Evolving toward Sustainable Development Goals

In September, the United Nations will convene a special summit on Sustainable Development to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will establish the global development agenda following the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that have set the agenda for more than a decade. In June 2014, the Open Working Group released the draft of the SDGs, which named 17 goals with 169 targets (see box). By comparison, the MDGs consist of 8 goals and 18 targets.

The SDGs

  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 well-being 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 industrialization, 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.

  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 revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

Source: Open Working Group Proposal on the Sustainable Development Goals, 2014.

In June 2012, the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development outlined the process to develop the SDGs in the document “The Future We Want.” It acknowledged “the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions.”[1] While the MDGs focused primarily on extreme poverty, health, and education, the SDGs are broader and include a greater emphasis on environmental sustainability and new goals for human settlements, peace and justice, and water and sanitation. Additionally, the SDGs include cross-cutting principles of inclusion and equity. Already, some are criticizing the new SDGs for being too far-reaching and numerous, and for lacking clear overall objectives.

IDN asked two Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) students who have worked on programs that specifically targeted the MDGs about their thoughts on the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs.

Winnette Richards will complete her MDP in August 2015. She interns with The Carter Center’s Access to Justice in Liberia program and previously interned with Refugees International. In summer 2014, Richards worked with the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) in Bonsaaso, Ghana.

Tsewang Rigzin will complete his MDP in August 2015. He earned an MSW from Mangalore University in India. Prior to MDP, Rigzin worked at Pragya, an NGO focusing on social development. In summer 2014, he researched entrepreneurship among Tibetan refugees in India.

IDN: How were the MDGs incorporated into a development project you worked on?

Rigzin: I worked with the project “Active Democracy and Political Participation of Tribal Communities of the Himalayas,” which aligned with MDG 3, the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. We sought to educate and inform Himalayan women about their rights. We believed that education would enhance women’s access and assertion of their rights in sociopolitical processes.

Richards: The Millennium Villages Projects (MVPs) were born of the MDGs, and thus the aims of the MVP Bonsaaso were dictated by, and in line with, the eight MDGs. The project, which commenced in 2005, is scheduled to end this year and has made tremendous gains in improving health, education, agriculture, and infrastructure; however, the fear is that increased artisanal mining is undoing what has been accomplished. As a health and education intern, I assessed the negative effects of increased small-scale mining activity on primary school enrollment and attendance (MDG 2), and on health indicators such as HIV/STI and malaria rates within the Bonsaaso cluster (MDG 6).

Winette Richards MDP

IDN: With the increase in the number of goals and broader approach of the SDGs compared to the MDGs, how do you think these projects will approach the SDGs?

Richards: While with MVP Bonsaaso, I saw that there was an intensified focus on environmental protection in the mining communities of Bonsaaso. MVP Bonsaaso actually created a Natural Resource Committee in 2013 with the intent of researching and addressing the issue of land degradation in the cluster. This increased concern for natural-resource conservation was echoed within the local district assembly office, and I assume its emphasis will continue as the local government takes over MVP Bonsaaso later this year.

Rigzin: Achieving gender equality and empowerment of women has remained a goal of the SDGs, so I imagine the relevancy of the Himalayas project to the SDGs would be similar to the MDGs.

IDN: How do you envision the transition between the MDGs and SDGs?

Rigzin: Some of the world's pressing concerns that were highlighted in the MDGs have not been fully addressed. I believe the core investment of time and resources will remain somewhat the same for the post-2015 development agenda. However, I think the SDGs will focus more on issues of sustainability, especially environmental sustainability.

Richards: Many of the new SDGs reinforce the MDGs but also consider the structural and root causes of poverty, gender inequality, and so on. As they stand, the SDGs also seem to be more robust and holistic and will require more collaboration, not just for developing countries, but for all countries. In my time as an MDP student, I have been exposed to so many projects that already have been tackling the “new” issues addressed in the SDGs, such as LaFarge’s work on sustainable cities and human settlements; the increase in climate-change knowledge, awareness, and action; and The Carter Center’s work on issues of access to justice. Water, sanitation, and hygiene are the new “it” things in development—so I don’t think there will be significant growing pains as we transition from one set of goals to the next. The popularization of the SDGs will help catapult awareness and most likely lead to an increase in the number of organizations and government bodies working on important issues the MDGs didn’t cover. My hope is that the SDGs also will come with better measuring and accountability mechanisms, which is where we probably will see the most resistance from developed and developing countries alike.

IDN: In what ways do you think the SDGs will shape your career as a development practitioner?

Richards: As a human rights advocate and a practitioner with specific interests in post-conflict and post-disaster development, I am excited to see the incorporation of structural inequalities in the new goals, especially in terms of emphasizing the need for promoting and sustaining peace and inclusive societies. I hope that as the SDGs shine more light on the importance of issues such as rule of law, the international arena will become more accepting of, and work harder toward, implementing these vital principles. I foresee this providing many new and innovative opportunities in the field of development, and I think the SDGs will encourage more organizations to broaden their scope to include values of equality and human rights in their objectives.

Rigzin: My career as a development practitioner will capitalize on the interdisciplinary and cooperative nature inherent within the SDGs. As we saw with the MDGs, most of the world’s funding sources will be directed toward achieving the SDGs and, in some capacity, most MDP graduates will work with major development organizations. Our work will be greatly influenced by the direction of funding. Additionally, since there will be concrete goals to achieve at the international level, the goals of development practice may be more focused overall as well.

The MDGs galvanized funding and interest in global poverty and development; the SDGs are likely to do the same for a more diverse set of issues. While the expanded goals may be broader and more inclusive, there are concerns regarding how achievable the SDGs will be given the mixed results of the MDGs. The MDGs helped to cut extreme poverty in half and increase official development assistance to 134.8 billion USD in 2013, the highest level ever recorded. Yet one in four children still face chronic malnutrition; little progress has been made in maternal mortality; and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise[2]. The 17 goals named by the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development are likely to remain, and the negotiations through 2015 will culminate in targets that will chart the next 15 years of the development agenda. 

Timeline for the SDGs

June 2012: Rio+20 Earth Summit

May 2013: High-Level panel on post-2015 agenda-releases report

July 2014: Open Working Group proposal on SDGs released

December 2014: UN Secretary General's Synthesis Report released

February 2015: Post-2015 Intergovernmental Negotiations Declaration Session

March 2015: Beijing+20 Commission on the Status of Women

July 2015: Third International Conference on Financing for International Development

September 2015: Special Summit on Sustainable Development

[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The Future We Want—Outcome Document,” June 2012. Accessed April 27, 2015.

[2] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report—2014,” Accessed February 23, 2014.


Photo: Emory MDP candidate Winnette Richards during her summer 2014 international field practicum with the Millennium Villages Project in Bonsaaso, Ghana

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