The Tentative Hope of the Sustainable Development Goals

The draft Sustainable Development Goals provide a grand vision for the future of humanity, but the recent conference on international finance in Addis Ababa raises questions about the political will to follow through on their implementation.

In September 2000, the international community met at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York and adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): eight straightforward, broad goals designed to spur widespread improvement of the human condition by 2015. These goals included halving extreme poverty, achieving universal primary education, and halting the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV and malaria. Fifteen years later, progress towards these goals has been positive but uneven. The goal of halving extreme poverty was met five years ahead of schedule, but many environmental resources are still alarmingly overexploited and most metrics of gender equality show that there is still great progress to be made on women’s empowerment.

The world community, including the UN, national governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society as a whole, has responded by crafting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to capitalize on the momentum of the MDGs while expanding their purview to achieve even more ambitious targets by the end of  2030. UN member states will formally adopt these goals at a special UN summit in New York in September of this year, but they are already influencing priorities and messaging in international development. While the SDGs have been praised for their breadth, touching on many aspects of poverty and vulnerability, they have also been criticized for their lack of focus and for the unrealistic amount of political will required for their implementation by the international community.

The breadth and scale of the SDGs is unprecedented in international development. Where the MDGs consisted of 8 goals with 21 targets, the SDGs are 17 goals with 169 targets. Moreover, these targets take on not only measurable development outcomes, but also institutional reforms to the international economic and development regimes. For example, Target C from Goal 2 on ending hunger calls for ensuring: “the proper functioning of food commodity markets and their derivatives, and facilitat[ing] timely access to market information, including on food reserves, in order to help limit extreme food price volatility.”

This broad ambition is the most defining element of the goals. Speaking at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC on March 18, Manish Bapna of the World Resources Institute contrasted the Sustainable Development Goals with the MDGs: “It is a very different creature than the MDGs. This is not a set of focused issues where [Official Development Assistance] should be targeted. This is about a vision for what a future world should look like.”

The SDGs are intended to be universal, engaging all countries of the world, in a way the MDGs were not. Rather than the technocratic approach taken in writing the MDGs, the SDGs incorporated the input of developing countries, civil society, and even public surveys of everyday people. Where the MDGs helped to direct and target aid flows from the rich countries to the poor, the SDGs are focused on fostering collective action to tackle global problems in all countries, rich and poor alike.

The SDGs are also comprehensive in their targets. The SDGs target not only extreme poverty, but also the political fragility and environmental vulnerability that perpetuates such poverty, both at a domestic and international level. They also include targets such as access to health care and affordable housing, and lowering income inequality, which are as important to developed countries as they are to developing ones. Furthermore, the SDGs contain specific calls to reform international trade and aid flows in ways that will enable the development of the least developed countries and help correct for institutionalized inequities.

The intent of the Sustainable Development Goals to spur a shift in how global aid is approached has drawn a great deal of criticism for being too ambitious. The Economist criticized the goals for being not only unrealistic and unfocused, but also for enabling a dangerous perception that more goals will mean more aid. Several countries have argued that a narrower set of goals would facilitate implementation. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, has called for the number of goals to be reduced to 10 or 12 at the most. Even just tracking the 169 targets could cost vast amounts of aid money and government revenue, sapping the financing and political will that should be spent on implementation.

This concern that the SDGs are too ambitious and costly came to the fore during the July Financing for Development summit held in Addis Ababa. The meeting achieved a number of small goals and incremental steps towards reforming international finance, but fell well short of the kind of deep commitments that the SDGs require. Developed countries re-committed to the target of spending 0.7 percent of their GDP on development aid, a target that has existed for 45 years and that few countries have reached. Summit participants also committed to increase tax revenues from international trade and finance to help fund development and promised to work to end illegal financial flows that deprive developing countries of much of their potential revenue. However, the Addis Agenda fell well short of creating a representative tax institution under the auspices of the UN, a policy which would make this commitment significantly more achievable.

The reality of the Addis conference compared to the soaring vision of the SDGs reveals a dangerous gulf that the international community must close. The MDGs showed that ambitious but clear goals could serve as great tools for directing policy and promoting funding. The breadth of the SDGs presents a much greater challenge for policymakers seeking to promote similar actions moving forward. If the commitments of the international community continue to fall short in weeks remaining before the September summit, then the credibility of the new Sustainable Development Goals could be fatally undermined before they are even enacted.


Benjamin Dills is a Program Assistant at the Wilson Center, where he has worked with the Environmental Change and Security Program and the Maternal Health Initiative and currently supports the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative. He has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for two years. 


Benjamin Dills

Benjamin is a Program Assistant with the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program. He focuses his work on international climate, energy, and sustainable development policy, and he has been a member of YPFP’s Energy and Environment Discussion Group for three years. Benjamin holds an MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. You can connect with him on Twitter @Ben_Dills.
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