What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

October 23rd, 2015

Creation of the Sustainable Development Goals

More than 15 years ago, a small group of United Nations development specialists drafted a set of eight development goals for poor countries that were to be met by the year 2015. As Mark Suzman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reflects, “It’s not as if 2000 was the first time that the U.N. has come out and set lofty goals.” Yet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as they came to be known, proved surprisingly effective in setting priorities for national governments and aid organizations. The number of people living in extreme poverty in the developing world has been dramatically reduced. More than six million lives have been saved by malaria prevention and treatments. Significant improvements in gender equality have been made, with as many girls enrolled in primary schools as there are boys worldwide.

The MDGs were set to expire in 2015. As the time approached for the United Nations to set a new development agenda, many agreed that a much more inclusive process was needed. As Pope Francis said in his recent address to the United Nations, “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.” The United Nations used the largest consultation process in its history to develop new Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved over the next 15 years. Consultations around the goals were held in 83 countries, and approximately seven million people were polled worldwide. While the MDGs were primarily considered targets that developing nations should meet with aid from wealthy nations, the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the Global Goals, apply to all countries throughout the world. They aim to address the root causes of poverty and address development in a more holistic manner. Finally, they have a stronger focus on environmental protection and human rights. 

People centered and planet sensitive

The new Global Goals are much more detailed and ambitious than the Millennium Development Goals were. There are also 17 Sustainable Development Goals, replacing the eight Millennium Development Goals. Some fear the larger number of goals will make it more difficult for nations and aid agencies to rally around achieving them. Mark Suzman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says that while all of the targets listed in the Sustainable Development Goals are important, “the challenge is, how do you use those to prioritize?”

Thomas Gass, a United Nations assistant secretary who coordinated the process to create the goals, says this overlooks their purpose. In order to eliminate global poverty, he believes, an entirely new way of understanding development is needed. “The strength of this new agenda is not its focus or its help to set priorities,” says Gass. “The strength of this new agenda is that it can and must become a new social contract between governments and their people.” True development can happen only when citizens can hold their governments accountable.

Climate change and the environment

Seven of the 17 Global Goals are explicitly related to environmental action. Goal 13 is to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Ibrahim, a tailor and restaurant owner in the island nation of Maldives, illustrates why this is an urgent issue for many poor nations. He states, “I don’t need to watch TV to know about climate change, I’ve seen it happen through my own eyes: coastal erosions are becoming faster and saltwater is intruding in our freshwater.”

This particular goal is perhaps the clearest example of why all nations must work toward achieving the target. While the United Nations Development Program is working with the Maldives government to help people adapt to the effects of climate change, the root issue can only be solved by all nations working to halt climate change.

Eliminating hunger and extreme poverty

Since 1990, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty worldwide has been cut in half. However, one in five people in poor countries still lives in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day). Sustainable Development Goal 1 is to end poverty in all its forms and includes the target to eradicate extreme poverty by the year 2030. Goal 2 is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” At a recent consultation coordinated by United Methodist Women, Esperanza Cardona of Honduras spoke to why hunger must be addressed in a holistic way that develops local economies. “Food sovereignty doesn’t mean importing food [like] vast qualities of beans from Ethiopia. We peasant women can grow these beans as well as rice,” she said.

The holistic nature of the Global Goals also recognizes that economic inequality, not just poverty itself, must be addressed. Goal 10 is to reduce inequality within and among countries. The United Nations website on the Sustainable Development Goals states, “There is nothing inevitable about growing income inequality.” It points to several countries that have stopped the growth of inequality or even reduced it at the same time overall economic growth has been achieved.

Gender equality and quality education

One of the most successful areas of the Millennium Development Goals was the progress made in enrolling as many girls as boys in primary schools. However, employment rates for women have risen more slowly than for men, and women are still more likely to be poor than men. Goal number 5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower all girls and women.” This includes equal access for girls and women to education, health care, quality work, and representation in political and economic decision-making. Many of the key targets for this goal include eliminating various forms of gender-based violence.

Goal 4, inclusive and quality education for all, overlaps with the goal of gender equality. One of the targets for this goal is that by 2030, all boys and girls complete free, quality primary and secondary education.

Will the poor always be with us?

Christian Scriptures are filled with references to God’s compassion for the poor as well as God’s disappointment in humanity when we fail to care for the vulnerable. However, certain Christians will point to Jesus’ words in Mark 14:7, “You [will] always have the poor with you,” as evidence that it’s not possible or even desirable to work to end poverty. Jesus spoke these words to the disciples who were grumbling about a woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, saying the money could have instead been given to the poor.

In his words, Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:10-11, which states, “Give generously to needy persons. Don’t resent giving to them because it is this very thing that will lead to the Lord your God’s blessing you in all you do and work at. Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. That’s why I’m giving you this command: You must open your hand generously to your fellow Israelites, to the needy among you, and to the poor who live with you in your land.” Far from letting followers off the hook from addressing poverty, the Scripture commands us to continually place the needs of those who are poor and vulnerable at the forefront of our concerns.

While the ambitious nature of the Global Goals makes them daunting, this doesn’t negate the urgency of working toward them. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus