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Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

24 July 2015 - Helen Dennis

If the Greek bailout deal seemed complex, then pity the negotiators working in New York this week and next on a plan to create a better world. They represent nearly 200 different countries and have until the end of July to agree something their presidents and prime ministers will be willing to approve in September.

To date, the plan is organised around 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’, including ending poverty and hunger, reducing inequality between and within countries and taking action against climate change. Each goal is linked to more specific targets, so progress towards the goals can be measured.

Durgi Devi maps the contours of her village  

India is one of the many countries whose governments are working to agree the new Sustainable Development Goals.

To make the negotiators’ lives still harder, all the goals are expected to apply in every country. That means that they have to be agreed by governments as different as those of Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone, India and the US. Some of the most contentious areas include the rights of women, the development of peaceful and accountable institutions and the idea that disadvantaged groups of people must not be left behind as others in their societies enjoy better lives. Money to fund the goals is another sticking point. Despite the brain-stretching difficulties of winning international agreement, the signs are good and observers expect there will be a deal.

Supporters of the goals also believe that they make a difference to real people’s lives. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued earlier this month that the already existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have “saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world” - for instance with fewer people suffering hunger and dying from preventable diseases - and more girls going to school. The MDGs cover the years 2000 to 2016.

But Mr. Ban also admitted that there are many ways in which the MDGs have failed. “Too many people have been left behind, particularly the poorest and those disadvantaged because of their sex, age, disability, ethnicity or geographic location,” he said. Other major threats, including climate change, had not been tackled. Critics have warned that there are far too many new goals for them to focus governments’ attention and resources in the way that they must, to galvanise a better world. UK Prime Minister David Cameron is among them.

The more positive view – voiced by Mr. Ban among others – is that the new Sustainable Development Goals will build on the progress achieved by the MDGs and attack the problems they neglected. Even if one embraces the potential of the new goals, there is still the massive question of how to translate them into better lives and a healthier environment for people across the world.

Money is one major part of the equation for success and the total cost of achieving the SDGs is estimated to be in the trillions. Change costs money, whether it is protecting the human rights of girls in Bangladesh, helping nomadic cattle farmers to survive climate change in northern Kenya or helping to end discrimination against Brazil’s Quilombola people, who are descended from slaves.

What is clear is that aid from rich to poor countries will foot a relatively minor proportion of the overall bill. Christian Aid and others believe that far more important will be the money that developing countries raise for themselves, for instance from multinational companies whose tax dodging currently costs them as much as $212 billion a year. That is far more than they receive in aid.

Foreign investment, trade and debt relief will also help poor countries to fund the new goals. Just as vital as funding will be careful work in every country, including the creation of national plans spelling out how governments intend to pursue the goals and measure their progress towards them. Meaningful monitoring will require governments to set up systems for gathering information on how well they are doing – for instance about the proportion of young children whose growth is stunted by lack of food and the extent of air pollution within towns and cities.

Tracking what happens to people from minorities who suffer discrimination will be especially important. One of the principles likely to underpin the new goals is that of Leave No One Behind, which means that it will not be good enough for governments to simply improve their national averages for, say, the death rate among young children. Leaving No One Behind means that in order to have met a particular goal, a government will need to have met it among its most disadvantaged peoples.

This is even less straightforward than it sounds, as it will require governments to address entrenched poverty and inequalities and discriminatory beliefs and attitudes. Yet the new goals will not have the force of international law behind them and a cynical view would be that they are a mere wish list which governments can safely ignore. However, there will be pressures for real action.

The vast number of campaigning groups in most countries, along with journalists and social media users, will be one way in which governments will be held to account over the goals to which they have signed up. Other countries and the United Nations will be another, because governments will have to report back every few years on how their country is doing.

Even when presidents and prime ministers file into the United Nations building in New York this September to sign the final Sustainable Development Goals agreement, that will be just the start of the real work.


This first appeared in The World Weekly

 About the author

Helen Dennis, senior adviser, poverty and inequality

Helen Dennis is Christian Aid's senior adviser on poverty and inequality.

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