The UN Sustainable Development Goals: A plan to create a more sustainable world

Kelly Dawson
October 25, 2018
10 min rea
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Amina J. Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, was tasked with a seemingly insurmountable project in 2012: to get the world’s leaders to agree on the future progress of society.

In some ways, Mohammad’s job had been accomplished before. In 2000, for instance, the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which eventually helped to lessen the degree of unrelenting poverty and malaria in developing countries. And even before that, 1992’s Agenda 21 also worked to unite the world in bolstering the environment and human condition. Both, however, were done with mixed results. Mohammad and her peers hoped that this time would be different—even if the setting was much more challenging.

The world had grown increasingly globalized since the beginning of the 21st century, and it was also facing unprecedented changes to its climate. A lack of education in one country became a factor in the terrorism experienced in another, just as a shortage of clean water in one community made it increasingly more difficult for it to supply food to another group far away. Everyone became more interconnected, and in turn, their universal home required more help. The UN needed to supply a roadmap for how to address the world’s interconnected problems with one straightforward plan, and it needed to be done quickly.  

It took Mohammad three years to gather the support she needed to get the world’s leaders to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which outline 17 markers meant to be achieved before or by 2030 (that’s why the goals are also referred to as Agenda 2030). There are 169 specific targets to advance the goals in concrete ways, which also ensure that every country has the capacity to join in. In all, achieving this future is estimated to cost $3 trillion.

These are those 17 ambitious goals:

1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2. Achieve “zero” hunger through improved nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and overall food security.

3. Promote and ensure health and well-being for all at all ages.

4. Advocate for inclusive and quality education for all, as well as lifelong learning.

5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6. Provide access to water and sanitation for all.

7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

8. Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment, and decent work for all.

9. Build a resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

11. Make cities 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.

15. Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss.

16. Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

17. Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

The goals are meant to be as general as possible to accommodate the innate complexities of the world’s systems, but are also intended to be precise enough to interpret on an everyday level. It notes, for instance, that the world’s population is set to grow to nearly 10 billion in 2050—a premise that puts a dire strain on available natural resources and infrastructure. So, the UN states that by 2030, a substantial increase of research and development workers should be made per million people to address these needs as sustainably as possible. Governments and national businesses are encouraged to adopt these goals as their own and create numerical benchmarks that push them into action. Their progress is then voluntarily given to the UN in ongoing reports. 

In an address to her peers last fall, Mohammed spoke confidently about how she saw the Sustainable Development Goals take hold in places throughout the world.

“We see governments walking the talk in terms of national coordination, resource mobilization, budget allocation, and engaging parliaments and local authorities,” she said. “Stakeholders, including businesses, NGOs, and the scientific community are also helping to lead in the implementation process.”

Of course, there was and still is is pushback to these goals. At the time of its adoption, some critics said that the goals are too vague—that if there are 17 overall goals and 169 additional targets, then there isn’t a clear enough plan. Others argued that there are corrupt governments and tax loopholes that can take advantage of resources, and that poorer countries face a disproportionately more challenging role in this scheme. The call that there isn’t enough accountability for countries to follow through on these goals continues to today, too, and that the pace is too slow to see success by 2030.

“Progress has not been even across the regions, between sexes and among people of different ages,” Mohammad said in that 2017 speech. “Inequality remains a significant challenge both within and among our countries.”

But these goals, as aspirational as they may be, are providing a means toward a future that’s cleaner, safer, more educated, more equal, and overall, better. “The Agenda 2030 is an agenda aiming at a fair globalization,” António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, said to a forum in 2017. “It’s an agenda aiming at not leaving anyone behind, eradicating poverty and creating conditions for people to trust again—in not only political systems, but also in multilateral forms of governance and in international organizations like the UN.”

During this forum, 43 countries reaffirmed their commitment to the goals and voluntarily offered their progress, including in places like Afghanistan, Brazil, Denmark, India, and Zimbabwe. Over 1,000 business leaders were present as well, and it was stressed once again that the link between governments and businesses adopt these goals—which is the case for Swell Investing’s portfolio—is key in their implementation.

“We will need to work in partnership with the private sector to ensure that all financing becomes sustainable and contributes to the SDGs,” Mohammad said in the 2017 speech. “A growing number of businesses are considering social and environmental factors in their investment decisions, but we need to go to scale.”

Time will tell if the plan works. Mohammad noted in that aforementioned 2017 speech that more than 100 countries had asked the UN for help in implementing the goals, which will push for interconnected progress and local change. But for now, more needs to be done in the form of a shared governmental strategy, linked business goals, and local commitment.

“The 2030 agenda is a bold agenda for humanity,” Mohammad said. “We intend, as the UN system, to meet the ambitions of the framework, and this I think, has been expected from everyone on the outside. The 2030 agenda is the international community’s best tool for a more prosperous and peaceful world.”

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