Search

How to Think about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: A Primer

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

On September 25, 2015, at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City, all 193 member states unanimously signed the outcome document called Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The global agenda consisted of a set of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and their 169 related targets, intended to offer a framework for the eradication of extreme poverty for everyone everywhere and meet broader environmental goals.

In many nations of the world, the approval of these SDGs was front-page news, with long articles detailing their many provisions. In the United States, however, the SDGs have received far less attention—a topic of discussion perhaps among impact investors and philanthropy, but not a central matter of concern.

This is unfortunate because the SDGs have far greater significance than many Americans believe. Do you care about the Green New Deal? Well then, you might want to learn a bit more about the SDGs, which set goals across the globe for sustainability between now and 2030. Do you care about economic inequality? Again, the SDGs are a principal tool to address this.

Of course, any document that 193 nations agree to is full of compromises and loopholes. We will not resolve the global climate crisis through the SDGs alone, but neither can we effectively address global heating without making progress on them.

I know a thing or two about this. My dissertation involved field research regarding efforts to address SDGs in Kenya, and I also participated in almost all the UN convenings that led to their development.

Setting the Stage

In June 2012, the UN, together with academics, businesses, and civil society organizations, gathered in Rio de Janeiro to work out the framework for what would become the most transformative agenda in the UN’s 70-year history. The Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want,” (2012) provided the broad outlines for the development of an open working group under the direction of the General Assembly to develop a set of sustainable development goals and targets. It also indicated that unlike the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), this time around the process would be inclusive and the agenda would be transformative. On July 19, 2014, the open working group delivered a draft document consistent with those criteria.

The UN wanted to be sure to create a document that addressed the unfinished mandate of the previous goals in the MDGs. These had consisted of eight goals, 21 targets, and 48 indicators and were designed to alleviate poverty, specifically in the developing world. This time around, the aim was to eradicate extreme poverty for everyone in all countries—global North and South alike.

This was the first time in UN history that such an ambitious, inclusive, and transformative document had ever been produced. The deliberations laid out the blueprint for the “what” needed to be achieved to create a transformed world.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are as follows:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

  8. Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable

  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact

  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development

  15. Protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels

  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

For this article, I want to focus on the last of the goals—that of partnerships—because this was identified by the UN as a key tool for achieving the other 16. In this regard, the final SDG (#17) names partnerships as being central to the achievement of the SDGs.

Strengthening SDG#17: Means of Implementation

The partnership framework broadly outlined under SDG#17 include the following subheadings: finance, technology, capacity building, trade, and systems issues.

Finance: In this inter-governmental partnership arrangement that exists between 20 “developed” and the 126 “developing” (middle and low income) countries, the developed countries have committed to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross national income (GNI) as official development assistance (ODA).

Not every country honors this commitment, however. The United States, for instance, contributes only 0.18 percent—barely one-quarter of this modest goal. The funding can be done bilaterally, or through the UN or World Bank. The aim is to boost domestic resources in developing countries.

A further recommendation is that a larger amount of ODA, in the amount of 0.15 to 0.20 percent of GNI, is donated to the 47 least developed countries (LDCs), given that these countries face the greatest levels of poverty. These agreements are reflected in the outcome document called the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, that outlines the global framework for financing development post-2015.

Technology: Given that most of the “least developed” countries are in the Global South and often lack access to the technology that countries in the Global North enjoy, there is a decided effort to have these countries partner with the North in North-South cooperation to improve development objectives. This is to be accomplished at the UN level and through what is called a global technology facilitation mechanism. Through this mechanism, there is to be promotion, transfer, and dissemination of development, with transfer of environmentally sound technologies on mutually agreed-on favorable terms. Right now, with COVID-19 vaccine distribution, this global commitment to the sharing of technology is being sorely tested.

Capacity Building: Cooperation is encouraged between Global North and South and among countries in the Global South to assist each other to incorporate the SDGs into their National Development Plans. A case in point is a county in western Kenya that opted to engage in an integrated, comprehensive development plan for the city of Kisumu. This was led by the government—namely, the Ministry of Planning and nine multistakeholder groups: Farmers, Science and Industry, Women, Business, Youth, Persons with Disabilities, Academia and Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), Religious Organizations, and NGOs.

My dissertation research focused on this community. As part of my community-based research project, I aided city development planning using geospatial information, GeoDesign, Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like GPS (Global Positioning System), and related technologies through research work conducted in the informal settlement of Manyatta A and B in Kisumu.

This engagement resulted in knowledge transfer, technology transfer, and citizen engagement in addition to capacity building, with the development plans incorporated into the larger plan of the city. This kind of accomplishment needs to be much more broadly shared.

Due to the complexity and vastness of the 2030 Agenda, a system like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology provides an ideal tool to track the “seven Vs” of big data—volume, velocity, variety, value, veracity, variability, and visualization. The GeoDesign platform helps people visualize an integrated, comprehensive delivery of all 17 SDGs, holistically, as a middle step before implementation in each country.

Trade: The 2030 Agenda seeks to promote a fair, universal, rules-based, multilateral, and non-discriminatory trading system. These guidelines were agreed upon under the World Trade Organization at the November 2001 declaration of the Fourth Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar.

Trade is a complicated subject, and it’s no secret that the global trading system often leads more to the extraction of resources and the continuation of colonial relations than to sustainable development and economic equality. The UN report does offer some suggestions for ways to tilt the trade playing field to increase benefits at least somewhat for the Global South. For example, a recommendation is made for a substantial increase in the exports of middle-income countries, and for a doubling of global exports from the lowest-income countries by the year 2030.

Systems Issues: The systems issues raised by the report include supporting policy and institutional coherence; lifting up multistakeholder partnerships (MSP) to facilitate the mobilization and sharing of knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial resources; and a heightened emphasis on evaluation of efforts through the collection of data, monitoring, and accountability. To realize the promise of the SDGs, high-quality reliable disaggregated data needs to be made available to enable transparent accountability for outcomes by age, gender, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, race, geographic location, etc.

Key Partnership Actors for Delivery of Sustainable Development

Some of the key actors in the partnership space are the UN Office of Partnerships, member states, businesses, financial institutions (including the global network of development banks), academia, community-based organizations, and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), as well as volunteers and other non-state actors. This may seem obvious, but it marks a point of departure for the UN, which previously focused much more heavily on the actions of state actors alone.

The goal of achieving peace and prosperity for people and planet through partnerships (the 5Ps of the SDGs) through social, economic, and environment sustainability was made more possible with the development of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. However, with only nine years remaining and with the setback caused by COVID-19, the challenges remain daunting.

Making the UN Fit for Purpose

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations under the previous Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon brought together a 12-member team of independent advisors to determine the longer-term positioning of the UN development system in the context of the 2030 Agenda. They concluded that the UN was unfit to successfully implement the new 2030 Agenda. Now, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has undertaken a long-overdue reform of the entire UN system. His background as former president of Portugal positions him very well to take on the task of leading a complex adaptive change in this bureaucratic system that is the UN.

With buy-in from member states, a primary goal of Guterres is to make the UN Development Programme (UNDP) more effective to become the “partner of choice” for public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder engagements.

An important observation of the SDGs is that they are interlinked and therefore their implementation in an integrated manner was designed to ensure the success of the agenda. The idea being, if success is achieved in their implementation, this can positively impact lives across the globe socially, economically, and environmentally.

Conclusion

In his powerful report The Road to Dignity, issued in 2014, Ban Ki-Moon voices the hope of restoring dignity to the large numbers of humanity living on the margins and deserving of living a life of dignity. This is, for me, the importance of SDG #17: Partnerships—that together, we can work to implement the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets. In the report, the former secretary general writes:

We are at a historic crossroads, and the directions we take will determine whether we will succeed or fail on our promises. With our globalized economy and sophisticated technology, we can decide to end the age-old ills of extreme poverty and hunger. Or we can continue to degrade our planet and allow intolerable inequalities to sow bitterness and despair. Our ambition is to achieve sustainable development for all. (The Road to Dignity, p. 3)

Six years on, and according to the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals Report on the SDGs, the data from this report show that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, progress remained uneven, and we were not on track to meet the goals by 2030. “The pandemic has caused an unprecedented health, economic, and social crisis that is threatening lives and livelihoods, making the achievement of Goals even more challenging,” notes Guterres. The need to redouble efforts at a global scale has perhaps never been more obvious.

Written by Etta Jackson - 23 June 2021