In new UN goals, an evolving vision of how to change the world

Global development has often begun with big checks from foreign aid budgets. But the UN's new Sustainable Development Goals take a very different approach. 

Edgard Garrido/Reuters/File
The shadow of a farmworker is cast upon a sign on the side of a road in Mexico's Baja California earlier this year after farmworkers went on strike to demand better wages and working conditions. A global online survey called 'The World We Want' led to the UN Sustainable Development Goals identifying 'full and productive employment, and decent work for all' as a goal.

A new set of United Nations goals for sustainable global development point to an emerging shift in views about development and how it works.

Out is the view of development as a technical enterprise largely funded by the world’s wealthy powers and other outsiders. In is seeing development as a political process involving a wide range of actors – well beyond technocrats and politicians – in which foreign aid and global development institutions take a back seat. The priority is on leveraging local communities and investment. 

The result is a lengthier and more detailed set of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set to be unveiled later this month. The new SDGs replace the eight goals chosen 15 years ago with a more ambitious set of 17 goals to be reached by 2030.

In addition, the SDGs will also lay out 169 targets, such as maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds under the “ending hunger” goal and eliminating early and forced marriage under the “gender equality” goal.

To critics, this massively expanded suite of tasks and participants is a recipe for a bland and unwieldy mixture of pie-in-the-sky aspirations. The new mish-mash, they worry, will be adopted with great fanfare then quickly forgotten.

But others say the new SDGs are not just a kitchen sink of development goals. They are the product of a more grass-roots process that began with input from a broader range of advocacy groups and everyday citizens than ever before for such a project, officials say.

“What we had with the SDGs was a paradigm shift in the way we formed an agenda,” says Amina Mohammed, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on post-2015 development planning.

That shift, in itself, puts the UN in a different world from the one it has long operated in.

“The political inclusivity of this process and the breadth of the goals decided on together say that governments alone can’t achieve this, that it really requires all hands on deck,” says Anthony Pipa, the US State Department’s special coordinator for the post-2015 development agenda. “This is development as a political enterprise,” he adds, “it requires the participation of business and civil society [as well as] the political commitment of the leadership of countries.”

It also reflects a nod to the “integrated” nature of development goals. In other words, it makes no sense to go full bore on reducing extreme poverty, supporters say, while ignoring the role the environment and accountable governance play in building prosperity.

The UN’s first take on goal-setting, the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000, had largely been reached by development experts meeting in a room and coming up with what they considered to be the eight pressing needs of developing countries. They ranged from reducing extreme poverty to cutting maternal and infant mortality and addressing HIV/AIDS.

But the three-year process that resulted in the SDGs was very different animal. “This time it was about consultations, it was about ownership, but most important perhaps it was about engagement,” says Ms. Mohammed.

“There’s a big difference between ‘consultation,’ where maybe you meet with civil society for two hours and go away and say you’ve consulted,” she adds, “and engagement that involves really listening and accepting new ideas, and a give and take and negotiations that aren’t always comfortable before the outcome is reached.” 

The SDG process included an online survey called “The World We Want” that was completed by more than 8 million young people. The survey revealed a worldwide anxiety about jobs – and led to a goal of “full and productive employment, and decent work for all.”

The new goals are founded on the idea that the development model that prevailed when the Millennium Goals were adopted is no longer sustainable.

But critics say the SDGs are not sustainable, either. Some of the priorities conflict – for example, providing clean water and sanitation for all, while also calling for the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of “terrestrial ecosystems” including rivers and other water sources.

And then there’s the sheer number of goals and targets. “There’s a real danger they will end up on a bookshelf, gathering dust,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year, when he lobbied unsuccessfully for no more than a dozen (and preferably fewer) goals.

But Mr. Pipa of the State Department says that the SDGs merely reflect the realities of the times. Nations’ foreign-aid budgets are generally falling, which points to an era of more local action and less top-down or outside prescriptions for development.

He cites the Obama administration’s Power Africa program as an example of the principle at work in the SDGs. Instead of building power plants for African countries, the US has put up $7 billion that has leveraged $33 billion – about $20 billion of that private capital – to build the infrastructure to boost Africa’s electrical power generation.

“That’s the all-hands-on-deck approach,” he says, “and it reflects the shift and the change we’ve seen” as the world has come up with a new set of development goals.

And the seemingly contradictory nature of some of the goals merely points to a growing realization about the interconnectedness of development priorities. The Millennium Goals, for one, demonstrated that keeping girls in school longer and reducing rates of HIV infection were not stand-alone goals but in fact highly interrelated. 

Nor should it be acceptable to make progress on one goal and slide backward on another.

“Two decades ago, many countries used coal-fired power plants or carbon-heavy energy as they focused on accelerating economic growth to meet the extreme poverty target of the MDGs,” says Pipa. Yet while that worked to help bring down poverty, he adds, it also caused new health and environmental problems.

The SDGs address such contradictions by recognizing how one goal can have an impact on another – and by placing the emphasis on implementing sustainable solutions for reaching all goals.

On poverty, for instance, he says: “The integrated nature of the SDGs forces countries now to balance improvements in poverty with sustainability, which requires cleaner energy.”

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