Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 29 February 2016

Sustainability goals to get action going   

The latest development “buzz-word” is the SDGs or Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by political leaders at the United Nations.  What are these SDGs, their significance and limitations?


The newest fashionable term coming from the United Nations system is the “sustainable development goals”.

These are goals that all countries, represented by their top political leaders, have signed up to strive to achieve by the year 2030.

There are 17 goals altogether, and they cover three main aspects – economic, social and environmental, which are the components of “sustainable development.”

There is also the global partnership for development, in which developed countries pledge to assist the developing countries to fulfil their goals.

The SDGs were adopted at a United Nations Development Summit in New York in September 2015, attended by top political leaders.

The Summit adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Its centrepiece is the SDGs, summarised below:  

·         End poverty in all its forms everywhere (Goal 1); End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture (Goal 2).

·         Ensure healthy lives and well-being for all (Goal 3); Ensure education for all (Goal 4).

·         Achieve gender equality and empower women (Goal 5).

·         Ensure availability of water and sanitation for all (Goal 6); Ensure access to sustainable and modern energy for all (Goal 7).

·         Promote economic growth, full employment and decent work (Goal 8); Build infrastructure, promote industrialization and foster innovation (Goal 9); Reduce inequality within and among countries (Goal 10).

·         Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Goal 11); Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns (Goal 12).

·         Combat climate change (Goal 13);  Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources (Goal 14);  Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss (Goal 15).

·         Promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions (Goal 16).

·         Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (Goal 17).

These goals may seem like something obvious, which few can quarrel with. In fact, it took a long and arduous process of negotiations to agree on them.

Attached to each goal are targets to enable measuring whether the country, and the world, are on track. 

For example, under Goal 1 on poverty, the targets include that by 2030, extreme poverty would be eradicated and the proportion of people living in poverty would be halved. Countries will implement social protection systems for all, and everyone will have equal rights to economic resources, access to basic services, land, new technology and financial services.

Goal 8 on growth and employment has targets on achieving at least 7% annual growth in least developed countries, achieving higher productivity for all countries, decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, and achieving full employment and equal pay for equal work.

For Goal 10 on reducing inequality, targets include having income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a higher rate than the national average, eliminating discriminatory laws and practices, and adopting fiscal, wage and social protection policies to achieve greater equality, and well-managed migration policies.

Goal 12 has targets for the efficient use of natural resources, halving global food waste by 2030, having sound management of chemicals and wastes, promoting sustainable public procurement practices, and phasing out harmful subsidies.

Targets for Goal 15 include that by 2020 there will be sustainable forest management including a halt to deforestation and restoration of degraded forests globally, a halt to biodiversity loss, and integration of ecosystem and biodiversity values into national planning.

Goal 16 has targets to reduce violence, ending the abuse of children, promoting the rule of law, reducing all forms of corruption and developing accountable and transparent institutions.

Targets for Goal 17 on global partnership include developed countries to fulfil their obligation to provide 0.7% of their GNP as aid; addressing the external debt problem; transfer of technology; increasing developing countries’ exports; policy coordination for global macroeconomic stability, and respect for countries’ policy space.

The effects of the SDGs depend on the follow up. At national level, governments agreed to conduct reviews of progress on achieving the SDGs.

Since so many Ministries and agencies are involved in the issues covered by the SDGs, a SDGs Council (preferably chaired by the Prime Minister or President) should be set up. It can oversee data collection, draw up implementation plans, coordinate policies and monitor the progress of implementation.

At global level, the UN agencies are gearing up to assist countries.  The UN’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, will also organise reviews on the progress of SDGs implementation and provide guidance to countries.

This follow up process is of course all important, to transform the pledges in the SDGs into concrete results.

While the SDGs are a useful tool to galvanise action to tackle some of the key challenges of our times, there are limitations.

By themselves the SDGs do not provide an analysis of the causes of the problems, the obstacles that need to be overcome, and the solutions.  

Moreover, a major adverse event, like another global financial or economic crisis, may throw the process of fulfilling the SDGs off track or perhaps into chaos.   Countries facing a fall in exports and government revenue, cannot be expected to stay on track with the SGD targets. 

The SDG approach must thus be complemented with all-important analyses, of what are the structural and systemic issues and challenges of development and how to overcome the problems.

Reality is complex and qualitative analysis (backed up of course with data) is required, and therefore the SDGs should not displace the complex task of analysis by an overly simplistic approach to development.   

On the other hand, analysis of a complex problem can be supported by having priority goals and clear targets and indicators. 

Thus, the SDG approach should be accompanied by and not replace or downgrade the need for rigorous analysis.   A combined approach provides a better chance of getting the world on track to tackle the manifold crises afflicting humanity and the Earth.