Why should you care about the Sustainable Development Goals?

Revamped version of Millennium poverty-busting plan can protect the climate, but experts say it needs cash

Vietnam (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

Farmers in Vietnam. The UN sustainable development goals seek to end hunger and abolish extreme poverty by 2030 (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

By Alex Pashley

World leaders unanimously signed off on revamped anti-poverty goals on Friday, which campaigners say could rival in significance 1948’s watershed UN Declaration of Human Rights.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a universal set of voluntary targets and indicators that 193 UN member states will be expected to use to shape their agendas and policies over the next 15 years.

Swelling from the expiring Millennium Development Goals’ list of eight, the proposed goals take steps to fight climate change, end violence against women, and provide universal health coverage – and go live from January.

“We pledge that nobody will be left behind”, boomed the Zero Draft published in June. UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon has tried to offer clarity around the goals’ purpose, listing the six “essential elements” as dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet, and people.

But for many, the post-2015 development agenda seems fuzzy – a disorienting product of years of UN summitry.

Zero Draft – Sustainable Development Goals

Lord Malloch-Brown, former head of the UN’s Development Programme when it devised the original Millennium Development Goals said the SDGs emerged from an “extraordinary global consultation exercise”, which had led to strengths and weaknesses.

“The SDGs have a much greater bottom up initial legitimacy, but precisely because of that consultation it reflects a less disciplined, easily adoptable agenda,” the ex UN chief told RTCC.

Of the 17 goals, there are 169 targets, which have in turn have at least two indicators each to measure implementation.

For example, goal 2 – end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture – vies to “correct and prevent trade restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets,” through eliminating export subsidies, as its indicator.

Vietnam (Kibae Park/UN Photo

A view of rice fields owned by local hill tribes in Vietnam. Volatile food prices hit the world’s poor  (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

Having doubled in number, the goals have gone from “fixed menu” to “a la carte” as countries become more selective in which ones they prioritise, Malloch-Brown said.

Jonathan Glennie, director of policy and research at Save the Children, called the proposals “visionary” and urged governments to go beyond comfort zones to enact the plans.

“It could become another UN document on the shelf, or it could be as important as the UN Declaration of Human Rights in the 1940s, in setting out norms we expect countries to live by,” he said.

“Will it be easy? No it won’t, but we need to be imaginative and creative.”

Success story

The Millenium Development Goals halved global poverty five years early, made large gains in fighting malaria and tuberculosis and cut by 50% the number lacking access to drinking water.

To carry out their successors’ aims to the letter, the UN estimates that US$3.3-4.5 trillion will be needed a year in the developing world.

With current investment at around $1.4tn, from government aid budgets to private sources of finance, that leaves a $2.5tn funding gap.

It would be “unacceptable” to write the manifesto and not stump up the cash, said Glennie, noting governments are delaying foreign aid targets of 0.7% of spending.

A report by the Overseas Development Institute states that 30 countries will remain “chronic donors” through 2030, with another 30 aid dependent.

To bridge the gap, the world must cast off outmoded thinking of a coterie of rich countries providing the lion’s share of funding.

A richer developing world can play a larger part, by retaining higher tax takes for example.

Though the real transformation lies in investment opportunities as the world moves toward a low-carbon economy.

The teachers in the Barefoot Colleges are an inspiration themselves. They themselves are not educated and more than that they lived in a highly conventional society. (Flickr/ UN photo)

A woman in India learns to become a solar engineer. (UN photo/ Gaganjit Singh)

Financing green projects from new power grids to solar panels in Africa will cut carbon and provide returns. All investors from pensions to hedge funds had to transform their thinking, said Malloch-Brown.

“At present, pension funds typically limit their exposure to emerging markets to around 10%. You’ve got to blow the lid off that. It will be much safer world [for pension holders] to retire in if it’s deployed that way,” he said.

The insertion of tracts on climate and energy signalled a key realisation – the environment and development are no longer in direct competition, Alison Doig, a climate change advisor at Christian Aid said.

Goal 7 is to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” and includes a call to “increase substantially” the share of renewables in power generation.

Likewise, goal 13 calls to “take urgent action to combat climate change and impacts,” which means building resilience to more frequent and extreme weather.

In climate circles, rich countries have promised to drum up US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help meet these goals, which the SDGs rally on them to deliver.

But Doig said the links between the two UN processes were weak, with just one paragraph mentioning climate in the SDG declaration. Oil-exporting nations too leave vague language in the text.

“This isn’t a climate proofed development package,” she said. “There’s no reference to 2C [an internationally agreed aim to limit warming by 2100] or the huge efforts needed across all SDGs to put it on that pathway.

“You can’t reduce poverty unless you do mitigation, and build resilience. Every single goal has to integrate these aspects.”

Battle lines

In spite of progress, old battle lines still divide rich and countries, said Kasia Staszewska, a policy adviser at ActionAid UK.

The meeting on sustainable financing goals in Addis Adaba will bring that into sharp relief. But shifts in geopolitics, has given rise to the likes of the BASIC countries and Global South collective, the G77, exerting a stronger influence on the outcome.

While overseas assistance has helped nix poverty in largely stable countries, like India and China, more is needed in a band of crisis-stricken states spanning West Africa to Eritrea and Yemen, said Malloch-Brown.

“The quiver of arrows you need to tackle it aren’t simple economics like service provision… but good governance, accountability and anti-corruption.”

He gave Cambodia as an example of a country that came back from the brink after protracted civil war. “It’s up to countries on their own as well as Western donors.”

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