The UN Sustainable Development Goals

The UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 – what they say and what they may entail

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At the UN General Assembly in New York on 24 September 2015, all 193 countries present unanimously adopted the “UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030”. Before the vote, Pope Francis spoke and called the adoption “an important sign of hope”. After the vote, the Secretary General of Amnesty International spoke as representative of civil society and stated that the public could not be blamed for being skeptical, but that the goals “represented the people’s aspirations and can, and must, be reached”.

The goals are both a replacement for and a continuation of the UN Millennium Development goals that ran from 2000 to 2015.

Here they are:

  • 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

The Sustainable Development Goals had been drafted by a 30-member open working group that was started in 2013. The working group consulted many countries and experts, as well as people working in development.

Each of the 17 goals has several targets, altogether 169 targets, which will be measured by 304 different indicators. Working with so many targets and indicators will be complicated for governments and organizations seeking to make the goals reality, but if the goals were reached by 2030, many things would be better for many people and for the planet.

Each goal and target is the result of a compromise, reached in a negotiation between rich and poor nations and between humanitarian organizations that want the goal to become reality, and governments and multinational companies who want to strengthen capitalist globalization. This globalization has created the unsustainable world we live in; a world of rapid climate change and human suffering. We now hear the forces of capitalist globalization speaking the language of sustainability, but what they mean is far different from what people and communities around the world mean, when speaking the language of sustainable development.

The experience of the UN Millennium Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals replace the UN Millennium Development Goals, which had just 18 targets. These goals were created by UN experts and were approved by the UN General Assembly in 2000.

The final report on the Millennium Development Goals proudly tells that most targets were met, that extreme poverty has been reduced by 50% in the last 15 years, that many more girls go to school and that fewer people are starving.

Judging from the report, the Millennium Development Goals have been a great success. While this is part of the story, it is not the whole story.

In 2000, a little over 1 billion people lived on less than 1 USD per day, in 2015; 850 million people live on less than 1.25 USD per day. There has thus only been a small reduction in the actual number of people, but the percentage has decreased because the world population has grown. The UN has increased the level indicating extreme poverty from 1 to 1.25 USD per day to reflect inflation, but the World Bank, which defined the 1 USD per day level in 1990, has itself adjusted the level to 1.90 USD per day to reflect inflation in the poorer nations. If the 1.90 USD-level is used to compare 2000 and 2015, there is not much change on a global scale.

In China, many poor people have improved their livelihood, the change in South Asia has been less spectacular and in parts of Africa the number of poor has been growing.

The statistics fail to tell us that many communities lost land because of land grab, global warming, pollution from mines or wars and migrated to cities or other countries.

The goal of reducing hunger is measured in calories. The percentage of people who get too few calories has gone down significantly. The quality of many kinds of food, however, has been reduced as the food system controlled by large agribusinesses produces more and more unhealthy food. One result is that the number of overweight people has increased, as many overweight people get enough calories, but too few nutrients. This negative change is not part of the Millennium Development Goals.

The many Sustainable Development Goals and targets

With the Sustainable Development Goals, we get lots of targets and indicators to measure if the goals are reached, but sustainable development is not just a statistical or economic issue. Development of good ethics, love for the Earth, solidarity with all people and respect for social justice are all needed if we are to build a sustainable world, and none of this is going to be measured despite the numerous indicators created by an army of technocrats. 

Goals, even when agreed on by big international meetings, are not enough. People and social movements need to keep the focus and fight for sustainable development in order for us to build a sustainable world.

Like the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals call for an end to poverty, hunger and disease and for education for all. And the Sustainable Development Goals go further. They call on all governments to do more in the area of sustainable development. They call for sustainable management of water, for sustainable energy, for sustainable industries and cities, for fighting climate change and its impact and for conserving oceans and ecosystems on land.

They call for reduction of inequality and for peaceful, just and inclusive societies; such “political” goals were not part of the Millennium Development Goals.

They do so because the Sustainable Development goals and targets came about through a process where many people and groups took an interest in setting the goals and were allowed to have a voice. They were formulated during times where many people in the world are fighting for a sustainable world, and their fights influence what local politicians say and what international organizations such as the UN does.

Even though sustainable development is more than numbers on a computer screen, UN agencies and mainstream media prefer to reduce development to statistics. This focus on numbers has inspired economists to calculate that it will cost 2-3 trillion USD per year for each of the 15 years from 2015 to 2030 to implement the goals. This means a total amount of almost 40 trillion USD.

Such big numbers inspire right wing media, big businesses and some experts to attack the goals. The conservative, weekly magazine The Economist wrote that the goals are misconceived and unfeasibly expensive and therefore “worse than useless … a betrayal of the world’s poorest people”.

At a meeting of the Gates Foundation the goals were ridiculed by a speaker as nothing more than “a high school wish-list for how to save the world”.

Others have criticized the goals as being too general. However, if you look at the 169 targets and the 304 indicators, they are quite detailed.

The criticism should come as no surprise. When one goal is to make the world more equal, those – who do not want to share their immense riches – will try to find a reason to criticize the whole thing

Even though 2-3 trillion USD (2,000-3,000 billion USD) sounds big, it is actually a modest amount.

An IMF document from May 2015, calculates that the governments of the world in 2015 will support fossil fuel energy use with 5.3 trillion USD, despite the fact that we live in a time of catastrophic global warming. A part of this amount are direct subsidies to energy companies, while most of the amount consists of the costs of the destruction caused by burning fossil fuels such as pollution, accidents and global warming. These immense costs are not paid for by the energy companies, which leave the expenses to people.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has estimated that global military spending in 2015 is 1.8 trillion USD. The ongoing wars are among the causes of the unsustainable world we live in.

A professor at the London School of Economics calculates that multinational companies each year drain developing countries of 1.7 trillion USD through legal and illegal tax schemes, whereby they hide their profits in offshore tax havens.

The Tax Justice Network estimates that the world’s richest people are hiding 30 trillion USD in offshore tax havens. These trillions of USD would be enough to pay for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for twelve years.

When the world’s biggest banks were in trouble during the financial crisis of 2007, it took only a few days for the governments of Western nations to find trillions of dollars to bail out their banks.

Obviously the problem is not that there is not enough money to pay for sustainable development. The real problem is that the capitalist system is hindering people and governments from solving the big issues of our time.

Even if the richer nations end up contributing less than 2-3 trillion USD to support sustainable development project, and even if they only support some of the goals, the Sustainable Development Goals will still have an effect, just like the Millennium Development Goals did have an effect.

When partnership applications are written and governments produce policy statements, there will be references to the goals and targets, and NGOs and government authorities will be tasked with measuring the indicators.

The fact is that the Sustainable Development Goals have now been approved and will be a general guideline for many development activities for the next 15 years. 

The Sustainable Development Goals as a compromise between forces for and against capitalist globalization

Whereas the right wing criticizes the goals for being too ambitious and expensive, another serious criticism points out that the goals do not go far enough in a world in desperate need of change towards a sustainable future. A closer look at some of the goals and targets illustrates some of the problems.

The first goal is to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. The target is that nobody should live on less than 1.25 USD per day, a continuation of the first Millennium Development Goal that had a target of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty. Only this time, the objective is that nobody should live below the 1.25 USD-limit by 2030. This would be good for the 850 million people now living in such deprivation. The fact, however, is that half of the people in the world – 3.5 billion people – live on less than 5 USD per day. All these people are very poor. Many suffer from malnutrition and have problems paying for health care, a good home, clothes and other necessities. It is a disgrace to the world that anybody lives on less than 5 USD per day. This much more ambitious level ought to have been the goal.

Goal 8 calls for sustainable economic growth and in particular a growth in GDP of at least 7% per year for least-developed nations. While growth in GDP is part of capitalist development, experience from many developing nations shows that growth in GDP does not necessarily improve the conditions of the Poor. Growth often only happens in the export sector, where gas, mining or agribusinesses earn large profits while employing only few people, and maybe even remove local communities to give way for a big project. When a multinational company cuts down the forest and exports the logs to China, this will increase GDP, but it may at the same time destroy the environment and make the future much more difficult for people in the area. Growth in GDP in itself is not a way to achieve sustainable development, unless the production that creates the growth is in itself sustainable, such as expansion of sustainable farming, solar energy production or eco-tourism.

Goal 10 calls for more equality, but does not challenge capitalist globalization and the institutions that have promoted globalization. One of the targets says: “implement the principle of special and differential treatment for developing countries … in accordance with WTO agreements”.

The WTO, World Trade Organization, has worked tirelessly to open up the markets of developing countries for multinational companies. WTO is dominated by Western nations and has been an important tool in the process of capitalist globalization. It has worked to privatize ports, health systems and phone companies. It has upheld patent rights for essential medicines making them unaffordable to the poor while earning a lot of money to big pharmaceutical companies and it has supported big agribusiness in taking over the land of small farmers.

Goal 12 aims at ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns. This is of course important and one of the targets is especially relevant to our clothes recycling systems. It says: “substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse”.

There is, however, no target that will force multinational companies to contribute. Instead, one target politely asks them to be nice: “encourage companies, especially large and trans-national companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle”. This despite the fact that large industries and mining companies have created a global system of wastefulness and destruction that has caused most of the environmental problems humankind faces today, the pollution of water, the excessive pumping of water, the rising CO2 in the atmosphere, and much more.

Goal 17 aims at strengthening the global partnership for sustainable development. This goal shows a commitment to the continuation of capitalist globalization. One target talks about “investment promotion regimes for least-developed countries”. This is in line with the desire of big business to be able to invest anywhere in the world.

Another target says: “promote a trading system under the WTO including through the conclusion of negotiations within the Doha Development Agenda”. This “Doha Development Agenda” is all about lowering custom duties and opening up countries to international investors. Because of massive opposition from Brazil and other developing countries, these Doha negotiations have been stalled for years. Now it seems the Sustainable Development Goals are to be used as a tool to revitalize the Doha negotiations since they are specifically mentioned in one of the targets.

Another target calls for “multistakeholder partnerships” and promotion of “effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships”. This is an invitation for multinational companies to have a seat at the table.

Two days after the UN General Assembly had adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hosted the UN Private Sector Forum 2015 to discuss the goals, where leaders of 200 big businesses such as Citibank, Monsanto, Statoil, Google and Nestle met national leaders such as president Nyusi of Mozambique and Angela Merkel of Germany.

In the Millennium Development Goals, the partnerships were between governments and between governments and NGOs, but in these new Sustainable Development Goals, big companies are invited into public-private partnerships. There are, however, no demands to the multinational companies. They are not required to give donations or forced to share any of their enormous wealth. They are just invited to share expertise and cautiously encouraged to behave well and to show a little corporate social responsibility.

It is no coincidence that the Sustainable Development Goals do not challenge capitalist globalization. Western nations, multinational companies and banks have with great success used international organizations such as the UN and its agencies, the WTO (mentioned above), the World Bank and in particular the IMF (International Monetary Fund) to force countries to accept

so-called structural adjustment programs, as a result of which these countries cut spending on education and health care, open their borders for multinational companies and privatize land, mines, phone companies and more. Western nations are still ruled by leaders who want more not less capitalist globalization, and the UN had to make the Sustainable Development Goals acceptable to all, so that they could be approved unanimously.

The goals therefore represent a compromise between the forces that fight for more capitalist globalization and the countries, people and organizations that want drastic changes.The UN Sustainable Development Goals

Concluding remarks

Twenty-five years ago, only environmental and progressive movements and people were talking of sustainable development. The Western mainstream media and the governments of large nations like China, India and Brazil talked only about growth. Their philosophy was that man must subdue nature and solve anything using technology and raw power – building bigger dams, more and larger nuclear power plants and bigger factories, farms and fishing boats.

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a discussion about the state of our planet was started. Attitudes began to shift, as more people began to realize that if we do not protect Earth and nature, we will destroy the livelihoods for future generations. But the shift was slow. Since 1992, the world has seen ever increasing pollution of land, rivers and oceans, while greenhouse gasses cause rapid climate change and the world’s virgin forests are under attack from loggers.

As the environment is changed in front of our eyes, more people become environmentally aware. Therefore, even oil companies now tell us in their advertisements how they support sustainable development.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are written in the language of the environmental movement, even though you here and there see another agenda, such as reference to the WTO.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves if those responsible for creating an unsustainable world have hijacked the language of environmentalism, hoping they will be able to continue their destructive ways while sweet-talking about sustainable development.

Keep your eyes open and make your own conclusions. The proof will be in their actions. What happens matter. Big declarations and standing ovations in the halls of the UN do not automatically change the world for the better, even when they are, in the words of Pope Francis “an important sign of hope”. Centuries of exploitation have destroyed many of the balances of nature and capitalist globalizing is today accelerating the process. Words are not enough, only people can create a sustainable world. Take action. Mobilize more people. Keep going!