Inspiring Sustainable Development Goals
Since the UN announced their new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—17 broad goals with 169 specific sub-targets for the world to chase after for the next 15 years—at the end of September, I have seen many critiques pop up. The Economist called them “worse than useless.” And Bill Easterly, a pre-eminent development expert in the US and one whose work I pulled upon frequently in my own research, has quipped that SDG should stand for “senseless, dreamy, garbled.”
And yet, I still can’t help but be inspired by the SDGs.
The SDGs were conceptualised a couple of years ago as the new or the next Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – those eight goals for tackling extreme poverty signed on to at the turn of the millennium by most of the countries of the world. The countries of the world were given 15 years to achieve the MDGs, like the SDGs; the MDGs expire in December.
Thankfully, the UN did not just reset the clock and give the world another 15 years of the MDGs. Instead, they pulled together the largest cross-section of public, private, and civil-society officials, experts, and organisations to draft a document that is more inclusive, more comprehensive, and more sensitive to national and cultural nuance and priorities than its MDG predecessor.
Unlike the MDGs, which were targeted at solving problems in developing countries with the aid of developed countries, the SDGs see development as something that all countries could do with. The very first goal is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” That is, eradicate extreme poverty (those who live on less than US$1.25/day), as well as “reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions.” Shining the light not only on extreme poverty, which, for the most part, is confined to developing countries, but also on national poverty in countries like New Zealand demonstrates a great leap forward in high-level thinking on international development: it’s not just developing countries that have problems for developed countries to solve, but we all have problems in common that could use the support and encouragement of the international community to tackle well.
Another great thing to see in the SDGs is more comprehensive expression of development, including discussion of migration and remittances. In the course of my own research into foreign aid and development, I was constantly seeing the massive positive impacts that can come through an open and well-organised movement of people and money across national borders – and yet I was told time and time again that migration and remittances shouldn’t be thought of as means of international development. Now, as part of Goal 10 of the SDGs, the UN is calling for “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people” as well as reducing the “transaction costs of migrant remittances.”
And finally, and perhaps most encouragingly, the SDGs acknowledge that countries need to be in charge of setting the agenda for their own development. The SDGs are not meant to be a universal plan for one set way of developing, but rather an internationally agreed upon list of characteristics and goals for what sustainable development should look like: it should ensure access and opportunity to its population; it should respect its environment; and it should have a special care and concern for the vulnerable, the marginalised, and the poor. How countries get there and what they prioritise is up to them—and that is as it should be.
Sure, as a solid plan for concerted action, the SDGs fail. But as a testament to aspirations that we can recognise all the countries of the world standing for—as an agreed-upon model of what we’d all like to be—they’ll do.