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Sustainable Development Goals: What you need to know

World leaders meet in New York this week to discuss the goals that will shape the global agenda until 2030.

By: /
25 September, 2015
Pope Francis addresses a plenary meeting of the UN Sustainable Development Summit 2015 in Manhattan. (Reuters)
By: Ban Ibrahim

More than 150 world leaders have descended on New York this week to discuss the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are coming into effect as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come to an end.

The MDGs were set in 2000 and led the agenda for global development over the past 15 years. Although the MDGs were deemed successful by several measures, there’s still a lot to do to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and address numerous other social issues. That’s where the SDGs come in. These 17 goals, with 169 targets, were set by 193 member states and are expected to be adopted at the summit this weekend. They will then set the next global development agenda until 2030.

What makes these new goals different and what is key to implementation? Here are four things to know.

  1. The SDGs are a more inclusive set of goals

The SDGs represent a shift from the previous goals in terms of inclusion — it’s an agenda that leaves no one behind. Whereas the MDGs encompassed goals specific to certain communities, the SDGs emphasize the need to help every country, group and demographic, especially vulnerable ones. Terms like “all” and “inclusive” are present in 10 of the 17 goals, as opposed to the MDGs’ focus on the developing world. It puts forth the message that every country, no matter how prosperous it is as a whole, has changes to make and problems to address.

As a result however, there has been criticism about whether these goals are achievable. Researchers at D.C.-based think tank The Heritage Foundation find “that they are ‘achievable’ because of their very vagueness,” noting that many of the goals lack measurable data necessary to track progress.

Another notable difference is the inclusion of the environment and the emphasis on sustainability. Similar to the MDGs’ interest in reducing poverty, improving quality of life and promoting equality, the new goals are to be executed through economic development that will still maintain natural resources, i.e. sustainable development. As natural resources run out, it is stressed that we must do everything in our power to protect and maintain what we have left. (For more on this, see point number four.)

  1. They address inequality

Inequality between and across countries, as well as between governments, institutions and people, is being tackled, as it is a key barrier to social cohesion. Strategies for reducing inequality include promoting inclusion in economic and political governance by way of enhanced representation, eliminating discriminatory laws and policies, adopting wage and social protection policies, and improving regulation and monitoring for institutions.

The goals could also provide viable solutions to issues like the refugee crisis by addressing root causes, such as forced migration and inequality, “so that people don’t have to flee their own countries, their own villages, their own homes because they can’t have a life of dignity there,” says Amina Mohammed, the UN Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning. According to the UN, “while income inequality between countries may have been reduced, inequality within countries has risen.” The goals call for income growth for the bottom 40 percent of a given population at a rate higher than the overall average.

  1. Their success depends on how well they inspire action

Success will depend on the ability to inspire and mobilize. With inclusion as a main driving force, the campaign aims to reach everyone in such a way that the goals’ urgency and the need for action can be more widely appreciated. They plan to inspire people, through the Global Goals campaign, to help lead these transformations by instilling the idea that there is a shared responsibility throughout the world. The campaign hopes raising awareness of the goals will inspire everyone to get involved, especially businesses.

“We’re going to be making much more of an effort now at the country level with the UN country teams to look at the different stakeholders that we will be helping to convene…We hope they use the SDG framework to raise the ambition and bring the partnerships together for a sustainable development pathway,” says Mohammed.

Financing the goals is a crucial element to achieving sustainability and the private sector is expected to be a main partner and source of funding, but unlike the MDGs, which focused on business alone, the SDGs emphasize the need for cooperation between private, public, scientific and non-profits sectors as well.

  1. Environmental sustainability is key

Even though the MDGs did make progress in areas such as decreased poverty, access to improved sources of water and decreased child mortality, among other achievements, they did not solve these issues completely. By tackling core environmental problems like climate change, it will be possible to prevent the reversal of positive trends achieved by development. Addressing climate change and executing the goals through sustainable development go hand in hand, as one will only improve the other. (See the UN’s page on how to help combat climate change.)

Sustainable consumption and production is also outlined as a core goal as it will also help to achieve more employment and a better quality of life for all. By reducing the use of resources and pollution, it’s believed that economic activity will increase, thus bettering living conditions. Once again, cooperation is key for making something like this a reality so it is imperative that everyone, from supplier to consumer, is involved. Becoming more energy efficient, reducing waste generation and decreasing pollution so more fresh sources of water are available will help solve both social and environmental issues.

All 17 SDGs:

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

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