In case you hadn't noticed, it's 2016, and the world is a mess. So the United Nations (UN) has hauled itself together to announce seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to "end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all." The goals outlined are the result of a global consultation on universal values, and have been signed onto by the UN's 193 member states. These goals, being rolled out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were set between 2000 and 2015. They provide benchmarks to be worked towards, at the level of individual, corporate, government, and community initiative, over the next fifteen years.
Sound exhausting? Definitely. But probably not as exhausting as living on a broken planet. Basically, the SDGs are an attempt to fix the world.
Here they are:
Each goal is backed up by specific sub-targets, so that everyone's on the same page.
Think of the SDGs as the dental work you've been putting off for years, except your teeth represent the state of the world and your mouth looks like something from Saw III. Looking at each SDG, and each of its unnervingly specific sub-targets, each of which addresses huge problems, it's easy for the brain to go into a sort of panic-induced holding pattern at the scale of the task. You can find the full summary in the link above. I mean, just look at it. How can any one person make any difference?
However, exceptionally worthy, bureaucratically cumbersome mega-tasks is pretty much what the UNDP was formed to manage. This BECAUSE introduction is like picking up the phone to the dentist: we're making an appointment with your part in the planet's future.
Why do we have the SDGs if the Millennium Development Goals were meant to fix everything? Is this just a thinly-veiled deadline extension?
No cynicism allowed: a lot was achieved during the period of the MDGs. According to the UNDP's own report, between 2000-2015 the number of people in extreme poverty was basically halved. Out-of-school primary-age children fell by half. Mortality for the under-fives fell by half. Ozone-depleting substances have been virtually eliminated, and unlikely as it sounds to anyone with a Mobinil contract, over 95% of the world's population now has a cellphone signal. You can read these and many other exciting statistics here.
Many of the MDGs were not achieved, but even the failings make for interesting reading. One of the various missed targets of the MDGs was in not reducing the maternal mortality rate by 75% as planned. Instead, the maternal mortality rate was reduced by 45%.
Which is still probably a lot more than if we hadn't even tried. The numerous studies that have critically appraised the MDGs have noted that it was, basically, worth doing. Or, as the serious people at development think-tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) put it, there were five "… analyses that lean toward conclusion that the MDGs had [or correlated to] a positive impact."
Either way, like students the night before coursework is due, the world in 2015 learned the power of a deadline. And this is why setting another global deadline in the form of the SDGs can move us forward.
So is this just more of the same?
Nope. A lot was learned in ... world goal-making ... after the MDGs. For example, the MDGs were largely aimed at problems that are most acute in the developing world: gender inequalities, infant mortality, general environmental disaster, etc. They also didn't really address the underlying causes of such poverty.
So what SDGs have picked up on is the fact that many of the problems of the developing world are deeply interconnected with the habits of the developed world - so advanced nations need to take some heat too. We can't go around demanding newly industrialising countries like India and China pedal back their energy use and the economic and social benefits that go with it, without calling on developed countries to make significant efficiencies also.
All countries agree that the goals represent universal values. However, in the tense negotiations formulating the SDGs' terms of implementation (which reads like a soap opera for people who like acronyms), developing countries pointed out that without the restructuring of current trade, financial and technological flows, they will be having a significantly harder task.
At the very least, the SDGs have grown our goals from eight to seventeen, demanding a lot more work from developed countries. This is partly a significant widening of the agenda, as well as a smarter breaking-down of certain issues into more manageable chunks. For example, all of the environment was covered in MDG 7 ("Ensure Environmental Sustainability"). There are now at least five different SDGs all closely related to the environment. After all, while all the goals are interconnected, for the immediate practicalities there's no point having a deep sea biodiversity guy on your solar energy team.
The SDGs also represent a landmark acknowledgement of refugee, migration and displacement issues as a key part of the development agenda, with provisions in seven of the goals directly relating to migration.
How do they work?
Having signed up to them, governments now have the daunting task of applying the SDGs in their own policy frameworks. This is not easy, as the International Institute of Sustainable Development notes, because the SDGs are very interconnected: you can't really achieve Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities) without paying attention to Goal 5 (Gender Equality) or Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), and so on. Nothing good is going to happen anyway without strong political will, collaboration and an awful lot of consultation with the people. It's almost like someone's trying to trick us into making smarter policy . ..
As a result, lots of countries have been developing their own plans for how to bring the SDGs home. They also have to be funded. At a major conference in Addis Ababa, governments re-committed to spend a minimum of 0.7% of public funds on international aid and to shore up their social provision of things like health and education services. But many have said that this isn't enough, and the UNDP agrees that the role of the private sector needs to grow. In MENA, for example, groups like the Responsible and Inclusive Business Hub have begun sessions discussing how corporate social responsibility initiatives can align themselves with the SDGs more effectively.
And they will work, won't they?
The most accurate projection we have so far is probably from the ODI, who crunched a lot of numbers and produced scorecards on how far we've got to go on each goal, as of 2016.
They score each goal on the basis of three needs: reform (ie, we're more than halfway there, keep going), revolution (we've really got to multiply our efforts to get there), and reversal (woah, that's making it worse).
Three sub-goals are doing fine: ending extreme poverty, economic growth in less developed countries, and halting deforestation are all in the 'reform' section. The majority are in 'revolution'; and scarily, the following goals are some of the ones where we need to actually stop the car and turn around: reducing income inequality, reducing slum populations, reducing waste, combatting climate change, and protecting marine environments.
But ODI remind us that "the SDGs could be within our reach, if progress speeds up. Extrapolations do not represent a fixed path that cannot be changed."
To get there, their analysis states the following things need to happen:
—Action needs to be inclusive. Ie, it needs to involve you.
—We need to learn from the countries that did well in the MDGs.
—We need to act fast. "Political momentum and buy-in is a must," say the ODI.
—We should recognise different countries' starting points.
How will we know they worked?
First day of 2030 you'll wake up next to a supermodel, and when you look out of the window there will be unicorns and the smell of freshly baked muffins.
The UNDP hopes you'll notice the impact as a direct beneficiary of an SDG-related activity. However, a serious part of the negotiation process was in recognising what an indicator of success would actually look like.
So, indicators of a goal scored is a big question, which means that UNDP devoted a whole website of its own to the matter. But to make it more accessible, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network made a much more searchable and rainbow-coloured database of the things that indicate success in different goals. These range from the sensible (56: Youth employment rate) to the comfortingly specific (67: Percentage of people within 0.5km of public transport running at least every 20 minutes,) to prog-rock album titles (75: Aerosol optical depth).
According to the ODI, though, gaps in data measurement are a problem in themselves, stating that "... there isn't a single five-year period since 1990 where we have enough data to report on more than 70% of MDG progress." Worse, it is the least developed countries that have the biggest issue with data collection, and ODI recommends investment in rigorous data collection services as well as innovative new methods.
What don't they address?
The SDGs will not do the pile of washing up in your sink. The cat is not going to stop coughing up hairballs on your clean laundry and you are not going to become a morning person. Ever.
The simple answer has to do with what issues get defined as 'development' issues. While human displacement is often a consequence of development problems, in the UN's institutional logic, it's a human rights issue—and is then referred to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Meanwhile, if free media (which doesn't make much of an appearance in the SDGs) is on your shopping list you'd head down to UNESCO. But despite the boundaries between agencies, it's interesting to see how these definitions can shift, and migration advocacy group Migration4Development have applauded the new appearance of refugee and migration issues on the SDG agenda.
But my government is a hot mess. What's going to make them do more than lip service?
No one single UN member state is perfect, and there is no direct guarantee that a given country will comply. Not only that, but all countries begin from different starting points. But a couple of factors really help those adorable people we call politicians to at least give the impression of working on things.
Firstly, the UN is a unique organisation. Despite all the criticisms, it remains the world's only and most important attempt to work collectively and rise above political squabbles. This moral high ground means that UN member states can give a pretty strong collective side-eye to countries that are not pulling their weight—and it can work.
Secondly, member states have the ability to select their priorities. This carrot-and-stick approach means that at the very least, some action gets taken within the abilities and present agendas of governments, no matter how much they may like to drag their feet on other goals—at least there's a positive line of approach available.
So can I relax now?
No, you can't. These are your goals, actually. Yes, the UNDP and its initiatives can seem like a distant organization, but unlike with the MDGS, these goals were formulated after a global consultation at the ground level—and it's you who stands to gain.
You don't need permission to take action as a global citizen—your business, your home, your school, or your neighbourhood—can all find ways to get on board by advocating and acting on SDGs whenever it is within your means. In an ideal world, too, you can pressure your leaders to keep ensuring their work aligns with the SDGs as much as possible, so that you get the benefits straight back. The UNDP is encouraging public awareness of the SDGs through a platform simply called 'Global Goals,' which has all manner of celebrities and, probably more importantly, invitations to get involved with UN-related initiatives and ideas to set up your own.
Image: NASA/Visible Earth