From clean water to internet access, deadline looms for UN's Sustainable Development Goals

They are meant to a 'guiding north star' for government policies - but the target of fulfilling them by 2030 looks like pie in the sky right now

Central African Republic is one of the world's poorest and most neglected countries with an average life expectancy of 39 years. Beyond the capital Bangui there is no electricity or paved roads and banditry is rife. Getty Images
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The rainbow crescent that hangs from the lapel of many international development officials is supposed to display a determination to complete the cycle of development under which the UN Sustainable Development Goals are completed on track in 2030.

Many of those wearing the lapel badge readily admit the quest to complete the circle is "off track" but that does not mean the world is giving up. With six years to go and notable hallmarks already marked off, there is renewed hunger to finish the job.

To get there world leaders will gather in New York this autumn to agree what is grandly called a Pact for the Future.

With five chapters tackling development, peace and security, science and technology, youth, and global governance, the pact is billed by the UN as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to show that the world can work together.

It is hardly surprising that some diplomats are concerned the summit’s remit is too broad, but with the UN now saying the situation is woeful, an across-the-board initiative is what is demanded to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The more ambitious in the room will look to the future to secure what comes next after the 2030 deadline expires.

Without such a push, poorer countries fear attention will slip from what they see as the priority – meeting the world’s development targets by 2030. The goals aim to eliminate poverty and raise global living standards while protecting health and the environment.

Drawn up in 2015, the SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 more specific sub-targets that cover everything from slums and clean water to internet access and women in politics.

The goals act as a “guiding north star” for government policies, said nature advocate Rosalind Skillen, but are often in the background at global summits, where she is a regular youth delegate.

“The SDGs send the signal and they’re also crucial to the international agenda. But obviously they currently fall short,” she told The National.

A UN report launched on Thursday says the world’s crises are “jeopardising progress” on the goals, with conflicts and extreme weather adding to vulnerabilities.

Susan Ngongi Namondo, a UN representative in Uganda, said the Covid-19 pandemic, the fall-out from the war in Ukraine and cost-of-living problems had knocked the country’s progress towards the goals off course.

“The availability of development financing from traditional donors is shrinking,” she said. “In Uganda this means that development co-ordination needs to go further, delivering maximum results with the same level of investments.”

World off track

About 15 per cent of the SDG targets are on track, according to the UN’s latest assessment, with a drop in pollution deaths and improvements in internet access among the good news stories since 2015.

Most of the goals have recorded limited progress and things have stood still or even gone backwards on some issues, such as child labour, water quality and overall economic growth.

This does not mean the SDGs are useless.

Before the SDGs, there were the Millennium Development Goals, covering the period 2000 to 2015. Progress was uneven on the eight targets and the world did not, for example, “eradicate extreme poverty” or “achieve universal primary education”.

Nonetheless, the UN described the MDGs as the “most successful anti-poverty movement in history” because they galvanised action and helped lift a billion people out of extreme need.

The SDGs, as their name suggests, were drawn up with a far greater focus on the environment, energy and responsible actions such as recycling and sustainable tourism.

Negotiations on the SDGs ended in 2015 against a backdrop of millions of people arriving at Europe's borders fleeing war and poverty, highlighting the need to raise living standards.

Green links

Some of the goals overlap with green action, with talks on clean energy (SDG 7) and climate resilience (SDG 13) given plenty of airtime at the Cop28 talks in the UAE.

But some countries say they cannot go green too quickly because they need fossil fuels for development – an apparent conflict between global goals, although one that climate activists reject.

At the moment “we’re not going far enough and fast enough for either the SDGs or any of our climate and nature targets, unfortunately”, Ms Skillen said.

“What we’re seeing at the minute is a myth that fossil fuels and development go hand in hand,” she said, noting Europe’s recent interest in importing gas from Africa.

“Oil and gas production in Africa would be a death sentence for climate targets and sustainable development.

“It’s going to take so long to build this infrastructure in Africa. It’s going to meet short-term energy needs in Europe, but then it’s going to leave African countries with their economies dependent on fossil fuels.”

With diplomats urged to stay focused on the SDGs, the UN promises every proposal made by Secretary General Antonio Guterres at the September summit will have “demonstrable impacts” on the goals.

The summit “will create the conditions in which implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development can more readily be achieved”, the UN says.

The cost of meeting the goals has been estimated at between $5 trillion and $7 trillion and finance will be part of the negotiations in New York.

Briefing delegates at Cop28 last month, Ramesh Subramaniam of the Asian Development Bank said a “business-as-usual scenario is not going to work”.

“If we do not mobilise significantly larger resources we will not be meeting the Sustainable Development Goals even by 2065,” he said.

With 2030 now closer than 2015, some have begun turning their attention to what comes after the SDGs.

Lobbyists including Unesco want culture to get its own goal in the post-2030 agenda. Some want a reference to overpopulation. Others say the MDGs and SDGs did not sufficiently recognise how much the goals are interlinked.

What will also be required is a catchy title. Millennium, Sustainable… what comes next? It appears the need to draw the world’s attention to development will still be there.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM