In praise of the UN's imprecise goals

Those who cast the sustainable development goals as fanciful fail to see their true purpose

The United Nations Building in New York on Saturday, September 16, 2017. On Tuesday the 72nd Regular Session the UN General Assembly will convene, bringing extra security measures in place. In addition to street closures around UN Headquarters and Trump Tower the NYPD is on heightened awareness and will have a significant presence in light of Friday's detonation of an improvised explosive device on a London Tube.
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It is very easy for our collective shoulders to sag when considering the sorry state of the world we live in. All over the globe, conflicts rage and challenging circumstances persist. Despite some commentators pointing to statistics that prove that poverty and inequality are in decline, that literacy rates and life expectancy figures are rising, it is hard to muster too much enthusiasm for the sentiment that we have never had it so good - especially when events, such as terror attacks, hurricanes and irresponsible missile launches, make our world seem so bereft of morality and fairness.

Certainly, the docket sitting on Antonio Guterres's desk looks exceptionally full. The UN secretary general has called for a "surge of diplomacy" to deal with the world's problems, including the worsening humanitarian situation in Myanmar and the destabilising and irresponsible actions of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Only the most sabre-rattling of souls would close their ears to Mr Guterres's calls for discussion and de-escalation.

His diplomatic surge is intended to repair a global landscape that has been heavily pockmarked by war. The UN is, of course, sharply aware that consequence follows conflict. Consider global hunger levels which, as The National reported, rose last year, with 11 per cent of the world's population (up to 815 million people) going hungry. Almost 500 million of that number live in countries scarred by war, according to the UN.


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Two years ago, the UN agreed a series of sustainable development goals to save the world from this and other catastrophes. These ranged from societal, such as access to education and effective justice systems, to the environmental, such as a desire to make cities safe and sustainable and to ensure the availability of clean water and sanitation. It is easy to be cynical about these goals and to write them off as a pointless exercise, particularly as the 17 goals are so broad and so idealistic in their reach. But they also shine a light on much of what there is to admire about the UN.

The sustainable development goals are a success despite being doomed to failure. While it is improbable that the first goal to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” could ever be achieved, the fact that it and other goals are being discussed, particularly by younger generations, is a mark of their potential impact.

As The National reported, the Misk Foundation staged an event in New York last week to look at ways to counter extremism, develop more inclusive societies and tackle challenges. What the goals provide, for this meeting and for similar forums around the world, is a rallying point for discussion. They encourage governments to seek solutions and individuals to do better. The goals are neither concise nor especially precise, but they throw down a gauntlet. One should not fault their ambition to make our imperfect world more liveable, peaceful and just.

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