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Sustainable Development Goals: Will the World Stick to Its New Year’s Resolutions?

As those of us who struggle to keep our resolutions know, following through on a New Year’s commitment isn’t easy. This year, however, the world has big plans. Last September, at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015, 193 countries signed on to tackle 17 goals and meet 169 targets “to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want” and “to heal and secure our planet” by 2030. On January 1, 2016, these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into force. Will the world be able to stick to its New Year’s resolutions?

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Learning from the Past

The SDGs were designed to overcome the shortcomings of their predecessors, the recently expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). While these eight objectives to halve global poverty between 1990 and 2015 were praised by some for bringing a focus on human development factors—rather than pushing solely for economic growth—the agenda also was criticized for being difficult to implement equitably across countries and within communities.

The MDGs were written with the intention to rally countries together, helping low-income countries gain technical support and international aid for poverty reduction efforts. During the application of the MDGs, however, rich countries experienced financial crises, and a large burden fell on the poorest countries that had the most work to meet the targets. With shrinking financial support, countries that already struggled the most with poverty inherently had the lowest national resources available to address it. Not surprisingly, many low-income countries failed to reach their goals.

Additionally, the MDGs aimed to halve poverty—rather than eradicate it—meaning that countries and regions often focused on quick, evident changes rather than investing in the reduction of deeper, systemic poverty. This strategy left many of the most-vulnerable populations at risk, even as countries claimed progress.

How will the SDGs address matters of equity differently? They aim to “work in a spirit of global solidarity, in particular solidarity with the poorest” and to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere,” placing particular emphasis on tracking results across income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, and geographic location. The SDGs also “recommit to broadening and strengthening the voice and participation of developing countries” and to the “mobilization of financial resources as well as capacity-building and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries.”

Shifting Into Synergies

Building on the concept that people and the planet are intimately interconnected, the earlier MDGs were expanded to include environmental and human rights issues. The UN’s 2030 Agenda recognizes the importance of “the link between sustainable development and other relevant ongoing processes in the economic, social and environmental fields” to move the world forward.

The SDGs also focus on cutting across sectors, including the private sector, to speed the development transition. In an opening address to the United Nations Private Sector Forum, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently stated: “Now is the time to mobilize the global business community as never before. The case is clear. Realizing the Sustainable Development Goals will improve the environment for doing business and building markets.” And while the growing power of corporations in UN decision making has potential risks, cooperation with the private sector may be a key to mobilizing and financing this global shift.

Unresolved Challenges

Clearly, the SDGs reflect a concentrated effort by the UN to address past weaknesses. Despite this soul-searching, however, the SDGs still have complications.

Determining how to define the goals’ “success,” for example, remains unclear. On one hand, some SDGs are likely not achievable within the given time frame for many countries. Can they truly “end poverty in all its dimensions” and “end hunger” in 15 years? Other goals, on the other hand, have targets that seem attainable but that are difficult to evaluate. How can the world measure success in “supporting,” “strengthening,” “achieving,” or “ensuring” desired outcomes? Without knowing the ultimate purpose of the SDGs, it will be hard to evaluate progress.

Perhaps the most significant challenge, however, is that the SDGs have no enforced accountability. The 2030 Agenda states that review processes will be “voluntary and country-led.” Without true international responsibility, these goals may do little more than serve as a development wish list.

7 Steps to Success

How does the world plan to see its commitment through, despite the challenges ahead? The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network has put together a guide to help stakeholders get started in their goals. Below is an overview of seven steps to SDG success:

  1. Know where you stand.

Before countries, sectors, regions, or cities decide on a course of action, they’ll need to take a look at where they stand. Taking an initial snapshot across various indicators can help uncover which goals are either unmonitored or lagging far behind. Prioritizing these goals can make sure that the other SDGs, which are interdependent, can be pushed forward together.

  1. Make a long-term plan.

Thinking over a 15-year horizon will help all stakeholders know what they can achieve and where they can contribute to the SDGs. Importantly, long-term planning also helps to overcome the fluctuations that come with changing politics and electoral cycles.

  1. Visualize success.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network recommends “backcasting” when setting long-term goals. This means envisioning a desirable future, and then working backward from that future to plan how it could be achieved.

  1. Recruit partners at all levels.

The national governments that signed on to the agreement are ultimately responsible for the success of the SDGs. But the goals are a complex, interrelated web that needs to be approached from all angles. Top and bottom, public and private, global and local—all are needed for the goals to be accomplished successfully. In particular, because these global goals begin with local-level implementation, UN Capital Development Fund Executive Secretary Judith Karl stated that “societies and economies cannot undergo transformation—and cannot meet the SDGs—without utilizing the comparative advantage of local governments.”

  1. Embrace technology.

Technological changes are making the exchange of data easier than ever, meaning that setting and tracking goals and exploring investment decisions could keep the SDGs on track. Plus, governments can more effectively deliver public services and communicate between government sectors and levels.

  1. Find the funds.

By one estimate, meeting the SDGs is going to cost an estimated $3 trillion. And the mixed outcome of the UN’s financing for development summit in July 2015 has left many unsatisfied with projected funding. Countries, regions, and cities need to look into options to shift or improve the efficiency of government resources, seek synergies with private financing sources, and (when needed and available) acquire financing from international institutions.

  1. Track your progress.

To succeed where the MDGs struggled, countries will need to compile and report high-quality and timely data monitoring the progress of SDGs. Robust indicators will help stakeholders develop strategies and determine where resources are most needed. To ensure that progress is equitable, the data will need to be collected across personal characteristics (such as gender and age) and spatial dimensions (such as urban versus rural).

Conclusion

The greatest purpose of the SDGs is to provide a framework for governments, donors, and advocacy groups to shift toward a world where “no one will be left behind.” They provide a unified direction for the future. Whether the goals and targets themselves can actually be reached is another matter. One thing is clear, however: without the SDGs, the world would be missing out on an opportunity to collaborate and experiment as this massive undertaking unfolds.

Despite the immensity of the challenge, the SDGs have the advantage of building upon past global goals and highlighting synergies between various sectors and stakeholders. Now, success depends on the interpretation and implementation of these goals. In the end, for our personal New Year’s resolutions as well as for the world’s, committing to improve is likely a step in the right direction.


Keep an eye on our blog and website to see what Worldwatch is doing to monitor, report on, and strengthen efforts to move the world toward sustainability.

 Gaelle Gourmelon is the Communications Director at the Worldwatch Institute. She has a background in biology and environmental health and focuses on how we can use social institutions and the planet’s resources more effectively.

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