New York, 25th of September 2015: the leaders of all 193 member states of the United Nations sign the agenda ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development‘. This new development agenda and the successor of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets with the ultimate goal of eradicating poverty and inequality by 2030. Central pillars of the Agenda are the 5 P’s: people (living in dignity), planet (protecting the planet), prosperity (opportunities for personal development), peace (freedom from fear and violence) and partnership (a renewed global solidarity to leave no one behind).
Being broader and covering more areas than the MDGs, the SDGs will be globally and universally applicable. While the MDGs mainly served as a guide for the developing countries, being supported by rich countries through debt relief, trade and aid, these new SDGs are expected to change the classic North-South relation. Not only focusing on the developing world anymore, the new Agenda will also have developed countries contributing and working towards reaching these goals themselves. Ending poverty, ensuring healthy lives, focusing on human rights and good governance, achieving gender equality, halting climate change and conserving the oceans, to name a few topics, are therefore now on the agenda of rich and poor countries alike, under the motto ‘we’re all in this together’.
As of January 1st 2016, the implementation phase of the SDGs kicked off. All 193 UN member states that signed the 2030 Agenda are expected to introduce and adjust the necessary policy measures to reach the 17 goals and 169 targets by 2030. However, given the immense diversity among those nations which was already reflected during the negotiations on the Agenda, one can expect some inevitable bumps in the road towards implementation. What possible hurdles could we encounter in the strive for a sustainable world by 2030?
The Agenda is non-binding – the struggle for results
Having – and keeping – 193 countries on board apparently comes at a price. If the negotiation process was already quite the exercise in diplomacy (not all countries appeared to be the biggest champions of including sexual and reproductive rights, to name one example), getting all these countries to practise what they preached in New York definitely will be. However, although the agenda is non-binding, many refer to the ‘immense moral power’ of an Agenda signed by 193 countries. Many SDGs also refer to already existing binding international commitments, like the ILO Conventions regarding decent work as referred to in SDG 8. The UN is also developing a list of 300 concrete indicators to measure and follow up the efforts and results being made. More than with the MDGs, there is a particularly large focus on measuring reliable data and quantifying the SDGs and their outcomes, but also on differentiating this data: knowing the level of education only is not enough; we also need to know the distinction between girls and boys, cities and countryside, rich and poor, to be able to adjust policies in order to ensure a balanced and inclusive outcome. With several high-level follow-up conferences also being planned in the coming years, one may hope that international exposure will prevail over short-term political agendas or the reduced interest from international media after the big speeches at the UN in September 2015.
We did not reach all 8 Millennium Development Goals. How would 17 Sustainable Development Goals work?
Contrary to the Millennium Development Goals, which mainly covered the ‘classical’ development topics, the Sustainable Development Goals go much broader and also cover topics like human rights, peace and security, respect for the rule of law and good governance. In addition to this holistic approach, the SDGs are all interconnected: to reach one goal, you also need to take into account other goals. Despite the diversity and wide coverage of this agenda, these goals constitute one single agenda as a whole. The 17 goals and 169 targets of the SDGs do sound a lot less ‘catchy’ than the simple and plain 8 MDGs indeed, and the communication aspect was an issue that was partially resolved by the 5 P’s (people-planet-prosperity-peace-partnership), as mentioned in the more readable foreword of the ‘Agenda 2030’. National statistical agencies will also face the challenge of collecting reliable data to meet the quantification requirements of 169 targets. It’s not ‘catchy’, ‘sexy’ or an ‘easy read’ – but on the other hand: eliminating poverty and inequality was never meant to be all this. Communicating the aims and importance of this Agenda in an accessible, understandable way to larger audiences is however necessary to keep people on track with the efforts of their elected governments. When checking with the average woman or man in the street, one quickly learns that the UN indeed has a lot of work to do.
How feasible are the SDGs?
The Sustainable Development Goals are the result of a political negotiation process: ambiguities and inconsistencies are therefore an inevitable reality, unfortunately. The SDGs also provide a minimum standard that countries need to reach; additional ambition is therefore desired, but experience with the MDGs suggests that just reaching the minimum goal will already prove to be quite the challenge. International cooperation will be necessary, as is also set in the 17th and last SDG about international cooperation supporting the achievement of the Agenda. This cooperation will be necessary in areas such as financial assistance, technology, capacity building, trade and system issues. However, not only governments are held accountable for reaching the 17 Goals: companies, civil society organizations and individual citizens are also expected to contribute in order to succeed. Nevertheless, governments have the largest role to play, as they are in the ideal position to create incentives for a sustainable economy, or even solid legislation to tackle unsustainable practises. Consistent policies are needed, as economic, ecological and social progress are all three prerequisites for sustainable development. Today, policies often address only one or two of these conditions, and policy inconsistencies are common as development ambitions rarely match with the rest of the government’s agenda. A sustainability test for all policy domains is therefore a critical first step to tackle this issue. A next and much more ambitious step might be to eliminate the GDP and economic growth as the primary indicators of progress, and to replace them by a broader measure that also takes the environment and social progress into account. The European Commission, for example, has already done some preparation work on this, and now European countries just need to follow and implement. Alongside the government, a participating society is also crucial to avoid having to roll back unsustainable government decisions.
What will happen after 2030?
Looking into the crystal ball of development might just as well be like kissing a frog, expecting it to turn into a man, when you’re actually more likely to get a salmonella infection. Several scenarios are possible, going from big successes to worst case scenario. We could succeed and fully achieve the SDGs by 2030, with the Global South becoming a full, strong, empowered partner and with a fully developed South-South cooperation. Worst case scenario, however, would be the total disappearance of the 2030 Agenda from the main stage – or any stage, for that matter. With plenty of other problems to worry about (financial crises, migration flows, the scramble for raw materials, war, terrorism, to name a few), the SDGs might become a non-priority, not to say irrelevant, and disappear from the political agenda. The most likely scenario, however, is somewhere in between: to improve significantly, but with still some work ahead. Just like the MDGs did, the SDGs will mean a significant jump forward with important improvement, but it might be questionable whether it will be enough. After 30 years of so-called ambitious development agendas, the risk of development fatigue is real. Keeping the development flame burning, through realistic, measurable policy targets, transparency and involvement of all, and a credible and convincing follow-up system to keep world leaders on the ball, will definitely prove to be essential.