What are the Sustainable Development Goals? (AKA What is Lena Discussing at the UN this Week?)

One of the largest topics on the international stage – and the focus of the conference I am attending this week – is the ‘Sustainable Development Goals‘ (SDGs). Now, I totally expect everyone who has never been in Model UN not to understand what this means – the SDGs are rarely mentioned in national politics. But the SDGs are one of the leading driving forces for national policy. So what exactly are they?
First, a history lesson:

At the turn of the century (2000), the world banded together through the United Nations to create a series of eight goals -agreed  to be reached by 2015 – named the ‘Millennium Development Goals‘ (MDGs). The first of their kind (the world had never before set a series of goals that every nation was expected to help achieve) these goals were: ending extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improve maternal health; combating HIV/AIDs and other devastating diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development. And underneath each of these goals were 18 ‘targets’ and 48 ‘indicators’ that were designed to measure the progress of the implementation of the MDGs.

To be perfectly honest, by 2015 (when the goals were due to be completed), the majority of the goals had not been fully met [a fact which leads many people to say ‘Look! The UN has failed!’] But no. The UN did not fail. Because due to the MDGs, there was a mass movement worldwide to increase the quality of life worldwide. Example: While universal access to sanitation had gotten worse in the 15 years, universal access to clean water has increased to 91% of the world’s population. The United Nations actually released a report which states both their failures and successes.

So summary: No, the MDGs were not fully met. But yes, they were a success because they did make a difference. (World Vision, a NGO at the UN has a very good article on this.)

When the national governments saw the successes of the MDGs, they realized there should be something to replace them: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (aka the SDGs). These goals included the millennium development goals which had not been reached, and extended them by adding 9 more goals. The list:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all age
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Common questions:

Are the SDGs legally binding?  No. But nations implement these goals because they help increase the nation’s citizen’s quality of life. Often there are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which work to shame nations into implementing the goals if the nations are failing to do so. (What I am actually doing this week is working with an NGO which does exactly this in Mexico, ‘MyWorld Mexico’.) Ultimately these goals embody national accountability towards increasing the quality of life for their citizens.

How are the SDGs implemented? Two ways – governments passing laws that implement policies which achieve these goals, and grassroots NGO movements (aka ‘boots on the ground’: volunteers implementing the policies with fellow citizens in the communities that need it most). MyWorld Mexico is actually a network of people and NGOs which work through both of these avenues: it mobilizes volunteers in Mexico to help their fellow citizens by completing tasks (like taking clothes to the homeless) that will help achieve the SDGs; and it also polls citizens to find out which SDGs are most important to them, and lobbies the government to implement policies which achieve the most valued goals.

How were the SDGs created? The SDGs were actually created through long discussions between governments and development experts in a process that started in 2011. They were created through a multi-year consultation of all parties involved (UN officials, governments, NGOs, civilians, basically a ton of different people – including millions of votes collected by MyWorld to show what civilians believed they needed) and a 2 month drafting process. The final document was passed by 193 world leaders in September 2015, and went into effect on January 1st, 2016.

If the MDGs weren’t reached, why did we bother implementing the SDGs? Again – yes, the MDGs were not fully met. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t make an effect. Instead of having all the work done by the MDGs be given up when they were finished, the international community decided to create this wider set of goals to continue the amazing work the MDGs sparked. Plus, the SDGs give a clear set of goals for many of the UN organizations to work towards (like the conference I am attending).



Final note: This is a super basic description of the SDGs (and MDGs), so if anyone is interested in a more in-depth description, let me know!

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