Salvaging the SDGs: New Thinking to Spur Action Takes Shape

By Barbara Crossette
NEW YORK, Oct 3 2019 (IPS)

For the first time since a new development agenda was adopted in
2015 to make the world a better place for everyone, government
leaders assembled at the United Nations in late September to take
stock of progress. The verdict of this summit was not good.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the centerpiece of
Agenda 2030, were on life support in the eyes of many experts in
and around the high-level UN sessions. Some goals were in danger of
reversing earlier gains.

A new strategy, however, devised by a team of international
development experts, was presented for governments to consider to
turn around the bad news about the faltering goals.

“Our goal to end extreme poverty by 2030 is being jeopardized
as we struggle to respond to entrenched deprivation, violent
conflicts and vulnerabilities to natural disasters,”
Secretary-General António Guterres
when the latest data on the SDGs were released in July

The numbers provided background to the meeting of world leaders
in New York during the opening of the 74th General Assembly.

“Global hunger is on the rise, and at least half of the
world’s population lacks essential health services,” Guterres
wrote. “More than half of the world’s children do not meet
standards in reading and mathematics; only 28 per cent of persons
with severe disabilities received cash benefits; and women in all
parts of the world continue to face structural disadvantages and

“It is abundantly clear that a much deeper, faster and more
ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic
transformation needed to achieve our 2030 goals.”

Guterres reiterated his message of urgency when he opened the
high-level review of the SDGs on Sept. 24.
the next day, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed
was more optimistic about what she saw as “the boundless
potential of humanity to create a better future for all.”
Mohammed, however, who had shepherded the goals into their final
form in 2015, acknowledged that progress was off track.

The data report in July revealed that despite some gains, many
millions of people among the world’s 7.7 billion people were
living in shocking conditions. That included the 785 million people
without basic drinking water services and three billion people
still lacking clean cooking fuels, contributing to poor health.

Fewer than half of the people in the world had access to safe
sanitation, and 673 million were forced to defecate in the open,
according to the latest statistics from 2017.

“Achieving universal access to even basic sanitation services
by 2030 will require a doubling of the current annual rate of
progress,” the secretary-general has noted.

Separately, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, Urmila
that more than 40 million people are enslaved
worldwide, a quarter of them children, and that the numbers are
expected to rise.

More than 60 percent of those in forced labor work in the
private sector, with women and girls disproportionately affected.
Almost all of them — 98 percent — have experienced sexual
violence, said Bhoola, who reports on contemporary forms of

Against this dismal panorama, a new
emerged with talking points for the gathering of
government officials on the SDGs during the UN General Assembly
session this month. The report challenged current assumptions and
thinking on the planning and implementing of development

Titled “The Future Is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable
Development,” the report does not attempt to rewrite the 17
development goals or their mind-numbing 169 targets.

Instead, the authors, a team of 15 experts in social and natural
sciences assembled in 2016 from developing and industrial
countries, concluded that goals could be interconnected or
clustered to promote synergistic exchanges for greater
effectiveness and should not be isolated in 17 silos.

Leading the group as co-chairs were Peter Messerli, director of
the Center for Development and Environment at the University of
Bern in Switzerland, and Endah Murniningtyas, a former deputy
planning minister of Indonesia. The UN’s Department of Social and
Economic Affairs published their report. (For a global projection
of how far off the targets are, see
Table 1-1

The scientists recommended six areas that could be
collaboratively transformative: issues of human well-being and
abilities; sustainable and just economies; sustainable food systems
and healthy nutrition; energy decarbonization; urban and peri-urban
development; and the global environmental commons. They named four
“levers” that could be used to spur action: governance, economy
and finance, individual and collective action and science and

The underlying importance of science, including the professional
collection of credible data, is a theme that runs throughout the
report. Governance is also given prominence in both identifying and
implementing the goals.

In “The Future Is Now” report, the scientists appeared to
conclude that new thinking was needed.

“Every country and region should design and rapidly implement
integrated pathways to sustainable development that correspond to
their specific needs and priorities, and contribute also to the
necessary global transformation,” the authors said.

Using one issue, childhood nutrition, the authors described how
their report’s “entry points” can be linked: “For instance,
changes in food habits towards more healthy diets may result from
individual and collective action, which is informed by scientific
knowledge that can directly influence choices made by families,
while supporting governance initiatives such as mandatory food
labelling and schools limiting students access to sugary

The emphasis on collaboration and interaction within and among
countries suggests that the current lack of such links reflects not
only failures of governance but also the impetus and structure of
the SDGs.

David Malone is the rector of the United Nations University in
Tokyo and a former president of Canada’s International
Development Research Center. He was asked by PassBlue why the SDGs
have faltered while the Millennium Development Goals that preceded
them were more successful.

“The Millennium Development Goals arose from a desire of the
developing continents to refocus the UN on development issues after
the decade of the 1990s had focused the UN very much on peace and
security,” according to Malone, who has been Canada’s
ambassador to India, Nepal and Bhutan as well as deputy chief of
Canada’s UN mission.

“They offered the considerable benefit of being simple and
clear, few in number (8) with few accompanying targets and
indicators,” he said in an email response. “They were not
developed by member states, but rather in the office of
Secretary-General Kofi Annan several months after the Millennium

“That they were mostly attained owes a great deal to the
manageable nature of the package, so to speak. But it probably owes
more to a very significant growth spurt in both Asia and Africa and
to a strong focus on social development in Latin America between
the years 2000 and 2015.”

“The members states of the UN very much wished to develop the
successor platform, the SDGs, themselves,” he added. “The
result was a fairly political approach including compromises that
were essentially additive — each country’s or region’s pet
priority being somehow accommodated — with little attention to
the ability of many governments to implement complex schemes
developed internationally”.

The SDGs involve 17 goals, 169 targets and over 200 indicators
by which those targets can be measured.

“After their adoption, it became clear within two years that
many governments, particularly those with limited administrative
capacity, while celebrating the goals, were not actually using them
in planning or budgeting national priorities. The UN Secretariat
has signaled several times now that on current global economic
growth trends, many of the SDGs are unlikely to be attained.
Politics nationally, regionally and globally are hardly cooperating
either. And SDG success is very much hostage to both sets of

A significant difference between the SDGs and the MDGs is that
the former should apply to every nation, not only developing
countries, and that all governments are expected to declare their
aspirations, plan their appropriate policies and track their
national progress.

That has not happened in numerous places. One of the most
glaring examples is the United States. A State Department
on the topic qualifies it by an advisory that it “is
a work in progress” and mostly devoid of US-specific information
or commitment.

Among other advanced economies, the Europeans have done much
better, with a number of
related websites
, beginning with an overview of regional

On Sept 24 at the UN, a panel of European Union and
developing-country partners in the 79-member African, Caribbean and
Pacific Group of States announced a new commitment to the 2030
Agenda, backed by about $32 million, from the Europeans.

Canada, with
numerous websites
introduced by a comprehensive policy
statement, is also active, as is Japan. It has multiple online
sites, including one following the work of its national task forces
carrying out the sustainable goals.

The post
Salvaging the SDGs: New Thinking to Spur Action Takes Shape

appeared first on Inter Press


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting
editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent
for The Nation. She is also a board member of the Carnegie Council
for Ethics in International Affairs and a member of the Council on
Foreign Relations.

The post
Salvaging the SDGs: New Thinking to Spur Action Takes Shape

appeared first on Inter Press

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Salvaging the SDGs: New Thinking to Spur Action Takes Shape