SDGs: A real turning point or just impressive words on paper?

Richard Curtis (left), filmmaker and founder of “Project Everyone,” which aims to share the sustainable development goals with 7 billion people within 7 days of their adoption, briefs journalists on the global goals campaign. At his side is Amina J. Mohammed, special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on post-2015 development planning. Will the SDGs be any different from the MDGs? Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

For 15 years we had a yardstick for global progress: the eight Millennium Development Goals. We were going to halve hunger and extreme poverty and significantly reduce the percentage of people suffering from infant mortality, maternal mortality and other afflictions.

It has to be said, a great deal has been achieved, especially in China, India and Brazil. But the MDGs have not been met.

What’s more, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, not a single MDG has been met in fragile regions or conflict-affected states. Yet these are precisely the places, from Syria to South Sudan, where poverty is most pervasive as a result of conflict, poor governance and environmental degradation. And the outlook is grim: OECD is predicting that by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s most poor will be living in fragile states.

In the coming days, the world will commit itself to new global goals: the sustainable development goals. This will take place during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Pope, who cuts a lonely figure at the moment as he leads the fight against global inequality and poverty, and has inspired people with his call for climate justice, will kick off proceedings. Shakira will be there too.

Actually, this party should be held in the hell called Raqqa, or the refugee camp at the airport in Bangui. I realize that’s not possible, but still, no better place to back up bold promises.

And bold they are. The U.N. deliberated for about three years to develop 17 goals and 169 targets which this time — unlike the MDGs — will address the causes as well as the consequences of poverty. The goals in a nutshell? To eradicate hunger and poverty in 15 years; protect ecosystems; create fair justice systems; promote inclusive economies; create security; and help governments to function well. Not only in wealthy and middle-income countries, but also in countries that are being torn apart by conflict: Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Dizzying aspirations.

These global goals emerged from a broad dialogue. Global talks were held with leading scientists, business leaders and philanthropists. Millions of surveys were conducted among civilians. All this is a far cry from the MDGs, which, and admittedly I exaggerate slightly, were conceived once upon a time by a group of men in bespoke suits in the bowels of a U.N. building.

Moreover — and that too is a fundamental difference — the SDGs are not limited to countries in the “global south.” The “wealthy West” has to work on creating sustainable cities, better education, security, cleaner agriculture and other demands. The time when wealthy countries could look on from their comfortable donor positions is over. And rightly so. In fact, the Netherlands was recently reprimanded in court for its failing climate policy.

Another noble aspiration: no-one can be left behind and everyone has to roll up their sleeves to prevent that from happening. That includes world leaders, local authorities, citizens, civil society organizations and increasingly the private sector as well. Global partnerships like the ones that development organizations have been maintaining for years in their fight for social justice serve as good examples.

Of course you can criticize this blueprint for a better world. The biggest risk in my view is that the focus on fragility — and therefore the most pervasive and rapidly growing forms of poverty and exclusion — tends to peter out pretty quickly. Meanwhile, 60 million refugees and displaced persons in northern Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and other hotspots are in dire need of support. All political and humanitarian resources need to be deployed to give them shelter and a prospect for the future.

Whence the fear? As yet, there are no firm commitments about who is accountable for which goals and targets. And anyway, the range of subjects is so broad that the global goals are already under threat of becoming bogged down in complexity. Or worse, countries may start to conduct, for financial or political reasons, a “pick and choose” policy. As a result, rather than the most urgent issues — climate justice, migration, security and justice — the ones that will be given top priority are the ones that win elections.

It’s for good reason that the political haggling about the goal that addresses fragility — SDG 16, to promote peaceful and inclusive societies with justice for all and well-functioning governments — took the longest. Many member states would have preferred to have seen it left out of the definitive list of goals.

Then there’s financing. Meeting the 17 goals and 169 targets will at the very least cost trillions, not billions, of dollars a year. A rough estimate is 4 percent of global gross national product. Because wealthy countries like the Netherlands have cut back drastically on development cooperation in recent years and continue to fall down the list of most generous donor countries, private funding — especially from the business sector — is crucial if we are to even meet some the global goals. But the vast majority of companies and investors avoid conflict, insecurity and instability like the plague. They opt for low-income or middle-income countries, not for countries where the need is greatest.

If we don’t focus on fragility, and if we don’t have big bucks and a coherent policy to work with, then the global goals will remain just what they are: impressive words on paper. Words that won’t cool down hot spots, or feed hungry mouths.

To safeguard this focus and convert it to policy and action that will really help Syrians, Afghans, Congolese, Iraqis and therefore also Europeans and Americans, we have no choice but to continue to work on stability side-by-side with the afflicted communities and with local authorities whenever possible. This is something that development organizations like Cordaid have been doing for years with, in the Netherlands at least, increasingly fewer resources and harsh political and public resistance.

The SDGs are a promise to the world. And promise is debt. That’s why I am making a double appeal: OECD countries, at least renew your commitment from 1970 to invest 0.7 percent of GNI on development cooperation. The appeal was made in July at the third International Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This appeal is also intended for the Dutch government, which has not been adhering to the OECD standard for years now, but which does want to demonstrate leadership in the implementation of the global goals.

And you, the 193 leaders putting your name to the 17 global goals: show courage, show real leadership and start correcting the flaws in the global power structure. Be coherent and don’t give with one hand and take away with the other. Cease activities that take the bread out of people’s mouths in fragile societies in the poorest regions, whether it’s the arms trade or the extractive industries, and stop protecting trade barriers and buying emissions allowances. There’s no time like the present.

Check out all of our live coverage of New York Global Dev week here, follow @Devex and join in using #GlobalGoalsLive. Devex's independent coverage is supported by Every Woman Every Child in partnership with Johnson & Johnson.

About the author

  • Simonefilippini edited

    Simone Filippini

    Simone Filippini is CEO of Cordaid, the main Dutch development organization, since July 2013. A former diplomat, Filippini describes herself as a passionate, unconventional broker who takes a business approach to the nonprofit sector.