Published On: Wed, Jul 8th, 2015

Sustainable development goals will be hard sell for United Nations

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon grouped the sustainable development goals into six ‘essential elements’: dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice and partnership.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon grouped the sustainable development goals into six ‘essential elements’: dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice and partnership. Photograph: Xinhua/Landov / Barcroft Media

Fifteen years after world leaders gathered in New York to agree an unprecedented global assault on poverty, disease and inequality, the final report is in on the eight millennium development goals (MDGs) they set.

The goals were intended to serve as a precise, memorable and measurable way to focus development policy in the first years of the 21st century and to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

Underlying them, however, was a simple if stunning ambition; an epochal call to arms.

“We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanising conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected,” ran the Millennium Declaration that was adopted at the summit.

“We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.”

If progress on the MDGs has been mixed – and the final report plainly admits that it has – then their architects can at least claim that progress on ending extreme poverty has been spectacular: between 1990 and this year, the number of those living in extreme poverty has fallen from 1.9 billion to 836 million.

Improvements in many other areas have been less impressive, however. Last year, the the UN deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, bemoaned the lack of action on clean water and sanitation, warning that the slow progress in building toilets and ending open defecation was having a “staggering” effect on the health, safety, education, prosperity and dignity of 2.5 billion people.

His comments came two months after Unesco admitted that there was “no chance whatsoever” that the millennium development goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015 would be met.

The MDGs have often been criticised for their naivety, their narrow interpretation of the ethos behind the millennium declaration and for their lack of focus on longterm, sustainable development. But they are at least acknowledged to have concentrated global attention on their separate eight areas.

Many fear that the MDGs replacements – the sustainable development goals, which will be agreed by the UN in September – will struggle to do even that.

Whereas the MDGs consisted of eight goals supported by 21 specific targets and 60 indicators, there are currently 17 SDGs comprising 169 targets. The number of indicators has yet to be set but there are likely to be hundreds.

The sheer number of goals, targets and indicators has prompted some to worry that the SDGs will be a hard sell.

The British prime minister, David Cameron, has made it clear that he favours fewer.

“I don’t believe they will cut it at 17,” he said last year. “There are too many to communicate effectively. There’s a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust.”

Despite this, the numbers look unlikely to change as reaching agreement even on 17 has been a long, hard slog.

But the UN is acutely aware of the need to grab people’s attention with the SDGs, which will set the development agenda until 2030. During last year’s SDG negotiations, the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, grouped the goals into six “essential elements”: dignity, people, planet, prosperity, justice and partnership.

If the numerous SDGs are to make an impression on the global consciousness, they will need careful packaging and a simple, unifying message.

As Helen Clark, the head of the UN Development Programme, put it in January: “We need to catch people’s imagination with this because if you just say ‘sustainable development’, eyes glaze. If you say, ‘17 goals’, it takes a genius to recite the 17.”

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