One year after the launch of the UN Global Goals: Five reasons we can achieve the SDGs by 2030

Arlene's Article in the Huffington Post, 20/09/16

This week at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the world will mark the first anniversary of the historic 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In order to keep up momentum and ensure all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are achieved, the UN and partners around the world are launching #GlobalGoals Week – an annual week of action, awareness and accountability for sustainable development.

At the center of this week will be “SDG Year 1,” a special session at the UNGA opening that will call on all world leaders to implement the SDGs by 2030 and mark progress in 2016. The week long high-level political forum will see different sectors come together to plot strategies and form partnerships to tackle specific issues under the umbrella of the SDGs. The forum is welcome because it is not the domain of member states. Rather, civil society, the private sector and NGOs are in the front row, providing a formal mechanism in which stakeholders can report their activities toward the achievement of the SDGs. What better time to remind ourselves how the global community got this far and to remember five reasons why the SDGs can be achieved by 2030?

On September 25, 2015 at the UN headquarters in New York City, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of 193 UN member states unanimously agreed to the historic Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) seek to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030. The SDGs, also referred to as the Global Goals, build on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which produced the most successful anti-poverty movement in history from 2000 to 2015. On January 1, 2016, the world officially began to implement the ambitious agenda and the hangover set in; there is work to be done and there are no fewer than 169 targets to meet.

Fast forward to July 2016 at the UN headquarters: the inaugural report on the SDGs provides a first account of where the world stands at the start of our collective journey to 2030. The SDG Index presents available data for 149 countries and ranks them based on their performance. The ‘dashboard’ uses a traffic-light chart to assess how each country fares.

“The new SDG Index and dashboard show that all countries face major challenges in achieving these ambitious goals by 2030. No country has achieved the SDGs and even top Sweden scores ‘red’ on several goals,” said Aart De Geus, CEO and board chair of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. While the SDGs are in their infancy and the indicators are still being refined, labeling countries as “lagging” and alerting red flags is not helpful. The MDGs were a mixed bag of successes and failures, with some pointing to emergence of China as distorting the true extent of the MDGs’ gains. There are five reasons why the SDGs can achieve by 2030 what the MDGs did not:

1. The MDGs were the first attempt of measuring international development through the lens of hard numbers and measurable targets, whereas the SDGs rely on 15 years of data to ensure future projections are attainable. International development was born of the Marshall Plan (1948), the Bruntland Commission (1987), and the “Live Aid” era in the 1980s. Prior to the MDGs, world leaders had never ratified an ambitious global agenda like this. In effect, they were blind guessing target numbers.

2. The MDGs were unknown and invisible until recent years, whereas the SGDs launched with aplomb and zeal. When the MDGs kicked off in 2000 very few people outside the development sector took much interest and it was not until the final few years that the agenda gained momentum. The Global Goals, however, were launched with all the aplomb one could expect. The UN headquarters were lit up on New Years Eve and all major international news stations covered the launch widely.

3. The MDGs were the domain of development sector, whereas the SDGs have been endorsed by high-profile public figures. The launch of the SDGs included Pope Francis speaking, pop sensation Shakira singing and a star-studded social media presence. This endorsement from many high-profile public figures launched the Global Goals with viral videos and even an eagerly awaited Academy Award speech by Leonardo DiCaprio.

4. The MDGs lacked innovative and efficient methods of collecting and disaggregating data, whereas the SDGs can utilize recent technological gains to ensure data collection is timely and accurate. Tracking progress on the SDGs requires the collection, processing, analysis and dissemination of an unprecedented amount of data and statistics at subnational, national, regional and global levels, including those derived from official statistical systems and from new and innovative data sources.

5. The MDGs focused on developed countries helping emerging countries, whereas the SDGs address universal issues. Even the most developed countries fall short. For example, sustainable consumption targets related to carbon emissions may be more problematic for the most developed countries to meet.

“The 2030 agenda compels us to look beyond national boundaries and short-term interests and act in solidarity for the long-term,” said Ban Ki-moon. “We can no longer afford to think and work in silos. Institutions will have to become fit for purpose, a grand new purpose.” What we need is the prolonged commitment and enthusiasm by all stakeholders to achieving the SDGs by 2030. The UN meeting this week is significant because ultimately, the SDGs’ success depends on the extent to which governments embrace the Global Goals as an organizing principle around which to create policy. The implementation of a global agenda will take years to accomplish and requires commitment and enthusiasm from all. Just as Rome was not built in a day, nor will the transformation of our world happen in the inaugural year of the SDGs. To expect so discredits the efforts of the global community to move the SDGs from paper to practice.

Arlene Gormley is a 2016 graduate of the MA in Sustainable International Development program at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She has worked extensively in International development in Cambodia, co-founding a non-profit in 2012, and has written and illustrated a book introducing young children to the UN Global Goals. Arlene received her BA in Sociology from Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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