The Sustainable Development Goals-Good in rhetoric, good in reality?

Gabriella Gray



United Nations General Assembly Building – Patrick Gruban via Wikimedia Commons

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) offered hope to millions around the globe deemed to be in poverty, however the road to achieving the seven goals set by the UN member states has been a bumpy ride with few of the goals on track to be achieved by 2015. With the fifteen year deadline almost upon us, it is clear that whilst progress has been made, the majority of the goals remain unattainable. The past year has seen a flurry of activity surrounding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will shape the coming fifteen years of the development agenda. Stemming from the critiques of the MDGs coupled with the focus on sustainability emphasised at the Rio+20 conference, the SDGs take the focus away from poverty, with a distinct focus on sustainability-both economic and environmental, and long-term sustainable development. In addition to broad goals set by the MDGs the 17 goals of the SDGs also focus on reducing inequality, increasing safety in cities, climate change and promoting peaceful societies in the hope that this will create sustainable growth.

The MDGs received considerable criticism based upon the widely held consensus that they served only as a means to increase and focus aid flows, thereby becoming a technocratic creation rather than goals developed for the people that granted a level of ownership to each countries development. Aware of these critiques the UN emphasised that the SDGs should be open and inclusive to ensure successful local ownership, however this sentiment, whilst good in rhetoric, is difficult to implement in practice.

As with the MDGs the SDGs are created through a consultation process led by UN member states, this leads to the question of who is involved in the setting of these goals, and whom are they directed at. Whilst the creation of the goals was aimed at inclusion of civil society it has become clear that a barrier to broad inclusion has been created from the frequency and location of meetings, regularly held in New York. As with the MDGs the result of this is that the creation of the SDGs to date has been a process determined by those in New York, resulting in an inevitable disconnect between the theory and policy devised by the member states and stakeholders able to attend the meetings and the practices implemented at the ground level. In a world in which the majority of the population resides in the global south it is ever more important that the decision makers on the policies to which the global south will adhere to are making decisions based upon local knowledge and experience, something that was lacking in the MDGs. It seems somewhat ironic that the SDGs are characterised by the notion of inclusion and peace, when the barriers to inclusion for the global south are making it incredibly difficult to engage in the decision making process, resulting in exclusion and frustration amongst the global south towards the global north. With the final stages of talks unlikely to be inclusive of the voice of civil society it seems likely that future policies will be drafted and eventually implemented based upon diplomatic interests and goals, resulting in policies likely to fail the people for whom they claim to represent.


Emerging from the on-going discussions on the SDGs is whether or not it is important that only member states and major stakeholders get a say in what a “developed” world will look like in 2030. Of pivotal importance is the inclusion of the voices of civil society, however the door to these voices seems only to be closing rather than opening. Despite the fact that the process of drafting the SDGs has been more inclusive of civil society than was witnessed with the MDGs, the impact of their input continues to remain unclear. With little accountability to “the people” global governance institutions fail to adequately acknowledge the citizens voice, resulting in theories policies and practices based upon what the member states perceive as important to development. One of the main concerns to emerge from discussions around civil societies inclusion in the SDGs is the time and money spent through civil society trying to implement minor changes in the finalised document, when this time and money could potentially be better spent on achieving the sustainability goals themselves.

What sets the SDGs apart form the MDGs is the way in which success is measured. The MDGs received a great deal of criticism from the generalisation of data, stating that goals had been met when in reality only certain countries had met the goals, rather than all the countries for which they were initially set. With technological advancements and analytical developments the SDGs will gather more reliable data and statistics to enable governments to track their own progress and make local level decisions based upon this data, in turn making the information produced more reliable and increasing each countries individual accountability to the goals.

There are clear pros and cons to the SDGs. Whilst the move away from the focus on poverty eradication will likely result in goals that are more far reaching, facilitating long term sustainable development, the drawbacks are also clear. Despite the rhetoric of civil society engagement the frequency and location of the meetings is likely to result in goals and subsequent policies devised being hinged upon the geopolitical interests of the member states and major stakeholders, thereby failing to justly represent the needs and interests of the global south, those whom the SDGs should be directly engaging with. Only time will tell if the SDGs will witness more success than the MDGs have, however it is pivotal that member states and major stake holders continue to remind themselves of the critiques of the MDGs to mitigate against falling into the trap of inadvertently excluding those for whom the goals are devised. Throughout the process of finalising the goals the member states must continue to be mindful of why they are embarking upon these goals and for whom they aim to target.

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