BY HOLLY ROBINSON
This past September, world leaders gathered to determine the future of global health. Their discussions, aims, and goals, however, reached far past the traditional boundaries of “health,” as evidenced by the expansive list of Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, that resulted from the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, held in New York from September 25-27. The SDGs were drafted over several years by an intergovernmental Open Working Group comprising representatives from seventy countries. A series of 65 presentations over the three days in New York finalized the goals and presumably the focus of the world’s agenda for 2015-2030.
The SDGs seek to build on the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs), which set the tone of the world’s agenda for 1990-2015. The MDGs were more focused, measurable, and vertical than the SDGs. They were designed so that, in theory, all countries could meet the proposed targets. The eight goals focused on broad objectives such as “eradicating extreme poverty and hunger” and “improving maternal health”, but included as well as specific targets such as “Halving, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger” and “Reducing by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio.” However, even with such specificity, some targets of the MDGs failed to be met in many countries. For example, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by only 45% worldwide since the adoption of the MDGs in 1990, despite the goal to reduce it by three quarters.
The SDGs pick up where the MDGs left off but with renewed aggression and a broader focus. The critical areas of the SDGs are people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnership. So what do the SDGs not target? After all, with 17 SDGs and a whopping total of 169 targets, little is left out. A more inclusive agenda could potentially create systemic change that requires governments to make sweeping policy changes to hit the targets. The goals themselves are broad—achieving even one would be an incredible feat for world leaders. Governments and organizations are expected to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” or “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” or “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all” in just 15 years, an almost impossible task.
Most would agree that the 2030 world outlined in the SDGs is ideal—a world where there is a foreseeable end to “all forms of discrimination against all women and children everywhere,” economic and political inclusion for all, and reduction of communicable and non-communicable diseases, maternal deaths, and violence. Even so, how can world leaders expect these goals to be met, especially in low- and middle- income countries? Homi Kharas, senior fellow and deputy directory for the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institutions, explained that developing countries should generate resources for development by increasing tax revenues and seeking private investments. Perhaps the final SDG which aims to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” will increase collaboration and build the capacity of lower-income countries to achieve these goals. But it is also likely that investors will be weary of countries affected by corruption and lack of infrastructure.
Will the SDGs work to promote change? The jury is still out in many regards. Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs argues that the SDGs will mobilize support and resources due to the pressure on political leaders to meet these goals. He predicts that a global effort will come forth to meet the objectives. It is also true that wellbeing can not be ensured unless one considers the environment, the world economy, and the human rights issues that the SDGs seek to address. The SDGs are strong in that they address disparities between groups. It is crucial to remember in evaluating the Millennial Development Goals, for example, that overall deaths and disease prevalence can decrease even while inequality and disparity between groups increase. Policy makers should look at specific disparities between groups to truly know whether interventions help or hurt vulnerable populations.
Others, however, are less optimistic. The SDGs have been critiqued as “unfeasibly expensive” and many admit that it is highly unlikely that all countries will meet the 169 targets.” If countries are not expected to meet the goals, there is no shame in not meeting them. Perhaps a shorter list of goals would have a better chance of success. Having 169 priorities is essentially having no priorities at all. Yet progress, at least in some of these target areas, will undoubtedly be made before 2030. In the meantime, the public will have to wait to see how governments and organizations around the world rise to the great challenges ahead of them.
1 Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. (2015). Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld
2Renwick, D. (2015, September 28). Sustainable Development Goals. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from http://www.cfr.org/global-governance/sustainable-development-goals/p37051
3United Nations. (2015). We Can End Poverty: Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/
4 “The 169 Commandments” (2015, March 28). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21647286-proposed-sustainable-development-goals-would-be-worse-useless-169-commandments