While China embraces the SDGs, the US government would rather not talk about them

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres delivers remarks at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Photo by: Yun Zhao / U.N.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government recognizes the Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, but does not endorse any of the 17 individual goals, according to an internal guidance document obtained by Devex.

In the “2030 Agenda Talking Points” memo, officials are instructed to differentiate between the SDGs as a platform, which the U.S. government “recognizes,” and the SDGs as a set of specific goals, which the U.S. government cannot individually endorse.

“At this time, we cannot express support for each specific goal or target of the Sustainable Development Goals. Each country has its own development priorities, and we continue to consider these in our policies.”

— U.S. government "2030 Agenda Talking Points" memo

“The United States supports the spirit of the 2030 Agenda as a framework for development and will continue to be a global leader in sustainable development through our policies, partnerships, innovations, and calls to action,” the document reads.

“At this time, we cannot express support for each specific goal or target of the Sustainable Development Goals. Each country has its own development priorities, and we continue to consider these in our policies,” it continues.

In response to an inquiry about the U.S. government’s position on the SDGs, the U.S. Agency for International Development referred Devex to the State Department. The State Department did not respond.

As the 74th United Nations General Assembly kicks off this week in New York, progress toward the SDGs will be under the spotlight. Next week, heads of state will participate in an SDG summit, where they are expected to describe the actions they have taken to advance the agenda, both at home and abroad. This will be the first such summit since the SDGs were adopted by all U.N. member states in September 2015.

Since Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. government has deprioritized, if not actively obstructed, multilateral development bodies and initiatives, including by attempting to defund multiple U.N. agencies, and by announcing their intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. A draft presidential memorandum on development, obtained by Devex and expected to be made official soon, states that it is the policy of the Trump administration to “shift foreign assistance to bilateral channels as much as possible.”

U.S. officials working in these global arenas have been forced to walk a fine line between the administration’s political rhetoric and the fact that the U.S. continues to participate, at least to some degree, in ongoing forums and discussions. At next week’s SDG summit, for example, the U.S. is still listed as a “participating state,” but will send a lower-level delegation instead of a head or state or minister, as most countries are doing, according to the agenda.

While Trump has openly attacked the Paris climate agreement, he has said little about the SDGs, leaving government agencies to figure out whether or not they can publicly support them — and if so, how strongly.

Supporting the SDGs quietly

The Trump administration appears to view the SDGs as, “something that other parts of the world are interested in and focused on, and our global assistance is in coherence with that, but it’s not something that we are actively seeking to advance,” said Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who formerly served as U.S. special coordinator for the post-2015 agenda at the State Department.

The outlook on the SDGs appears to vary depending on which part of the U.S. government you are talking about, according to Sarah Mendelson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and former U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.

“The President likely does not know they exist,” Mendelson wrote to Devex, adding that the National Security Council has instructed agencies not to talk about them, and the State Department’s point of contact for the agenda has since moved to another position.

“USAID is supporting the work in various ways quietly without using the label of the SDGs just as USAID did during the early phase of the [Millennium Development Goals] when the Bush administration did not tout the agenda,” she wrote.

Mark Green, USAID’s administrator, has articulated his own development agenda, based around a “journey to self-reliance,” which views the purpose of foreign assistance to be ending its need to exist. USAID’s self-reliance framework has 17 metrics of its own, though USAID describes it as “broadly aligned with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

According to Pipa, USAID has even conducted a technical mapping of its self-reliance indicators to the SDGs.

“There are parts of the agenda, especially within the journey to self-reliance, where it could really be helpful in reinforcing and affirming and advancing what the U.S. policy is, and yet it’s not being used, because of that sensitivity and skepticism around the multilateral nature and the way in which is was created collectively,” Pipa said.

Both former officials suggested that USAID’s hesitation — or inability — to engage more deeply with the SDGs has been a missed opportunity to advance the agency’s own goals.

They both cited the example of SDG 16, which aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The inclusion of this goal in the agenda represented a significant shift from the previous Millennium Development Goals, in that it aligned development with governance, fairness, and rights.

By standing on the sidelines, the U.S. government is missing out on that shift, even though it helped bring it about, according to Mendelson.

“The largest bilateral donor on [democracy, rights, and governance] is not aligned with the goals that USAID staff helped to craft,” wrote Mendelson, who also previously led USAID’s democracy, rights, and governance portfolio.

USAID’s new self-reliance agenda is fundamentally related to supporting strong, responsive democratic institutions in the countries where the agency works, according to Pipa. USAID officials are likely having conversations with their country counterparts about investing in those governance systems that can help support development, he said.

“That’s a political conversation, and those countries have signed up to the SDGs,” he said. “I think you’re leaving chances on the table to be able to further your agenda just by not taking advantage of what’s already there through the commitments that those countries have made.”

China embraces global goals

The Trump administration’s effort to distance itself from the SDGs contrasts sharply with other countries, including China, which have been quicker to recognize them as an opportunity to brand their international engagement as part of a global, cooperative effort.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has actively sought to create links between the SDGs and China’s own global infrastructure investment agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative. Faced with criticism of opaque investment deals, unsustainable debt, and environmental harm, China has successfully courted U.N. leaders to solicit their endorsement of the BRI’s potential contribution to achieving the SDGs.

“The world will benefit from a Belt and Road Initiative that accelerates efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in April.

“The five pillars of the Belt and Road — policy coordination, facilities connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people exchanges — are intrinsically linked to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” he added.

In 2016, the United Nations Development Programme, under then-administrator Helen Clarke, signed a memorandum of understanding with China to cooperate on Belt and Road projects.

In 2016, China also released its own extensive national plan for implementing the SDGs, even linking the agenda to its current five-year plan.

The U.S., on the other hand, is the only OECD or G-20 country that has not completed a “voluntary national review” of its efforts to make progress on the SDGs, according to Pipa.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.