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Green, equitable, sustainable targets

25 September 2015

The new UN goals represent hope, despite their flaws, argues Rachel Baird

Christian Aid/Chiara Goia/Getty Images

Urgent action: women on the Deccan plateau in southern India, where seasonal rains have become erratic. Climate change is one of many prob­lems that the new UN Sustainable Development Goals seek to address

Urgent action: women on the Deccan plateau in southern India, where seasonal rains have become erratic. Climate change is one of many prob­lems that t...

THE Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been in the pipeline of international negotiations for at least three years, but today, some 130 heads of state will gather at the United Nations in New York to retrieve them finally, and give their official blessing. Pope Francis will join the first day of the summit, and will no doubt demand action, not rhetoric.

And then what? The goals are supposed to help make the world a better place over the next 15 years — galvanising action by governments, companies, and others against poverty, inequality, discrimination, climate change, and other problems. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which they replace, the SDGs will apply in both rich and poor countries.

The current UN summit to approve the new goals is only one of several big inter-governmental meetings on poverty and environmental themes this year. Most notable perhaps are the UN climate talks in Paris in December, at which the world’s governments will try to reach an agreement to help their countries survive and to prevent dangerous changes in the climate.

The SDGs, meanwhile, are new, but can be traced back to UN conferences in 1992, and even 1972, which marked growing awareness of how humans are damaging the environment. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, was followed up by the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, which in turn kicked off the negotiation of the SDGs.


THE final draft of the goals is written in lofty terms: “We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet,” it declares.

“We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

The goals themselves include aspirations to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”, to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”, and to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

Like all the goals, the poverty-related one is followed by more specific targets, such as: “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 [81p] a day.”

Christian Aid and other development agencies are especially pleased that the principle of “leave no one behind” made it into the final draft. This means that countries cannot claim to have met particular goals unless they have done so for all groups in society — for instance, for women, and for religious, ethnic, and other rejected minorities. In a world in which millions of people pay appalling prices for their faith, caste, sexual orientation, and other facets of identity, this is important.

The SDGs also improve on the Millennium Development Goals in other ways. For instance, they recognise that inequalities — including those between women and men — cause great suffering, and should be reduced. They acknowledge, too, the urgency of tackling climate change — something that was less obvious at the launch of the MDGs in 2000, but which is now more evident with every passing week.


ON PAPER, then, the new goals offer some hope of much-needed change. But will they be worth more than the 29 pages on which they are written? There are reasons to be sceptical. To begin with, the goals cannot be imposed in any formal way on reluctant governments — for instance, through an international court.

They have also been criticised for their complexity: there are 17 of them, attached to 169 targets against which progress will be monitored. Critics, including David Cameron, who helped develop the goals, have argued that this is simply too much to monitor, let alone pay for.

Money is another challenge: some estimates put the cost of achieving the goals in the trillions. There is no way that aid from rich countries will cover this, and money will have to come from elsewhere — starting with tax. There is certainly scope to reduce tax avoidance, not least by multinational corporations, but that is a large-scale project in itself.

Investment by private companies is seen by some as another source of funding for the new goals, but this idea has triggered further criticism from those who say that companies are too profit-driven to be trusted.

Quite how serious these problems are remains to be seen, but at least some of these criticisms seem likely to be valid.


THERE are also reasons to be hopeful. One is that the negotiations on the goals were difficult, suggesting that governments do take them seriously, and expect to have to show what they have done to achieve them.

Around the world, campaigners of all sorts will demand this of their respective governments. Many, including Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in the UK, have already started. Only last Friday, they gathered to urge the Prime Minister to ensure that the UK does all it can to help achieve the new goals, including in the UK itself. Governments will also hold each other to account, as part of the monitoring process which is part of the goals’ agreement.

Perhaps it is ironic that the stark evidence of global problems, which no one country can solve alone, is another reason to hope that the new goals will be taken seriously. As climate change, environmental destruction, conflict, and migration having an increasing impact on swathes of the globe, international co-operation looks ever more imperative. 


Rachel Baird is Senior Policy Journalist at Christian Aid.

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