Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Sustainable Development Goals

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of 17 "Global Goals" with 169 targets between them. Spearheaded by the United Nations through a deliberative process involving its 193 Member States, as well as global civil society, the goals are contained in paragraph 54 United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1 of 25 September 2015. The Resolution is a broader intergovernmental agreement that acts as the Post 2015 Development Agenda (successor to the Millennium Development Goals). The SDGs build on the Principles agreed upon under Resolution A/RES/66/288, popularly known as The Future We Want.


The SDGs were in large measure informed by the often quoted assertion by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that "we don’t have plan B because there is no planet B".

On 19 July 2014, the UN General Assembly's Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) forwarded a proposal for the SDGs to the Assembly. The proposal contained 17 goals with 169 targets covering a broad range of sustainable development issues. These included ending poverty and hunger, improving health and education, making cities more sustainable, combating climate change, and protecting oceans and forests. On 5 December 2014, the UN General Assembly accepted the Secretary-General's Synthesis Report which stated that the agenda for the post-2015 SDG process would be based on the OWG proposals.

The Intergovernmental Negotiations on the Post 2015 Development Agenda (IGN) began in January 2015 and ended in August 2015. Following the negotiations, a final document was adopted at the UN Sustainable Development Summit September 25–27, 2015 in New York, USA. The title of the agenda is Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.


The history of the SDGs can be traced to 1972 when governments met in Stockholm, Sweden, for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, to consider the rights of the human family to a healthy and productive environment. It was not until 1983 that the United Nations decided to create the World Commission on Environment and Development which defined sustainable development as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In 1992 the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio. The first agenda for Environment and Development, also known as Agenda 21, was developed and adopted in Rio.

In preparation for the Rio+20 Conference, Indonesia held a July 2011 government retreat in Solo, Indonesia. At this event, Colombia proposed the idea of the SDGs. This was picked up by the United nations Department of Public Information 64th NGO Conference in September 2011 in Bonn where the outcome document proposed 17 sustainable development goals and associated targets. In the run-up to Rio+20 there was much discussion about the idea of SDGs. At the Rio+20 Conference, a resolution, known as The Future We Want was reached by member states. Among the key themes agreed on were poverty eradication, energy, water and sanitation, health, and human settlement.

Paragraph 246 of the Future We Want outcome document forms the link between the Rio+20 agreement and the Millennium Development Goals: "We recognize that the development of goals could also be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development. The goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development (environment, economics, and society) and their interlinkages. The development of these goals should not divert focus or effort from the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals". Paragraph 249 states that "the process needs to be coordinated and coherent with the processes to consider the post-2015 development agenda".

Taken together, paragraph 246 and 249 paved the way for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were officially established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000 and the agreement in the Future We Want outcome document. The Rio+20 summit also agreed that the process of designing sustainable development goals, should be "action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities".

Because the MDGs were to be achieved by 2015, a further process was needed. Discussion of the post-2015 framework for international development began well in advance, with the United Nations System Task Team on Post 2015 Development Agenda releasing the first report known as Realizing The Future We Want. The Report was the first attempt to achieve the requirements under paragraph 246 and 249 of the Future We Want document. It identified four dimensions as part of a global vision for sustainable development: Inclusive Social Development, Environmental Sustainability, Inclusive Economic Development, and Peace and Security. Other processes included the UN Secretary General's High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, whose report was submitted to the Secretary General in 2013.

The goals

On 25 September 2015, the 194 countries of the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Development Agenda titled Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Following the adoption, UN agencies under the umbrella of the United Nations Development Group, decided to support an independent campaign to help communicate the agreed Sustainable Development Goals to a wider constituency. Known as Project Everyone, the independent campaign introduced the term Global Goals and was supported by corporate institutions and other International Organizations. Because this decision was made without the approval of the member states, it met resistance. In addition, several sections of civil society and governments felt the UNDG ignored "sustainability," even though it was the most important aspect of the agreement. That the term "Global Goals" also refers to several other processes not related to the United Nations was another concern.

The Official Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted on 25 September 2015 has 92 paragraphs. Paragraph 51 outlines the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the associated 169 targets. The 17 SDGs, as depicted in this chart, are:

  1. No Poverty - End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. Extreme poverty has been cut by more than half since 1990- however, more than 1 in 5 people live on less than $1.25 a day
  3. Poverty is more than lack of income or resources- it includes lack of basic services, such as education, hunger, social discrimination and exclusion, and lack of participation in decision making.
  4. Gender inequality plays a large role in the perpetuation of poverty and its risks; They then face potentially life-threatening risks from early pregnancy, and often lost hopes for an education and a better income.
  5. Age groups are affected differently when struck with poverty; its most devastating effects are on children, to whom it poses a great threat. It affects their education, health, nutrition, and security. It also negatively affects the emotional and spiritual development of children through the environment it creates.
  6. Zero Hunger - End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  7. Globally, 1 in 9 people are undernourished, the vast majority of these people live in developing countries
  8. Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods for 40 per cent of today’s global population. It is the largest source of income and jobs for poor rural households. Women comprise on average 43 per cent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries, and over 50 per cent in parts of Asia and Africa, yet they only own 20% of the land.
  9. Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45 per cent) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.
  10. Good Health and Well-being - Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  11. Significant strides have been made in increasing life expectancy and reducing some of the common killers associated with child and maternal mortality, and major progress has been made on increasing access to clean water and sanitation, reducing malaria, tuberculosis, polio and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
  12. However, only half of women in developing countries have received the health care they need, and the need for family planning is increasing exponentially, while the need met is growing slowly - more than 225 million women have an unmet need for contraception.
  13. An important target is to substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from pollution-related diseases.
  14. Quality Education - Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  15. Major progress has been made for education access, specifically at the primary school level, for both boys and girls. However, access does not always mean quality of education, or completion of primary school. Currently, 103 million youth worldwide still lack basic literacy skills, and more than 60 per cent of them are women
  16. Target 1 "By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes"- shows the commitment to nondiscriminatory education outcomes
  17. Gender Equality - Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  18. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large
  19. While a record 143 countries guaranteed equality between men and women in their Constitutions by 2014, another 52 had not taken this step. In many nations, gender discrimination is still woven through legal and social norms
  20. Though goal 5 is the gender equality stand-alone goal- the SDG's can only be successful if women are completely integrated into each and every goal
  21. Clean Water and Sanitation - Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  22. Affordable and Clean Energy - Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  23. Decent Work and Economic Growth - Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  24. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure - Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  25. Reduced Inequalities - Reduce income inequality within and among countries
  26. Sustainable Cities and Communities - Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  27. Responsible Consumption and Production - Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  28. Climate Action - Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy
  29. Life Below Water - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  30. Life on Land - Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  31. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions - Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  32. Partnerships for the Goals - Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

As of August 2015, there were 169 proposed targets for these goals and 304 proposed indicators to show compliance.

The process (for arriving at the Post-2015 development agenda)

Since Rio+20 did not elaborate specific goals, a 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) was established on 22 January 2013 by the decision of the UN General Assembly. The OWG was tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs for consideration during the 68th session of the General Assembly, September 2013 – September 2014.

The OWG used a constituency-based system of representation: most of the seats in the working group are shared by several countries. After 13 sessions, the OWG submitted their proposal of 17 SDGs and 169 targets to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in September, 2014.

The Rio+20 outcome document mentioned, “at the outset, the OWG will decide on its methods of work, including developing modalities to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders and expertise from civil society, the scientific community and the United Nations system in its work, in order to provide a diversity of perspectives and experience”.


A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) of 2013 criticized the SDGs for not being ambitious enough. They cite evidence from the report "An Ambitious Development Goal: Ending Hunger and Undernutrition by 2025" to suggest the emphasis should not be on an end to poverty by 2030, but on eliminating hunger and under-nutrition by 2025. The assertion is based on an analysis of experiences in China, Vietnam, Brazil and Thailand. The report identifies 3 pathways to achieving the goal by 2025. 1) agriculture-led; 2) social protection- and nutrition intervention-led; or 3) a combination of both of these approaches.

The SDGs have been criticized for being contradictory, because in seeking high levels of global GDP growth, they will undermine their own ecological objectives. It has also been noted that, in relation to the headline goal of eliminating extreme poverty, "a growing number of scholars are pointing out that $1.25 is actually not adequate for human subsistence", and the poverty line should be revised to as high as $5.

A commentary in The Economist argued that 169 targets for the SDGs is too many. The article used descriptors like "sprawling", "misconceived", and "a mess" compared to the Millennium Development Goals. Another criticsm is that the goals ignore local context and promote "cookie-cutter development policies". That all other sustainable development goals are contingent on achieving SDG 1, ending poverty. The Economist estimated that alleviating poverty and achieving the other sustainable development goals will require about $2-$3 trillion USD per annum for the next 15 years. Critics do not see this as being feasible. The reduction in the number of people living in abject poverty can be attributed to the growth of China, while the MDGs have been mistakenly credited for this drop. The SDGs have also been criticized due to the inherent shortcomings in the very concept of sustainable development and the inability of the latter to either stabilize rising carbon dioxide concentration or ensure environmental harmony.

Another view is more positive. The SDGs were the first outcome from a UN conference that was not criticized by any major Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). Instead, there was broad support from NGOs. This is in stark contrast to the MDGs which were heavily criticized by NGOs. The MDGs dealt with the problems, the SDGs deal with the causes of the problems. The MDGs were about development while the SDGs are about sustainable development. Finally, the MDGs used a silo approach to problem, while the SDGs take into account the inter-linkages.

Nearly all stakeholders engaged in negotiations to develop the SDGs agreed that 17 goals were justified because the agenda they address is all encompassing.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)

WASH experts have stated that without progress on Goal 6, the other goals and targets cannot be achieved.Safe drinking water and hygienic toilets protect people from disease and enable societies to be productive. Attending school and work without disruption is a precursor to education and employment, both of which are the foundation of alleviating poverty. A recent study from 2016 showed how sanitation, when done with a resource recovery and reuse focus can contribute towards achieving at least fourteen (14) of the SDGs, especially in an urban context.Recovering the resources embedded in excreta and wastewater like nutrients, water and energy contributes towards achieving Goal 12 (sustainable consumption and production) and Goal 2 (zero hunger) while ensuring adequate sanitation and wastewater management along the entire value chain in cities contributes to Goal 11 (sustainable cities and communities), Goal 1 (no poverty) and Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth).

Climate change

Nations and other parties negotiating at the UN have highlighted the links between the post-2015 SDG process, the Financing for Development process to be concluded in Addis Ababa in July 2015, and the COP 21 Climate Change conference in Paris in December 2015.

In May 2015, a report concluded that only a very ambitious climate deal in Paris in 2015 will enable countries to reach the sustainable development goals and targets. The report also states that tackling climate change will only be possible if the SDGs are met. Further, development and climate are inextricably linked, particularly around poverty, gender equality, and energy. The UN encourages the public sector to take initiative in this effort to minimize negative impacts on the environment.

Women and gender equality

Despite stand-alone goals on health, gender equality and education, there is widespread consensus that progress on any and all of the SDGs will be stalled if women's empowerment and gender equality is not prioritized. Arguments and evidence from sources as diverse and as economically-oriented as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to expected sources such as UN Women, bolster the case that investments in women and girls impact national and global development in ways that exceed their initial scope.

Economic growth and infrastructure

World Pensions Council (WPC) development economists have argued that the twin considerations of long-term economic growth and infrastructure investment weren’t addressed properly and prioritized: “More worryingly, ‘Work and Economic Growth’ and ‘Technological Innovation and Infrastructure Investment’ joined the [SDGs] priority list at number 8 and number 9 respectively, a rather mediocre ranking which defies economic common sense”


Sustainable Development Goals Wikipedia

Similar Topics