Unpacking the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Pledge that “No One will be Left Behind”

The newly released Sustainable Development Goals mark a turning point in the development trajectory. Here, Zoe Nutter problematises the links between changes in discourse and policy implementation.

UN Member States recently approved a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a “universal Agenda”. These goals were initially adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at the UN Sustainable Development Summit and seek to redress the failures of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Resolution adopted by the General Assemble calls for “bold and transformative steps” in order to shift global trends and embark on a “collective journey” – one in which “no one will be left behind”. And the means required for implementation involve a “revitalized” Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, focused particularly on “the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable”. Still, it is not entirely clear what will change in practice. The grave and controversial disconnect between official policy and effective implementation is of primary concern. Any goal concerning the reduction of inequality will prove a farce if the “unwavering commitment to economic growth” is not supplemented by the resolve to redistribute “gross global and national inequalities in wealth and income”.

The SDGs aim to realise the human rights of all, achieve gender equality and promote the empowerment of all women and girls through a balanced approach, rooted in the principles of economic, social and environmental sustainability. There is a pledged commitment to “all human beings”, such that they can “fulfill their potential in dignity and equality” – “in a healthy environment”. For the purposes of this brief critique, I will focus on Goal 5: the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, and Goal 17: the strengthening of the means of implementation, as well as the revitalisation of the global partnership for sustainable development built upon “principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre”. Oxfam and like-minded groups insist, it is crucial to unpack the ways in which associated groups will effectuate their like-minded strategies in a way that is unambiguously rooted in a comprehensive understanding of women’s human rights.

UN Women / Creative Commons License

UN Women / Creative Commons License

Clearly, one of the most important aspects for the implementation of this Agenda is to address “structural barriers to women’s economic participation”. This has been echoed by the World Bank Group (WBG), which released its very own gender strategy for 2016-2023 – entitled “Gender equality, poverty reduction and inclusive growth” – in December of last year. The key issue is to correct “uneven” progress among “least developed countries”, where the Millennium Development Goals failed to achieve an impact that extended to “the most vulnerable” – principally, women. The UK Gender and Development Network has been particularly critical of the Bank’s lack of strong systems of accountability to ensure that their work is transparent and the International Planned Parenthood Federation has consistently urged the Bank “to balance what can feel like an instrumentalist approach to women’s contribution to economic growth and poverty alleviation”. Admitting that not all pathways to growth promote gender equality marks a promising step in the right direction. Economic growth is a “gendered process”.

Of equal importance is the need to “mobilize, redirect and unlock”, what is described under Goal 17 as, “the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources”. This involves long-term investments – most notably, foreign direct investment (FDI) – in critical sectors, such as sustainable energy, infrastructure and transport, as well as information and communications technologies. Governments are required to set a clear direction: change must involve both regulations and incentive structures that simultaneously attract FDI and reinforce sustainable development. And yet, in the wake of this new Agenda, it is undetermined whether enough attention has been directed to what Oxfam describes as the “flawed system of measuring development impacts of financial intermediary lending”. Even the WBG’s Independent Evaluation Group has criticised this system based on “proxy figures” as one in which there is limited knowledge about the underlying impacts on end-beneficiaries.

World Bank Photo Collection / Creative Commons License

World Bank Photo Collection / Creative Commons License

The WBG is a longstanding partner of the UN. Given that official development assistance stood at $135.2bn in 2014 and that the International Finance Corporation alone invested $36bn in financial intermediaries in the four years leading up to June 2013, the WBG’s development strategies should be closely evaluated and adequately restructured. Development finance institutions’ overall commitment to the private sector reached $67.9bn in 2013 – roughly half of total ODA in the same year. Their involvement is “rapidly accelerating”. Investments in the financial sector significantly outstrip the WBG’s lending to essential social sectors: averaging about 50% more than direct lending to health and three times the sum lent directly to education during the same period. It is necessary to determine whether they are able to successfully implement a “comprehensive results and reporting framework” – whether they can effectively rectify the disconnect between global policy and priorities and what is happening in specific country programs. If this does not happen, the failures of the MDGs will persist: progress will be uneven and women will suffer. Furthermore, any policy recommendations that neglect the ways in which “gender inequality is not only weakened but also recreated and sustained by capitalist development” will be dubious.


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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