Get to know the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

2015-07-21-SDGsGoodbye, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), hello, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are the 17 goals towards which all United Nations efforts will now work, and the UN will encourage all NGOs and governments to work towards them as well, to make our world a better place. Like the MDGs before, the SDGs will help UN initiatives better focus its work across various agencies, various partnerships, and various regions.

I congratulate my United Nations colleagues, especially those at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) , who have been working on drafting these. I encourage you, if you work in addressing any of the areas mentioned by the SDGs, or you want to work in international development, to become familiar with these, and to start referencing them in your work.

The MDGs were introduced in 2000. I began at the UN in February 2001, and I found the MDGs incredibly helpful in approaching my work, in making it more focused. In my opinion, the MDGs did an excellent job of focusing the work of the UN, various NGOs and governments, providing a framework for all of our initiatives. The MDGs are simple, with goals with which no one would disagree, for the most part. The MDGs are “an explicit recognition of the reality that a large proportion of people in the world were deprived and poor.” The MDGs sought a time-bound reduction in poverty to improve the living conditions of those deprived and excluded, and it was an attempt to place this persistent problem, until then a largely national concern, on the development agenda for international cooperation.1 The MDGs specified a destination but, purposely, did not chart the journey, so that each country – indeed, each community – could develop its own way of reaching the goals.

But, as we all knew it would, the world has changed significantly since the MDGs were created in 2000. Notions of developed and developing have continued to evolve. Now, international development is less about the transfer of aid from rich to poor countries and more about progressive change from within, and empowering those local agents of change. The world has always been interconnected, but challenges and opportunities seem to happen so much more quickly now, across borders, requiring incredibly rapid responses. The MDGs were always meant to be replaced as the world evolved, and now they have. No, we didn’t reach the MDGs by 2015, but we did better target our work towards the world’s most poor.

The MDGs made no mention of human rights and did not specifically address economic development; the SDGs correct this. The SDGs apply to all countries, rich and poor alike, and the UN conducted the largest consultation in its history to gauge opinion on what the SDGs should include. I’ve read several comments that say the SDG framework brings together the different aspects of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – in a much more integrated way than the MDGs, but I haven’t read any specific examples of that, or seen any illustrations of this yet.

The deadline for the SDGS is 2030. Will we reach the goals by then? Probably not. But we will make progress towards them, if we have the will to do so. Are the SDGs perfect? No. But there better than what we had, and better than nothing. I often think the arguments against the SDGs, like the MDGs, keep us from activities that the world desperately needs.


1. “The MDGs after 2015: Some reflections on the possibilities,” by Deepak Nayyar, for the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, April 2012

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