Theory, policy and practice perspectives from Royal Holloway

Sustainable Development Goals: Something new or more of the same?

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sdg-logoThe 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets were described by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as a ‘to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success‘. They are seen as building on the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals, which succeeded in providing a framework for global development cooperation and achieving significant progress in the reduction of extreme poverty, child and maternal mortality, and improved access to primary education. However, the MDGs were criticised for a top-down, Northern-centric framing of development definitions and development practice.

The SDGs were developed through a much more participatory process than the MDGs, with outputs including A Million Voices: The World We Want report.  This is both a response to previous criticisms, but also reflects the way in which the concept of global goals and targets had become normalised since the Millennium Summit of 2000. Having become accustomed to the MDGs, it was easier for national governments, NGOs and community groups to feed into the SDG consultation process.

The expanded list of goals, as well as the nature of the targets, demonstrates a more inclusive concept of SDGsdevelopment and a greater recognition of complexity. For example, MDG 3 on gender equality and women’s empowerment had been criticised for its rather instrumental approach to gender, with the targets of access to education, income and political representation as being inherently empowering for all women. The SDGs maintain the high profile of gender equality, but even more welcome is the inclusion of targets which acknowledge social and cultural barriers (informal institutions) to gender equality, and how progress on certain indicators may actually undermine processes of empowerment. The inclusion of gender-based violence in Target 5.2 is a good example of this; women’s access to income-generating opportunities may be limited by violence, but violence may also be the outcome of women’s entry into the paid labour force due to household tensions and threats to male power.

The SDGs also reflect a step change from the MDGs as they much more explicitly see countries and regions of the Global North as spaces of development. The MDGs, because of the framing of development as meeting baseline needs e.g. earning at least US$1.25 per day, focused on the Global South. The SDGs still include targets for eradicating extreme absolute poverty, but there are also targets relating to nationally-set poverty measures (Target 1.2). The expanded environmental-related goals also include the Global North, and will set particular challenges. For example, SDG 12 is ‘Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.’ How this will be assessed, and how changes in consumption behaviour will be prompted, is something that is yet to be agreed.

While the SDGs present some significant changes from the MDG era, other aspects remain very similar. This is particularly apparent in SDG 17 which focuses on global partnerships for sustainable development. The proposals are very similar to those of MDG 8; calls for developed countries to meet the target of 0.7% of gross national income to be spent on official development assistance (ODA), the expansion of free trade and greater use of technology. There is limited mention of the role of civil society organisations in the global partnerships, and no acknowledgement of the challenges that will arise due to power inequalities at both a global level and within countries. Recent debates in the UK about tax avoidance and previous impasses around greenhouse gas emission targets at international conferences, are just two examples of how embedded forms of power can limit the achievement of economic and/or environmental policies which could contribute to sustainable development.

Katie Willis

Katie Willis is Professor of Human Geography and Head of the Department of Geography at RHUL. This post is draws on her recently-published Viewpoint ‘International Development Planning and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’, International Development Planning Review, 38 (2), pp. 105-11.


One thought on “Sustainable Development Goals: Something new or more of the same?

  1. The whole SDG design is just a way for UN Specialized Agencies to “prove” they are relevant and suck up more money. The UN is good at spinning themselves towards undeserved credit for any improvement in the world and then pointing fingers at countries for any setbacks. How much importance would UN place on these if UN agencies were banned from receiving any donations tied to them? There are plenty of NGOs and IGOs that are more efficient and effective than UN Agencies so why not demand that a conflict of interest requires UN Agencies be excluded from all donor responses to this.


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