The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

by Patrizia Gragnani

In 1992 the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. launched the Agenda 21, a non-binding action plan for sustainable development. One of the major objectives of this agenda was the fact that every signing country could finetune its own version of it in order to apply it to the national, regional or local levels. The Agenda 21 was divided into 4 sections: 

  1. social and economic dimensions, 
  2. conservation and management of resources for development, 
  3. strengthening the role of major groups, and 
  4. the means of implementation.

In the year 2000, following the United Nations (UN) Millenium Summit, the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched. All the 191 UN countries and other international organisations pledged to work towards the achievement of the 8 MDGs:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce child mortality
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

The 8 MDGs were measured by 21 targets. In order to accelerate the road towards the goals, the G8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, UK, USA) agreed to provide the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank with enough monetary resources to cancel the debt of 40-55 billion dollars owed by heavily indebted poor countries, in order to redirect these funds towards development programs concerning education and poverty reduction. One of the main limitations of the MDGs was the fact that during the fact that during the period between 2000 and 2015 half of the funds that were supposed to be used for their implementation, actually went to cover debt, and the rest to cover natural disaster relief and military aid, rather than development.

The Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development by the United Nations General Assembly is the 2015 evolution of the MDGs. It contains 17 interlinked goals that signing countries should reach by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are: 

  1. No Poverty, 
  2. Zero Hunger, 
  3. Good Health and Well-being, 
  4. Quality Education, 
  5. Gender Equality, 
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation, 
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy, 
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth, 
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, 
  10. Reducing Inequality, 
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, 
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production, 
  13. Climate Action, 
  14. Life Below Water, 
  15. Life On Land, 
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, 
  17. Partnerships for the Goals.

Figure 1 source: Institute of Entrepreneurship Development

Two years after their launch, the UN adapted the goals to be more specific and easier to achieve, adding a total of 169 targets to the 17 goals.

The SDGs-Tracker is a useful monitoring tool to check the progress for each target, while the SDGs Report assigns the 193 UN member countries a score that reflects their progress in reaching the SDGs. For instance, according to the report, in 2020 Sweden appears to be the 1st country in the ranking with a score of 84.72. Overall, the EU countries occupy the upper part of the ranking, with Denmark and Finland occupying respectively the 2nd and the 3rd positions, and Bulgaria (74.77), Greece (74.33) and Luxemburg (74.31) being the worst performing EU countries. Chad, South Sudan and Central African Republic occupy the bottom of the ranking. 27 countries were not assigned any score. It is worth to mention that, according to the report, Asian countries have made the most significant progress in their effort to implement the SDGs since 2015. Moreover, the effort to implement the SDGs in many low-income countries has created a positive spillover effect on other countries. This means that the implementation of the SDGs in a country might trigger the implementation in another one. The spillover effect is measured along four dimensions: environmental, economy & finance, social and security. The countries that have positively impacted others are mainly low-income countries, such Comoros, Myanmar and Sudan which occupy the top 3 positions of the spillover effect ranking respectively.

Despite this, according to the study “Are we on the right path to achieve the sustainable development goals?” by Moyer and Hedden, the world still seems far from reaching the SDGs. By 2015, 43.2% of the country-indicators reached their target values. Among these we find some of the central SDGs and targets: the reduction of extreme poverty, hunger, underweight children, childhood mortality, primary school completion, lower-secondary school completion, access to safe water, improved sanitation and electricity. According to their projections, this value will rise to 53.8% by 2030. Regionally, Africa seems to lag behind the most in its achievement of the SDGs, with a lower percent of countries achieving the target values by 2030. 

Specific targets are projected to grow rapidly. However, values for underweight children, child mortality, lower secondary school completion, and access to safe sanitation are projected to take more time.

On top of this, while the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic might have slowed down the effort of many countries, some argue that it might have shaken-up many and awoken them to the fact that, reaching the SDGs might help in preventing similar pandemics to happen again in the future. In fact, poverty, poor nutrition, improper sanitation, un-sustainable land use, and poor education might have contributed to the rise and spread of the virus. While it is unarguable that the pandemic has taken a toll on the world’s health, economy, education, and overall quality of life, it is true that it offers the opportunity to rethink human’s role and the importance of pursuing sustainable development.

Patrizia is a Ph.D. candidate in Sustainability Management at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Her main research focus is on the role of cities in climate change mitigation. She has a background in Management and Economics from the University of Pisa, and a MBA from Sungkyunkwan Graduate School of Business, Seoul. Prior to her Ph.D. she worked in different startups in Seoul.


Cover image from UNFCCC’s Flickr:
[1] What are the SDGs?
[2] SDG-Tracker
[3] SDGs Report
[4] SDGs and COVID-19

Categories International Policy

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