The Sustainable Development Goals: The optimists, the sceptics, and the challenges ahead.

Similar to the Millennium Development Goals, the new Sustainable Development Goals have brought about lots of debate and vastly different opinions. The international development community will be pedantically following the goals for the next 15 years. Amelia Worley explores both sides of the debate and provides an analysis for the challenges which may lie ahead.

With the life span of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) coming to an end this year, the UN last month announced the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 goals replace the MDG’s with a new set of targets to shape the direction of efforts to improve international development and global wellbeing. The goals aim to be completed by 2030, with their overriding aim being to eradicate global poverty. What is perhaps most notable about the goals is their breadth; they took 3 years to write, with 193 UN member nations influencing what priorities and direction the goals should take. Inevitably, the goals have been met with mixed reception – some spectators optimistic, and others sceptical. This post will take a look at both arguments, and decide what challenges lie ahead for the success of the goals.

The optimists:

The SDG’s have been built on the precedence of the success of the MDGs. Since 1990, global poverty has halved. Certainly, the MDG’s were not the only thing responsible for this decline; but they did place global poverty and international issues firmly on the agenda. The SDG’s have done the same thing, and certainly generated a global buzz about the SDG’s and the complexities within and around them, as well as discussions over the effectiveness of policies and programmes in place. The sustainable goals launched with the aim of being the world’s biggest advertising campaign, which considering the global conversation surrounding them, was successful.

With this, the SDG’s are built on more of an integrated and holistic framework than the MDGs; they apply to all countries and are of a transparent nature. Lots of different stakeholders came together to form them, and they take into account the interests of all parties involved. As Ban Ki-Moon commented, they are “mutually reinforcing and interlinking”, and no area has been left out.

Paul Downey / Creative Commons License

Paul Downey / Creative Commons License

The sceptics:

The strongest area of criticism of the SDG’s lies within this perceived strength; their main weakness is the sheer breadth of them. David Miliband was quoted to say that the breadth of the goals cannot be an excuse for them to not be fulfilled; the fear of not wanting to miss anything out could potentially have the feared effect when rolled out in practice. Are the goals perhaps too ambitious and slightly unrealistic?

With this, some of the goals are certainly contradictory. The SDG’s want the economies of developing nations to increase 7% a year; how compatible is rapid industrialisation and growth with promoting behaviour that ensures the sustainability of the earth and climate?

The language used within the SDG; the eradication of poverty, implies that it is something that can be fixed – centuries of systematic of inequality and control can be reversed in a short space of time with the use of technology. The SDG’s remain to be decided within the hands of a small few rather than those not based in Washington.

The challenges ahead:

It is easy to be critical of the SDG’s and pull them apart. But this shouldn’t oversee the positivity within them. The challenges lie in maintaining the momentum around the goals; keeping interest once the buzz has died down, and ensuring the correct indicators are implemented to keep accountability to the achievement of the goals.

External factors will inevitably also affect the success of the SDG’s. The New York Times points out that the MDG’s came at a time of global growth; the success of the BRICs and other emerging economies accounted for much of the success of the wider global economy. The economic climate for the SDG’s is one of stagnation and slowing growth which will inevitably make it harder for certain aspects of the goals to be achieved. This will mean that leaders and parties will have to work much harder to meet the goals than previously, and maintain them as a priority on their agendas.

The biggest challenge is yet to come; how will the progress of these goals be monitored, and who will be accountable for their progress?


Amelia Worley  has a degree in Geography from the University of Bristol.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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