An SDG Guide – for starters!


The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) Summit is upon us and all eyes will be on the Paris meeting and its potential wrangles, challenges and outcomes.  Given the debates that characterised the previous Millennium Development Goals agenda, the temperature is likely to hot up with national governments now discussing the SDGs – 17 goals that might fundamentally change the world by 2030.

As with the MDG agenda, this provides those of us involved in development education with a rich and engaged agenda upon which to discuss and debate many of the world’s key challenges.

At we intend to follow the debate on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development offering information, analysis, debate and resources to support the agenda and to offer opportunities for engagement.

First off, an initial guide to the SDGs.

What are the SDGs?

The global goals for sustainable development are a new(ish), set of universal goals, targets and indicators that UN member states will be expected to use to guide their development agendas and policies over the next 15 years.  The SDGs follow on from and expand further on the millennium development goals, which were agreed by governments in 2000, and are due to expire at the end of this year.

Why the SDGs?

Despite significant criticism of the MDGs (we will come back to this issue separately), there is widespread agreement that while the MDGs provided a focal point for governments and international organisations (and civil society organisations) upon which to build their overall agendas and policies (including significantly their overseas aid programmes) with a view to ending poverty and improving the lives of the world’s poorest.

While they have been criticised heavily for what was left out of the MDG agenda, what was crucially significant about the MDGs was that they established a set of goals and targets against which governments could be held accountable

The eight MDGs – 1. reduce poverty and hunger; 2. achieve universal education; 3. promote gender equality; 4. reduce child; 5. improve maternal health; 6. combat HIV, malaria and other diseases; 7. ensure environmental sustainability; 8. develop global partnerships for development – were criticised for failing to address the root causes of poverty, or inequality (especially gender inequality) and for reducing the complexity of development to a set of technical issues and challenges.

The goals made no mention of human rights (so governments could avoid significant accountability) nor did they effectively build the intended global partnerships avoiding many of the key processes and structures that create and recreate poverty and inequality.

While, in theory, the MDGs applied to all countries, the central focus was on developing countries setting targets for such countries to achieve with (limited) finance from richer states. In contrast, the SDG agenda applies to all internationally, especially in so far as it attempts to deal with sustainable development and climate change.  In this context every country is expected to work towards achieving the SDGs.

Today, an estimated 1 billion plus people still live on less than $1.25 a day – the World Bank’s base line measurement of absolute poverty – and more than 800 million remain hungry (these figures are conservative and remain the subject of much debate).

Women continue to struggle for effective equality in some of the most basic ways with millions of women still dying in childbirth.

Inequality is now greater than ever before and the evidence of the threat and consequences of climate change are evident whilst still denied by too many.

The 17 sustainable development goals

1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

10) Reduce inequality within and among countries

11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)

14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

Accompanying these 17 goals are a suggested 169 targets; for example, the suggested targets under Goal 1 include eradicating extreme poverty ‘for all people everywhere’, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day and establishing ‘pro-poor policies and strategies; under Goal 2 ending hunger and ensuring access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round by 2030; under Goal 5 ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere and under Goal 12 halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level etc.

In designing the SDG agenda, the UN undertook the ‘largest consultation programme in its history’ to access opinions on what should be included.  Designing the post-2015 goals was an outcome of the Rio+20 summit in 2012, which set up a working group to come up with a draft set of goals.  The working group with representatives from 70 countries began its task in March 2013 and published its final draft in July 2014 for presentation to the UN General Assembly September 25th – 27th.

The UN also conducted a series of what it called ‘global conversations’ (including 11 thematic and 83 national consultations) and ‘door-to-door’ surveys. It also created an online My World survey asking people to prioritise the areas they wanted included.

It is important to note that Ireland played a central role in the whole development of the SDG agenda.

Beginning the debate

The majority of states appear to be broadly satisfied with the agenda so far but others have raised questions, reservations and issues (many, many more will emerge in Paris) – for example the UK is unhappy about the objectives of Goal 5 (women’s groups in the UK have responded to this and those on reducing military spending in Goal 12).  Other countries argue that 17 goals are too many and are unworkable but many civil society groups argue that this objection is simply a crude attempt to eliminate some of the most challenging goals.

Many non-governmental organisations also argue that there are too many goals but the argument in response is that it is better to have 17 goals that include key targets on, for example on sustaining the oceans, seas and forests or reducing waste and over-consumption as well as on peace and security issues rather than having fewer goals that omit such issues.

For a broad ‘sceptical’ view, see The 169 commandments (March 28, 2015) in the Economist magazine.

Paying for the Goals?

As before with the MDG agenda, paying the bill for delivering the Goals is one of the biggest challenges; the total cost of the agenda is likely to be greater than $US 2 trillion per year.

The UN has argued that while public finance and aid would be central to support the implementation of the SDGs, money generated from the private sector, through tax reforms, and through a crackdown on illicit financial flows and corruption was also vital.

If member states of the UN agree the draft set of 17 SDGs they will become operational from January 2016 with a deadline of 2030.


More info on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development from the official website at