The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have called upon all countries to strive for and achieve 17 broad development goals by 2030. The SDGs are a central component of many national development plans and foreign aid strategies. While they have become a central aspect of development planning, how achievable are they under present conditions?
The Sustainable Development Goals are an integrated framework of human, social, and environmental development objectives that include 17 goals with 169 targets and 232 specific indicators. Targets specify the goals and indicators represent the metrics by which the world aims to track whether these targets are achieved. They are a representation of a global agreement across United Nation’s member states that have been widely used in national development plans, academic research and foreign aid prioritization. Getting to the root of Sustainable Development, it is the development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. But one wonders if development is possible without the chain of perennial human demands and inadequate supply which leads us to the question, “is sustainability a Utopian concept?”
The SDGs are a sequel of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); which got replaced by the former in 2015. The SDGs aims to build on the work already done by the MDGs. But there is quite a lot of disagreement on whether this is the best way to go about it. The UN claims that the number of people living in extreme poverty, that means, having less than $1.25 a day to live on, fell from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. But, critics would say that this reduction was not because of the MDGs. It was rather because of ordinary and expected economic growth during the period. The SDG targets trudge step by step, looking for progress towards 2030. But analyzing the living standards and life expectancy estimates, the people might not survive to see that date. So, who are we really working for?
Our current world order favors a rich minority. The rich minority runs a puppet show where the strings are symbolic of the goals. The goals are not binding. As a result, countries are not penalized for their inactivity on them. It is also not clear who will implement them. Most importantly, they do not hold the powerful people to account for their actions. If we delve into the Goal of the first SDG, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”, it connotes that extreme poverty should be eradicated by 2030. The UN has defined 7 Targets and 14 Indicators for SDG 1. However , in comparison to developing countries, poverty levels of developed countries are declining exponentially. The reason cannot be limited to economic parity between the countries, only. Allocation and channelizing of funds towards the rich minority poses a herculean obstacle to the sustainable aims of the SDGs. The goals are top down and bureaucratic, ignoring local context: One size does not fit all when it comes to achieving sustainable development.
The SDGs are wishes not goals. But they are ambitious, collective and universal goals. As the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) recognized in its September 2019 declaration, we are off-track to achieve the SDGs. Indeed, only one of 38 targets assessed in the UN’s 2019 SDG progress report was on the assigned path at the global level. The SDGs are goals for all countries with less of a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a sense that all countries are to work together to achieve the goals and, eventually, attain sustainability. This is different to the MDGs, whose focal point was developing countries alone. SDG 10 promises to “reduce inequality within and among countries.” This is of stern importance because inequality can hinder the universality of sustainable development goals.
“We can make more strides in a positive direction, even if we don’t achieve all of the goals”. The SDGs envisage a better and sustainable future but they would be more efficient if they were indigenous. One might argue, “In a misuse of country ownership, countries replace global SDG indicators with national proxies, making it impossible to have a common benchmark”. This is because the goals set by countries themselves are more welcomed rather than imposed by a foreign institution. As the SDGs are still relatively new, their strengths and weaknesses are still being determined. The goals may appear as fallible and fastidious, but they shower hope because they aren't tacit after all. Simply lamenting that the world is unlikely to reach the goals by 2030 fails to acknowledge just how far these goals have taken us. The SDGs have immense latent potential and hence, let us not let the opportunity for real change slip away.