What are the United Nations’ sustainable development goals?

The SDGs, which will replace the millenium development goals when they expire at the end of this year, are much wider in scope, and emphasise the integration of environmental targets into the social and economic dimensions of development.

The 193 member countries of the United Nations have unanimously adopted a landmark set of development goals that are intended to galvanise and guide the world’s efforts to eradicate poverty, end hunger and address climate change by 2030.

On Friday, world leaders, Pope Francis and celebrities including Beyoncé and David Beckham, came together at the UN headquarters in New York amid great fanfare in what was billed as “the biggest launch in history” to mark the adoption of the 2030 plan.

The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are broken down into 169 specific targets that each country has committed to try and achieve voluntarily over the next 15 years. For richer donor countries – such as the UAE – the 2030 agenda also provides a framework for greater coordination of efforts to finance the achievement of the targets in developing countries.

“We have reached a defining moment in human history,” secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said, calling the SDGs a “promise by leaders to all people”.

The launch marked the start of a three-day summit on the goals during the UN’s annual general assembly.

The first goal is to end poverty – defined as living on less than US$1.25 (Dh4.60) per day.

Others include ensuring gender equality and quality education, access to clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy, urgent steps to combat climate change, building new infrastructure and ensuring sustainable economic development.

The SDGs’ predecessor, the UN’s millennium development goals (MDGs), are credited with contributing towards significant global gains in halving the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, greater access to education and health care in the developing world and a reduction in hunger. They were adopted in 2000.

The SDGs, which will replace the MDGs when they expire at the end of this year, are much wider in scope, and emphasise the integration of environmental targets into the social and economic dimensions of development.

Four of the 17 goals are directly linked to climate change, compared to only one MDG.

The SDGs were developed over three years of sometimes contentious negotiations among UN members in a process that included the input and interests of poorer countries, unlike the MDGs, which were criticised by some as being imposed by western countries on developing ones.

Meanwhile, the buy-in and accountability by countries with the most at stake for the SDGs is a significant difference from the MDGs.

Critics of the SDGs, however, say that the sheer quantity of goals – some of them with vague targets – along with a lack of independent accountability mechanisms to measure whether governments have met the steep benchmarks will undermine the agenda.

“If you want to go from applause to action, you have to add another step: accountability,” said David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, in remarks at a Unicef event last week before the summit. “Targets without accountability are not worth having.”

The SDGs also do not address the political causes of current conflict in regions such as the Middle East that has contributed to a spike in health, poverty and hunger, as well as created today’s most acute global crisis – refugees, which is also not directly addressed by the agenda.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said, however, that the goals would provide a solution in the longer term to these issues.

“We have to tackle the reasons why people flee and are driven from their homes,” she said. “Our 2030 agenda provides exactly the right framework.”