This article was originally published in WhiteHat Magazine’s Winter 2015/16 Edition.
What are the SDGs?
In September 2015, at the United Nations General Assembly, world leaders officially committed to a new development agenda, called the Sustainable Development Goals. Fifteen years ago, world leaders made a similar commitment to 8 international development goals called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which came due in 2015. The SDGs include 17 goals that fall under 3 overarching themes: end extreme poverty; fight inequality and injustice; and fix climate change.
The new goals came into effect January 1, 2016, and will come due in 2030.
How are they different from the MDGs?
There are a few obvious differences: the larger number of goals, the more ambitious scope, etc. But the biggest differences are in how the goals were created, and who the targets of the goals are.
First, how the SDGs were created was ostensibly a much more open and democratic process than the creation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The UN hosted multiple surveys, met with civil society groups from around the world, and took input from all areas of expertise in order to create the SDGs. This process took years. Once they had all this data, they had to hash out the actual goals and targets with all of the UN member nations. It was a much more open process than the creation of the MDGs, which Devex author Simone Filippini jokes “were conceived once upon a time by a group of men in bespoke suits in the bowels of a U.N. building.”
Second, there is widespread acknowledgement in the international development community that the MDGs were limited in their success because initially governments were trying to take on the entire task of reaching these goals and coordinating with development NGOs on their own. Business was left out of the picture until sometime around 2011, when governments started talking about public private partnerships. This approach was much more effective: the investment and logistics talents of private business combined with the broad vision and regulation authority of governments created greater impact and progress toward the goals. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was a leader in showing the effectiveness of this approach.
The UN learned from this, and as a result, the SDGs process has included business voices from the get-go. In 2012 and 2013, Unilever CEO Paul Polman served on the UN’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (“a panel of representatives from government, civil society and business tasked with advising the UN Secretary-General on the future development agenda”), and in 2014 coordinated the Post-2015 Business Manifesto with a number of other multi-national corporations, including Mastercard, GSM, BT Global, Philips, and TOMS. At the 2015 COP21 Summit on climate change in Paris—where the SDGs provided critical momentum to reaching an agreement—Bill Gates again positioned himself as a trailblazer in public-private investment into clean energy, and over 5000 other business leaders attended the official summit at Le Bourget (along with many more in side events across Paris) to make the business perspective heard in the climate change conversation.
Finally, the MDGs were criticized for being a product of the “aid handout” years in international development, where developed nations only had to give money and observed, while developing nations had to work to improve. With the SDGs, everyone—developing and developed nations alike—has something they can improve on, whether it is addressing women’s rights, improving sustainability, or eliminating poverty and hunger in their societies.
That’s not to say these goals are perfect—the areas that need global development attention the most due to conflict and war are not likely to find much help in some of these goals, and the complexity of the goals may make for a unfocused approach to many problems—but they are an effort to mobilize the world to rally around the cause of eliminating extreme poverty, climate change, and injustice once and for all.
What are the focuses of the goals?
In a nutshell: ending poverty, improving equal rights and democracy, and creating a sustainable and stable world. Basically, the things that weren’t accomplished by the MDGs, or issues got glossed over or ignored.
But here’s the UN’s own words on the matter, from Article 3 of the “We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.”
A cause I think is important didn’t make it on the list!
You aren’t alone—many groups tried to lobby the UN to include other provisions at the last minute. It wasn’t meant to be though; the goals had been largely decided on for months, after being developed for years through consultations with civil society groups from around the world. It’s likely your cause was heard by the UN, but ultimately chosen not to be included.
The UN had a vision for how the SDGs goals would work together, as a cohesive agenda, which they explained in Article 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals Declaration: “The challenges and commitments identified at these major conferences and summits are interrelated and call for integrated solutions. To address them effectively, a new approach is needed. Sustainable development recognizes that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, combating inequality within and among countries, preserving the planet, creating sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and fostering social inclusion are linked to each other and are interdependent. “
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