The Sustainable Development Goals are hard to achieve, but we shouldn't abandon them

These objectives provide the vision for a better world that our struggling humanity needs

The UN member states had unanimously adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals intended to guide global efforts to improve the lives of millions of people. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

A thousand drones buzzed the New York skyline anticipating the Sustainable Development Goals Summit on September 18-19. But world leaders attending the high-level segment of the 78th UN General Assembly were neither amused nor inspired as they wrangled over the political declaration that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sought to rescue the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

It is a sign of our tormented times that the last-minute adoption of the anodyne and somewhat turgid declaration was touted an achievement. Not a great one because, unlike the universal acclamation that accompanied the 2015 adoption of the SDGs, 11 countries objected. They had tacit support from several of the 134 developing economies of the Group of 77 and China.

That is a significant proportion of 193 UN member states.

Their objection was not to the SDGs but anger at being disrespected by developed nations.

At the heart are, as the objectors said, “unilateral coercive measures” – sanctions – posing an existentialist threat to their peoples. With a third of the world under some form of sanctions, it is moot to talk of universal development goals. The usual classification of countries by income status is, instead, better expressed as “sanctioned” and “sanctioning” nations.

It would be a perverse outcome if UNGA’s political declarations on development, global health and pandemics, and climate crisis further divide the world instead of accelerating the tackling of shared problems. With 145 attending heads of state and government departing hastily after set speeches, substantive action is postponed to next year’s grandly titled Summit of the Future.

That future is bleak, according to the special report marking the midpoint of the development journey towards 2030.

The 17 SDGs were intended to transform the world without leaving anyone behind. Instead, more than half the world is slipping back, with 30 per cent of the SDGs’ 169 targets stalled or reversed, and 50 per cent making lacklustre progress.

That means 575 million mired in extreme poverty, 600 million hungry and 675 million with no electricity, of a projected 8.6 billion world in 2030. With 3.5 billion currently lacking safe drinking water and sanitation, an unlikely five-fold pick-up in pace is needed.

Gender equality will take close to 300 years as gender-based violence and restricted female rights prevail in many settings. Eighty-four million children and youth will be out of school and 300 million lack basic numeracy and literacy as education quality slips.

The more serious obstacle to failing development are interminable conflicts spreading instability across whole regions

But not all is gloom: 95 per cent of the world has mobile broadband access and two-thirds of people use the internet, with many secondary benefits.

Health targets show mixed results.

Universal health coverage is stalled with half the world population not covered by essential services. About 380 million are pushed into extreme poverty as they desperately buy whatever life-preserving care they can get. Hope comes from 146 countries meeting or coming close to their under-fives mortality target. But old scourges such as malaria and tuberculosis have returned.

Meanwhile, two billion people breathe toxic air diminishing healthy life expectancy, and the next pandemic is around the corner such is the sorry state of preparedness.

For how long can the Covid-19 pandemic be blamed for our slow progress? With two billion in precarious informal jobs without social protection, global economic growth limping at 1.5-2 per cent, and least developing countries missing their target of doubling manufacturing share of GDP to 24 per cent, what will power development?

The expectation is aid from rich countries exhorted to correct past injustices such as slavery, colonialism and carbon emissions. But such moral appeals fall on deaf ears at a time that net official development assistance has already reached a record $206 billion in 2022.

Meanwhile, fiscal expansion from the pandemic-related borrowing binge has generated high inflation and left a global debt pile of $307 trillion. Developing countries face an unprecedented debt crisis with 37 of 69 poorest nations in serious distress, and many middle-income countries at substantial risk.

Estimates suggest a $135 trillion requirement to put the SDGs on track. The UN seeks a modest $500 billion annually. This is affordable considering our global GDP of $105 trillion. But will it be found?

Part is to come from debt suspension and re-scheduling, and through improved long-term financing from reformed multilateral development banks. But rich nation shareholders will not give something for nothing, and much contention lies ahead before a muddled compromise is reached.

All calculations are imperilled by the climate crisis.

Several places temporarily exceed the 1.5°C limit agreed at the 2015 Paris climate conference, and global mean temperatures are set to get there by 2035. Six of the nine planetary boundaries that maintain the Earth’s resilience have been breached with destructive impacts on our land, water and biosystems.

Devastating disasters such as heatwaves, fires, storms and floods are commonplace affecting a billion people and undermining past development gains.

The National in New York for UN General Assembly

The National in New York for UN General Assembly

Inevitably, the record numbers of 120 million refugees and migrants fleeing bigger and more protracted crises are preoccupied with immediate survival rather than long-term development. As humanitarian relief rises to an all-time high of $52 billion, there is less for the SDGs.

Meanwhile, climate financing is mired in controversy with $6 billion required by developing countries that are increasing their renewable energy by a meagre 10 per cent annually. Perhaps that is why the leaders of the major polluting nations were uncomfortable with attending the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit.

But, at least, technological ingenuity is signposting potential solutions to global heating.

The more serious obstacle to failing development are interminable conflicts – currently about 130 – spreading instability across whole regions, such as in North Africa. It is difficult to talk of development in mis-governed spaces where civilians bear the brunt of abuse and suffering. Tellingly, UNGA avoided discussing that except for speeches on Ukraine.

Cataclysmic UN commentary accompanying the depressing SDG data may not have the intended impact of spurring corrective action. Instead, a revisionary school of thought seeks to abandon the SDGs as unachievable or to prioritise them in a new development agenda by cherry-picking limited targets with the best business case for maximum returns.

The SDGs may not be achieved by 2030, but they provide the vision for a better world that our struggling humanity needs. Throwing the SDG baby out with the turbulent bathwater that we are in would be short-sighted. Besides, prevailing geopolitics is unlikely to permit a new development consensus for at least another generation.

If global solidarity will not rescue the SDGs, it is not the end of our journey. Sustainable development is intrinsic to people and cannot be gifted or imposed from outside.

Ultimately, it is up to each nation – rich or poor, large or small – to grip its own responsibility to enable its people to develop themselves.

Published: September 24, 2023, 12:30 PM