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Are the Sustainable Development Goals the Best Approach to Sustainability?

This article is a critique of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the best approach to creating a more sustainable world.

In this article, we will take a close look at five specific goals on peace, health, sanitation, cities, and equality. We will also look at the links between them.

We will see that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an important political framework. The language of goals and targets can be little bit technical, but we have a chance to take a step back from this and remember what we are really talking about. We can do this here when we look at the impact of challenges to health, peace and livelihoods on real people living in Colombia, Uganda, Ireland and all over the world.

One question is, do the Sustainable Development Goals provide us with the best possible framework for working together to tackle these difficult world challenges?

The best of times or the worst of times?

The SDGs have followed on from the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDGs aim to build on the work already done by the MDGs. But there is quite a lot of disagreement on whether this is the best way to go about it.
The UN claims that the number of people living in extreme poverty, that means, having less than $1.25 a day to live on, fell from 1.9bn in 1990 to 836m in 2015. This cut in half the numbers, and met one of the aims of the MDGs. But, critics would say that this reduction was not because of the MDGs. They would say instead that it was because of ordinary and expected economic growth during the period.
As we will see in Week 4, the MDGs were seen by some to be too narrow, to look only at things we can measure, and to focus on the material aspects of deprivation over non-material ones. This means, focusing on money and assets, but not on things like quality of community life.
Also, thinking about poverty as less that $1.25 a day is criticised. It’s not as if living on $1.26 or $1.30 per day is much better!
“There’s no step-change in quality of life moving across that line . . .  they’ve gone from unimaginably poor to unimaginably poor.”1
Many people in our world still live in conditions that do not meet their fundamental daily needs, and that is unacceptable.
But, at the same time, the average person alive in 2017 is in a better situation than any other person before in history.
“Tragedy and misery are rarer than they were before 2015—and there is every reason to hope they will be even less prevalent in 2016 (and after)…the world is better-educated, better-fed, healthier, freer, and more tolerant—and it looks set to get richer, too”2.

This is our context for the SDGs.

5 criticisms of the SDGs

It is important at the start of this course to think critically about the SDGs. For those who criticise the SDGs, here are some of their top concerns:

  1. The goals do not go far enough: The SDG targets move bit by bit, slowly looking for progress towards 2030. But a lot of people can’t wait until then. As they are living now, they might not survive to see that date. From a human rights perspective “The eradication of severe poverty worldwide is possible today, so we must eradicate it now, as fast as we possibly can.”3
  2. The goals ignore underlying inequalities in the international system: Our current world order favors a rich minority. Critics say that achieving sustainable development means that we need a serious reform of our systems, for example our trading rules, and for the powerful to give up some of their power. We will see in Week 2, where Prof. David Taylor will point out that “ensuring the sustainability of one place, one location, one country, might undermine the sustainability of other places”. Also in that week, Prof. Jonathan Patz will point out that “if we have the wrong economic drivers we’re never going to meet the SDGs”.
  3. The goals are top down and bureaucratic ignoring local context: One size does not fit all when it comes to achieving sustainable development. The goals must strike a balance between respecting local context and working at the international level to reform institutions.
  4. The SDGs are wishes not goals: The goals are not binding, that means, countries are not penalised for not acting on them. It is also not clear who will implement them. But especially, they do not hold the most powerful people to account for their actions. “It is not enough to specify, however exactly, what needs to be done; governments must also agree, for each specific task, who is responsible for ensuring that it actually will get done. If no such division of labor is agreed upon, then all we have is a long list of Sustainable Development Wishes along with the pious hope that economic growth and charitable activities will move things far enough in the right direction ”4
  5. Lack of data: The data that we do have is not enough for us to use the goals either as a way to guide our management of easing poverty or as a way to report on progress. If we don’t have this data, how useful can the goals be for those people making policy.

5 positives of the SDGs

On the other hand, there are a lot of advantages to the use of the goals as our collective framework. These are:

  1. An ambitious agenda: Because the goals are not legally binding, meaning that nobody is penalised if they are not enforced, this means we can actually set a more ambitious agenda! We can make more strides in a positive direction, even if we don’t achieve all of the goals.
  2. A collective agenda: Having a global agenda for sustainable development in an achievement in itself. Having an agenda like this at the highest level, means that governments can use political pressure to keep each other going.
  3. Universal goals: The SDGs are goals for all countries, and not just developing countries. There is less of a feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a sense that all countries are to work together to achieve the goals. This is different to the MDGs, which had looked at developing countries alone.
  4. Specific strong commitment to end poverty: The MDGs committed to reducing some aspects of poverty while the SDGs aim to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” (2030 Agenda, SDG 1, p. 18). For example, poverty is not just about how much money you have. It can also mean how long you will live for, or your access to education.
  5. Overarching commitment to reduce inequality: SDG 10 promises to “reduce inequality within and among countries.” This is really important because inequality can damage so many other attempts to achieve sustainable development. It is important to have a feeling of working together to ‘leave no-one behind’.

Next steps for the SDGs?

You are learning about Achieving Sustainable Development in 2017/2018. The goals started in 2015, so we are in the really early stages. There is more than ten years to go until 2030. This means ten more years of activity to try to achieve sustainable development. Activity such as working on programmes, successes, failures, actions by local citizens, and by global institutions. This is a group effort with room for everyone to play a part. So let’s look at what’s next for the SDGs and what role you can play.

Over to you

  • Pick one criticism or one positive statement about SDGs out of the lists above.
  • Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why / why not?
1 Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development, a think-tank based in Washington DC, quoted in The Financial Times.
2 Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, writing in The Atlantic.
3 & 4 Pogge and Sengupta “A Critique of the Sustainable Development Goals’ Potential to Realize the Human Rights of All: Why being better than the MDGs is not good enough,” in Bob Deacon ed. Social Policy and the Transformative Potential of the SDGs, special issue of the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy.
© Trinity College Dublin
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