The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: shaping the next 15 years of transformative international cooperation

On September 25th world leaders unanimously agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, defined ‘an historical turning point for our world’ by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. The document, adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, will shape the next 15 years of international development.

The 2030 Agenda is the first of this kind: a global agreement setting a universal, comprehensive agenda for action that will affect all countries with the intent of shaping domestic policies. It defines a path towards an ‘inclusive, sustainable, resilient development’ which encompasses 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – and 169 associated targets – covering areas such as poverty, inequality, health, food security, growth, employment, infrastructure, gender equality, climate change, sustainable management of natural resources, peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice and accountable institutions.

Many recognize that the number of SDGs reflects the breadth of ambition whereas others picture this as reflecting ‘what happens when a bureaucratic process runs out of control’: the wide consultation determined a situation where each country and aid lobbyist had a specific target and was determined not to give up unless others gave up theirs.

Both the supporters of the aspirational nature of the Agenda and those who are critic about the lack of prioritization agree upon the circumstance that the Summit stems out of an international endeavor quite different from the one accompanying other main international conferences dealing with world governance issues: poor and rich countries are divided on how to tackle key issues – particularly when it comes to climate change – and most countries reckon it’s not their turn to sacrifice to strengthen the world economy, but others’.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda signed in July 2015 also forms an integral part of the 2030 Agenda by setting out tools, policies and resources necessary to implement the agenda.

The economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development are brought together in the 2030 Agenda, with the aim of complementing the work of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – coming to an end in 2015 – and tackling some of their failures. The MDGs established 8 measurable, universally agreed and time-bounded targets. The job is unfinished for millions of people living in poverty, but the recently released final MDG Report (see on this blog) found that the 15-year effort has produced ‘the most successful anti-poverty movement in history’.

As stated by one of the drafters of the early version of the SDGs – Homi Kharas – the MDGs were about reducing poverty, while the new SDGs are about creating peaceful and inclusive societies. The SDGs include goals as infrastructure, climate change, standards of governance, thus going far beyond the scope and ambition of the MDGs. A key departure from the MDGs is also that developed countries are included among those who must strive to achieve these goals; hence, the SDGs appear less ‘paternalistic’ in a way, more based on mutual cooperation and responsibility.

No One left behind

The Agenda 2030 is a significant milestone as it provides a strong foundation for civil society to build on and take forward over the next 15 years. It witnesses a growing international commitment towards transformative international cooperation to tackle the most arduous global urgencies. The number of participants – more than 8000 companies and 4000 NGOs, as well as government and academic representatives – witnesses the new vision that a multi-stakeholder partnership is necessary not only in setting the rules, but also in ensuring a more inclusive governance.

Developed economies as the US, the European Union and Japan will have to a play a leading role, destining more aids, investments and expertise to developing countries.

In this perspective, as part of the Agenda for Change, the EU has re-committed to a specific ODA target of 0.20 % ODA/GNI for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), between 2015 and 2030. At present, the EU collectively provides more ODA than all other donor combined, with EUR 58.2 billion in 2014.

At the same time multilateral agencies like the World Bank, as well as charities, i.e. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will be critical to provide money, expertise and leadership to tackle key issues affecting developing countries. Also very importantly, as stressed by the Time, the new goals place a specific focus on the role of the private sector in fostering ‘sustainable and inclusive growth, enhancing job creation and combating endemic poverty’.

Realistically, however, for some nations who are involved in war or crisis it appears very premature predicting big steps towards meeting the SDGs goals. In places like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo peace and better political leadership are inevitably the first step forward. 

‘No Target Left Behind’: open issues

Even the more optimistic about the 2030 Agenda would recognize that any progress towards the 17 goals will be gradual, long term and hard-earned.

The 2030 Agenda is clearly an ‘aspirational declaration’. As many critics underline, problems emerge when the gap between ambition and reality grows too large, creating unrealizable ambition. A chimera for both developed and developing countries.

Ex-World Banker Phyllis Pomerantz makes the point that if the world has 169 priorities, it effectively has none; on the same line the Economist defines the so called 169 Commandments ‘worse than useless’, condemning the ‘proliferation of SDGs’ and considering them ‘unfeasibly expensive’.

‘Everywhere is different’: other critics argued. How translating global goals into better policy outcomes within countries remains effectively a key unanswered question, particularly for critics of ‘top-down’ UN-led efforts. Further, SDGs are considered to be too narrow compared to the MDGs, thus ensuring less adaptation to local contest.

When it comes to funding the situation gets even more intricate: as the drafters of the SGDs understood, the global volume of aid would fall far short of funding much of this agenda. Hence, the outcome document of the recent ‘Financing for Development’ conference in effect calls for developing countries’ (hypothetical) domestic revenues to be used to finance most of the Agenda.

A third key element of critic is that the weakest part of the Agenda deals with follow up and review. At present, in most of the cases the target themselves lack quantification.

Indicators are essential for verifying if a target is met and their definition should be as much as possible disconnected from political lobbying, as Open Society underlines. By March 2016 the UN Statistical Commission will release a set of indicators that will join the 17 SDGs and 169 targets, but it’s not yet sure whether there would be adequate financial resources to support the monitoring and review process.

The whole SDG enterprise heavily relies on data. The report by the Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development underlies the pivotal importance of data and the challenges ahead. Since 2000 the effort involved in monitoring the MDGs has spurred increased investment to improve data monitoring and accountability. However, the challenge still remains to produce high-quality information, increase data usefulness and transparency to use in planning, monitoring and evaluating the programs and policies that will together achieve the SDGs. Developing countries, in particular, would need financial support to upgrade their national statistic offices in other to make the data gathering feasible and reliable.

The ultimate goal, evidently, is ensuring better policies, better decisions, greater participation and accountability leading to better outcomes for both people and the planet.

How much change is required? Accountability in action

The Overseas Development Institute Report Projecting progress: reaching the SDGs by 2030 attempts to answer the question: which goals are most on track and which should be prioritized in order to achieve the SDGs by 2030?

According to the report not a single goal will be met by 2030 if current trends continue.

This is not surprising: the goals are intentionally vey ambitious and intended to encourage extra efforts beyond the current trends.

Three trends, namely ending extreme poverty, boosting economic growth in least developed countries (LDCs) and halting deforestation have been graded quite positively, indicating that if current efforts continue the world will get more than halfway towards achieving the target.

For five targets, however, the report clearly indicates that world is leading in the wrong direction: reduce income inequality, reduce slum populations, reduce waste, combat climate change and protect marine environments. If current trends don’t invert, the world will be further behind these targets in 2030 than it is today.

Hence, the answer is yes: the world need to accelerate most of the current trends in order to realize ‘the future we want’ by 2030.

The MDGs achieved remarkable success in rallying the international community towards a common vision. By taking these forward the SDGs could boost the improvement of current trends and achieve ‘the future we want’ by 2030.