type of determination that was lacking in the Millennium Declaration years. While the Agenda was being drafted, nations spoke earnestly about the the Declaration’s missteps, and made some fundamental changes to the world’s development philosophy as expressed in the new plan. In particular, they crafted a development strategy that aspires to be “inclusive” and  “integrated” with “robust follow-up and review mechanisms” to ensure “sustainable development.”

Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Each of these vague-sounding terms has a specific goal in mind. The promises of “inclusivity” are intended to address the unequal distribution of progress and the drastic inequalities that exist between and within societies. “Leave no one behind” has become the favorite tagline. Accordingly, the Agenda vows to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable. At an international level, this requires continued “special and differential treatment” for developing nations in trade deals, aid disbursement, and investment programs. At a national level, the Agenda requests that governments pursue policies that are non-discriminatory and that address the needs of the poorest in their countries first.

The term “inclusive” also expresses the UN’s desire to involve non-governmental segments of society more intensely in the development process. This means working directly with the private sector, the media, civil society organizations and the public on projects. In this spirit, the coalition of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is cooperating closely with a renewable energy startup called Altaeros Energies. Together, they plan to deploy easily transportable airborne wind turbines to deliver energy to remote islands where traditional delivery methods are too expensive and inefficient.  

The new, “integrated” approach to economic development takes into account positive and negative feedback loops, externalities, and complex systems’ inner workings. The misuse of insecticide-laden mosquito nets is a textbook example of poorly integrated development—instead of making villagers healthier, the misused nets made them hungrier, thirstier, and sicker. The economy suffers from a sick workforce, and so the downward spiral continues. Thankfully, these feedback loops work both ways. When provided with anti-malarial mosquito nets and training on how to use them, the healthier populace can work more efficiently, boost output, and enjoy all of the benefits of a stronger economy.  In an exemplary display of UN system cooperation, an organization named Roll Back Malaria, whose 500 members include countries, NGOs, corporations, and research institutes, created and published training manuals with warnings about exposing the nets to water.

Obviously, it takes more than the proper use of mosquito nets to fix a broken society. But this is precisely what “integrated” development recognizes: that robust, sustainable economic growth requires a meticulously planned and analysis-driven consideration of all of the interconnections between as many social, economic, and environmental factors as possible. In pledging to integrate its development agenda, the UN is committing to avoid improvement in one goal area that comes at the expense of another and is setting out to take advantage of “synergies” between social, economic, and environmental forces.

The Way Forward

The 2030 Agenda presents global leaders with an ambitious, maybe even impossible task: to eradicate poverty and stop global warming by transforming the world economy. Jeffrey Sachs, Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals, has remarked that, “[Sustainable development] is only about our attention and our capacity to be willing, cooperative, and caring with each other.” As Sachs has said on a number of occasions and as the IPCC report further affirms, the technical solutions needed to generate environmentally sound economic development already exist. What we need is the political will to implement them.

If this is true, then the UN’s hopes for success rest largely on the attainment of unprecedented levels of cooperation and accountability. Perhaps this is why member states have collectively agreed to adopt “robust follow-up and review mechanisms” to track progress, identify weaknesses, recommend solutions, and hold decision-makers responsible for the goals. Beginning next year, there will be a renewed commitment to evaluating national plans in regional and global forums, and countries should begin to conduct internal, subnational reviews themselves.

This multi-tiered system of scrutiny will ensure improved standards for performance, but alone, it will not be enough to guarantee the kind of international cooperation that such formidable goals demand. Global elites will need to live up to yet another of their buzzwords—“moral leadership.“ Our leaders must forgo power politics and the security of the status quo if they are to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals seriously. They must abandon the immediate gratification of popular, easy economic decisions in favor of the growing pains that sustainable development may bring on. As Sachs has pointed out on numerous occasions, “There are no alternatives [to sustainable development].”

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

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