NEW YORK was thronged with presidents, prime ministers, and rock stars over the weekend for the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the man who undoubtedly stole the show was Pope Francis.
Delighted crowds of thousands gathered at the places he visited, and his address to the United Nations General Assembly offered a moving and radical account of global suffering, and what must be done about it.
Describing how human beings had harmed the environment, and pushed many poor and vulnerable people to the margins, he said that the adoption of the SDGs was “an important sign of hope”.
“Solemn commitments, however, are not enough, although they are certainly a necessary step toward solution,” he warned: governments must also have the will, the wisdom, and the practical means to act on their promises of reform.
The same point was made repeatedly in different forms by many others at the summit in New York. Now that the celebrations are over, the million-dollar question is what, if anything, governments and others are going to do about the SDGs over the next 15 years — the period in which they are supposed to be implemented.
There are 17 Goals, attached to a total of 169 targets, which are meant to be used to monitor progress. They cover, for example, action to tackle extreme poverty, climate change, equality for women and girls, inequality, and the idea of “leaving no one behind”. In its strongest form, this means that no Goal can be considered met unless it is met for all groups in society, including people from religious and ethnic minorities.
Inevitably, with such an ambitious plan for change across the world, including in rich countries, there are many disagreements about how the Goals should be achieved — and, indeed, whether they are misconceived.
In New York, one ongoing controversy was around the part played by private companies: the UK government insists that they have a major part to play in bringing the Goals to life; critics argue that many private companies cannot be trusted, and that, in any case, it is governments, not companies, who have signed up to the Goals.
Many UK charities have worked to shape the Goals, and are now urging governments to start work on implementing them. The Oxfam international executive director, Winnie Byanyima, echoed many others in New York with her insistence on the need for change. “The Goals are achievable, but it cannot be business as usual,” she said. “Governments, rich and poor, must defy vested interests that seek to maintain the status quo at the expense of people and the planet.”
The Christian Aid chief executive, Loretta Minghella, said that now governments had formally adopted the Goals, they must get going. “These new Goals apply in every country, including the UK,” she said. “They will need to be translated into detailed and fully costed action plans if they are to amount to more than mere words on a page and help to secure the just, sustainable, and peaceful world we long for.”
The director of Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement), Nick Dearden, argued, however, that the Goals were too much “business as usual. . . Some people are very poor because others are very rich,” he said. “So challenging poverty also means challenging wealth, challenging power. And the SDGs aren’t up to the job.”
It is too soon to know what impact the Goals will have. Governments have agreed that they will report back to each other, through the UN, to report progress — although this, too, will be challenging, owing to a widely acknowledged lack of baseline data for some of the Goals.
In the short term, one likely measure of governments’ willingness to go beyond business as usual in the service of the common good and future generations will be the UN climate summit in Paris in December.
Rachel Baird is senior policy journalist at Christian Aid.