World finalizes SDGs but 'real work' is yet to begin

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (center) addresses the media on the agreed outcome document of the post-2015 development agenda. With him are the co-facilitators of the negotiations and permanent representatives to the U.N.: Macharia Kamau of Kenya and David Donoghue of Ireland. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

The world’s development blueprint for the next 15 years is now just one step away from becoming fully operational.

On Sunday, 193 U.N. member states came to an agreement on the sustainable development goals, the post-2015 priorities that will be adopted at the global body’s annual meeting in September in New York.

The post-2015 development agenda, a product of nearly three years of intense negotiations, contains nine more goals than the expiring Millennium Development Goals. While critics claim the 17 goals and 169 targets are too many and too unwieldy to be implemented effectively, many experts also say these SDGs are more comprehensive and more ambitious than the MDGs.

Nonetheless, development stakeholders from donor agencies to civil society groups welcomed the 29-page outcome document. But can these words really be translated into concrete, life-changing actions?

“If you look at the 17 SDGs, they're good ones,” Jeffrey Sachs, director at the Earth Institute, said at a conference in Manila attended by Devex. “It's actually a wonderful list. It's comprehensive. Our job is to make them real.”

The 17 goals include a focus on ending extreme poverty, addressing food security, providing universal access to health and education, ending gender inequality, ensuring access to water and sanitation, ensuring access to sustainable and reliable energy, promoting inclusive growth, building resilient infrastructure, making cities and settlements resilient, combating climate change, conserving marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and strengthening global partnerships for sustainable development.

But Sachs, who has played a leading roles in the implementation of the MDGs through his work at the U.N. Millennium Project, stressed the post-2015 development agenda is not a panacea to the world’s problems. It should instead be considered as a way of thinking to guide action, particularly in governance.

“The purpose of the SDGs is to actually create a frame in which we think about growth, social inclusion and environmental sustainability in a holistic way,” he said. “It's a new governance challenge because our governance is not equipped to do this right now.”

Good plan of action

While the MDGs have borne their fair share of criticism, the United Nations claims they have helped lift more than 700 million people out of poverty. The SDGs, according to the global body, will do more than that.

“The new sustainable development goals, and the broader sustainability agenda, go much further, addressing the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people,” the U.N. said in a statement.

This is something civil society representatives recognize.

Plan International’s outgoing CEO Nigel Chapman welcomed the youth’s prominent role in the agenda, noting that the “recognition of the positive power of girls, boys, young women and young men as development actors … is a true game changer.” In the past, children and young people were often considered by donors and implementing agencies as simply “passive recipients of development.”

Helen Morton, Save the Children’s lead on global goals, meanwhile said the SDGs will represent a “seismic shift in how the world tackles poverty” by employing inclusive and sustainable measures to pursue development progress — an obvious commitment given the document’s battle cry of leaving no one behind.

“The success of the agenda will be judged not on what is declared in 2015, but on what is delivered by 2030,” she concluded, stressing that the real work is just beginning.

Want to see more coverage of the SDGs? Check out Sustaining Development in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. You’ll find more Devex news coverage of the SDGs like this article, plus opinion pieces, video interviews, and content provided by our partners.

About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.