The United Nations held a Development Summit on 25-27 September, attended by many top political leaders. The Summit adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which will have a major impact on how development will be dissected and monitored in the UN and at country level in the next 15 years. The centrepiece of the 2030 Agenda is the Sustainable Development Goals. This article traces the background to the SDGs, comparing them to the previous MDGs, describes the new technology mechanism and the follow up process for monitoring the Agenda and the SDGs. It makes a brief conclusion on the limits to the SDG approach which must be complemented with systemic analyses of the sustainable development issues.  


The world’s political leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development during a United Nations Summit on Development held on 25-27 September at the UN headquarters in New York.


The 2030 Agenda is the outcome of two to three years of wide ranging discussions and intense negotiations, mainly held in New York.


The outcome document, whose full name is “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, is contained in a resolution (A/RES/70/1) of the special session of the UN General Assembly, which met as the Summit on 25-27 September.


The Summit itself saw many heads of governments and states making plenary speeches and taking part, with other participants, in roundtables organised around eight themes.


The centrepiece of the 2030 Agenda is a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), accompanied by 169 targets.


The SDGs are meant to be goals for each country to strive for. They are mainly the result of two years of negotiations in a working group on SDGs, following up on a mandate given by the 2012 Sustainable Development Summit in Rio.


Following the working group’s adoption of the SDGs, further negotiations on the SDGs were carried out as part of the preparation of the September 2015 Development Summit, resulting in some changes.


The outcome document, Transforming our world, comprises 35 pages, with about half the pages in the style of a political declaration and the remainder a reproduction of the SDGs.


The SDGs are a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which had targets for achieving mainly social goals with a deadline of 2015.   The SDGs in turn have targets to achieve by 2030, and thus the term “the 2030 Agenda” that is now attached to the Summit document and the SDGs.


Comparing the SDGs to the MDGs, there are areas of significant improvement. Firstly, the process of formulating the SDGs was far more participatory, involving member states, civil society groups and experts, sitting through two years of several sessions in the SDG working group.


They discussed the format and principles of the SDGs, clusters of issues, and then eventually homed in on specific SDGs, of which there were 17 in the end.   Each SDG was accompanied by its own targets, which were then also negotiated.   There is thus a sense of ownership and belonging by governments as well as civil society organisations, even though each of them may not be happy and have reservations about various aspects of the SDGs.


In contrast, the MDGs had been formulated by or under the charge of personnel of the United Nations, with governments and civil society not having a role. Thus a major criticism is that the MDGs lacked transparency as to its authorship and process, and lacked ownership among the governments and people in the countries that are to implement them.


Secondly, the SDGs are meant to be universally implemented, meaning that developed countries are also obliged to fulfil the goals. This is different from the MDGs, which were meant for developing countries to implement. Thus, a goal like ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns   (Goal 12) should be taken as seriously (or even more so) in the developed countries, which have many examples of unsustainable technologies, products and lifestyles.


Thirdly, the SDGs are much more balanced in terms of the categories of issues that are included. The developing countries in particular, championed by the Group of 77 and China, had insisted that there be a fair balance in the SDGs to be adopted among the three components of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental.


Under the auspices of the African Union and UN Economic Commission for Africa, African countries devised a Common African Position at the beginning of the SDG discussions which called for structural transformation and industrial development.


Many developing countries, and many experts and NGOs, had criticised the MDGs for being almost solely focused on the social dimension, such as tackling hunger, poverty, health and education. This had inadvertently turned the MDG exercise into an aid agenda:   donors would provide external resources if the recipient country was willing to increase its spending on social sectors.


Perhaps this was a legacy of the times when the MDGs were created: structural adjustment programmes had caused many developing countries to cut back on social spending and to go into recessionary or low-growth conditions as financial resources were diverted to external debt repayment.   The MDGs were seen as a kind of international safety net to help the poor survive.


By the time the SDGs were being conceptualised, many developing country delegates at their own meetings and at the working group, were insisting that the SDGs needed to boost the economic capacity of the developing countries, so that they can generate their own growth and have the resources to make their social development programmes sustainable.


At the same time there was an acceptance that the environmental pillar had also been neglected and with the worsening of the environmental crises, it was also important to include many environmental goals.


And all this, without neglecting or downgrading the social dimension which had been the centrepiece of the MDGs. Moreover besides poverty and hunger and health, there are new pressing socio-economic issues, especially inequality, that need to be given priority.


The result is that the SDGs have economic, social and environmental goals. There are many goals that contain more than one dimension.   The mainly economic goals include promoting economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all (Goal 8), build resilient infrastructure, sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation (Goal 9) and reduce inequality within and between countries (Goal 10).


Environmental goals include sustainable cities; sustainable consumption and production patterns; climate change; oceans and seas; land, forests and desertification. Social goals include ending poverty; hunger, food security and nutrition; health; education; gender equity; water and sanitation and energy. There is also Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all; and accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, a goal that was intensely negotiated.


Finally, there is the issue of the means of implementation and the partnership for development, two inter-related overarching issues that were all-important to the developing countries. They argued that without financial resources and technology (the means of implementation) and without an enabling international environment that is friendly to development and developing countries (the global partnership), it would be difficult or impossible for them to achieve the SDGs.


If one believes that the SDGs surpasses the MDGs in terms of ambition, the means of implementation and global partnership for development should also surpass those achieved under the MDGs.


This issue was perhaps the most controversial and hotly debated. Eventually, Goal 17 was adopted: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.”


Though the title of Goal 17 may be comprehensive, the targets under the goal are far too general and do not contain new specific targets (such as the need for regulating the global financial system), and in some ways is backwards compared to the MDGs Goal 8 on global partnership.   Perhaps this is a sign or a result of the waning of multilateral North-South cooperation of the past few years. Hopefully some of this can be rectified in the exercise of formulating indicators for the targets, which is now taking place.


A New Technology Facilitation Mechanism Launched


Although in general the “means of implementation” are disappointing, there is one significant area of progress in the Declaration (The 2030 Agenda) outside of the SDGs, in the launching of a Technology Facilitation Mechanism to support the Sustainable Development Goals. (This Mechanism had actually been earlier established by the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa earlier in 2015).


The Technology Facilitation Mechanism will be based on a multi-stakeholder collaboration between Member States, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, UN entities and other stakeholders and will be composed of a United Nations inter-agency task team on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals, a collaborative multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals and an online platform.


The UN inter-agency task team will promote coordination within the UN system on science, technology and innovation-related matters, and will work with 10 representatives from civil society, the private sector and the scientific community to prepare the meetings of the multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology and innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as in the development and operationalization of the online platform, including preparing proposals for the modalities for the forum and the online platform.


The online platform will establish a mapping of, and serve as a gateway for, information on existing science, technology and innovation initiatives, mechanisms and programmes, within and beyond the United Nations. The online platform will facilitate access to information, knowledge and experience, as well as best practices and lessons learned, on science, technology and innovation facilitation initiatives and policies. The online platform will also facilitate the dissemination of relevant open access scientific publications generated worldwide.


The multi-stakeholder forum will be convened once a year, to discuss science, technology and innovation cooperation around thematic areas for the implementation of the SDGs. The forum will provide a venue for facilitating interaction, reviews, and recommendations.


The Follow Up Process


The 2030 Agenda also contains a section on follow up mechanisms to monitor and review the progress of the SDGs and the Agenda.


At national level, countries are called upon to develop ambitious national responses to the overall implementation of this Agenda to support the transition to the SDGs and build on existing planning instruments, such as national development and sustainable development strategies. They shoud also conduct reviews of progress at the national and subnational levels which are country-led and country-driven. Such reviews should draw on contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and parliaments.


At regional level, regional and subregional commissions are encouraged to contribute, and the UN regional commissions are encouraged to continue supporting countries in their region.


At the global level, the high-level political forum (for sustainable development) will have a central role in overseeing a network of follow-up and review processes, working with the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and others. It will facilitate sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, and provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations for follow-up. It will promote system-wide coherence and coordination of sustainable development policies. It should ensure that the Agenda remains relevant and ambitious and should focus on the assessment of progress, achievements and challenges faced by developed and developing countries as well as new and emerging issues.


This follow up process will be assisted by a Secretary General’s annual progress report on the SDGs and the Global Sustainable Development Report.


The high-level political forum shall carry out regular reviews that are voluntary. They shall be State-led, involving ministerial and other relevant high-level participants. They shall provide a platform for partnerships, including through the participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders.


Thematic reviews of progress on the SDGs will also take place at the high-level political forum, supported by reviews by the ECOSOC functional commissions and other intergovernmental bodies and forums which should reflect the integrated nature of the Goals as well as the interlinkages between them.


The Declaration also welcomed the Addis Ababa Action Agenda’s follow-up and review for the financing for development outcomes as well as all the means of implementation of the SDGs which is integrated with the follow-up and review framework of this Agenda. The conclusions of the annual ECOSOC forum on financing for development will be fed into the overall follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda in the high-level political forum.


Meeting every four years under the auspices of the General Assembly, the high-level political forum will provide high-level political guidance on the Agenda and its implementation, identify progress and emerging challenges and mobilize further actions to accelerate implementation. The next high-level political forum under the auspices of the General Assembly will be held in 2019.


The Secretary-General was also asked to prepare a report during the 70th session of the General Assembly which outlines critical milestones towards coherent, efficient and inclusive follow-up and review at the global level.


Some Concluding Thoughts


All in all, the 2030 Agenda adopted by the UN Summit is comprehensive and ambitious in scope. It provides framework with recognisable goals and quantitative targets for individual countries and their publics to aim for.   The preamble to the Declaration states:   “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda…. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental. The Goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet….


“The inter-linkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realized. If we realize our ambitions across the full extent of the Agenda, the lives of all will be profoundly improved and our world will be transformed for the better.”


However, the structural limitations of an SDG goals-and-targets approach should also be recognised. It provides the goals and concrete targets in ways that help governments, international organisations and the public to focus on what the issues are and what are objectives and the outcomes that are aimed at. However by themselves the SDGs do not provide an analysis of the causes of the problems, the obstacles that need to be overcome, and the road map or maps needed for the solutions.


Moreover, a major adverse event, like another global financial or economic crisis, may throw the process of fulfilling the SDGs off track or perhaps into a chaos.   Countries embroiled in a fall of export revenue, a balance of payments and debt crisis, and sharp reduction in government revenue, cannot be expected to stay on track with the SDG targets. However the SDG framework, including indicators (when they are ready), would still be useful in monitoring performance, including if it is negative.


Therefore we should make good use of the pragmatic usefulness of the SDGs and the Agenda 2030 that frames them, but not exaggerate their utility and role. The SDG approach must be complemented with the old-fashioned and all-important analyses, of what are the structural and systemic issues and challenges of development and of each component (be it mainly in the economic, social or environmental), how to overcome the problems, and the possible options and roadmaps. Reality is complex and qualitative analysis (backed up of course with data) is required, and therefore the SDGs should not displace the complex task of analysis by an overly simplistic approach to development.   On the other hand, analysis of a complex problem can be supported by having priority goals and clear targets and indicators. Thus, the SDG approach should be accompanied by and not replace or downgrade the need for rigorous analysis.   Together, the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development will be more meaningful and stand a better chance of getting the world on track to tackle the manifold crises afflicting humanity and the Earth.



– Martin Khor is the Executive Director of the South Centre. Contact: .



Sustainable Development Goals


Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere


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


Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages


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


Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls


Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all


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


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


Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation


Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries


Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable


Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns


Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*


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


Goal 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


Goal 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


Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development


* Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.


Source: South Bulletin 89, 31 December 2015






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