Eight questions about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In September 2015, all the UN Member States agreed to an ambitious '2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development'

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A new set of development goals was formulated: the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. And this time around, it's all hands on deck. After all, the SDGs apply to all countries. But every individual citizen is also expected to make a contribution. An initial introduction.

What exactly do these 'sustainable development goals' or SDGs mean?

With 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), the UN intends to make a comprehensive effort towards a better world as soon as 2030. Among other things, this means a world which is 'free from poverty, hunger, disease, in which every individual can lead a fulfilling life'. Everything is neatly described in a substantive document: 'Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development'.

‘Agenda 2030’ is founded upon 5 pillars:

  • people (living with dignity);
  • planet (protecting our planet);
  • prosperity (a life which offers development possibilities);
  • peace (free from fear and violence);
  • partnership (a renewed global solidarity where everyone contributes so that no-one is left behind).

The 17 SDGs are defined more precisely in 169 targets.

How do the SDGs differ from the MDGs?

15 years of Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs) brought about a lot of improvement. But the needs remain high. All the more so because the world as a whole is facing serious challenges, with climate change and environmental degradation among them. Precisely because the headaches are global, the sustainable development goals apply to all countries and all people.

The MDGs, on the other hand, mainly served as a guideline for the (poor) South, supported by the (rich) North through debt reduction, trade and aid. But the classical North-South ratio is no longer valid today. ‘We are all in this together.’ The SDGs are also a lot more ambitious. For example, they do not aim to halve poverty, but to eradicate it completely. Moreover, they strongly emphasise sustainability: we must ensure that our descendants can also live on a healthy planet.

Are there not too many?

After all, we live in a complex world. Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are far broader. They include human rights, peace and security, respect for the rule of law and good governance. With that said, one must not lose sight of the fact that no SDG is separate from any other. In order to eradicate poverty (SDG1) or hunger (SDG2), for example, you also need all the other SDGs. The SDGs – no matter how diverse – form a single agenda for a liveable world, including for our children and grandchildren. Naturally, the path is less smooth with 17 goals (and 169 goals) than with 8.

What do the costs look like?

Estimates range from $3.5 trillion to $5 trillion a year. A colossal sum. But that money does not all have to come from development aid. Today, the global development budget is $135 billion, a record high, even though many countries do not reach 0.7% (of their GNI).

Other sources are becoming increasingly important: 

  • remittances (money sent by migrants to their home countries);
  • tax revenues (and the battle against 'illicit financial flows');
  • investments (domestic and foreign, private and public);
  • etcetera.

However, LDCs and fragile states in particular remain heavily dependent on development aid.

Are the SDGs not too ambitious?

The SDGs are certainly ambitious and that is the intention. The SDGs are a kind of shared dream with noble goals for a better world: something to reach for. Take SDG16 on peace and justice. Of course, Israel and Palestine will not fulfil their aspirations for peace in the same way. And dictatorial regimes that subscribe to the SDGs will not immediately change tack. But the SDGs do provide an incentive. Very subtly, all countries are involved in a process that allows the SDGs to bear fruit, even in the most difficult countries. The 'economic growth concept' will not suddenly fit neatly within the planet's limits just because of the SDGs either.

But here, too, the SDGs set a process in motion. Although not binding, there is in any case a moral strength in an agenda signed by all countries. Moreover, many of the SDG commitments refer to international commitments already made elsewhere, which are legally binding there (e.g. the ILO Conventions on 'decent work' referred to by SDG8).

How does one measure and monitor all that?

The UN monitors the SDGs on the basis of some 300 indicators. Data is essential here. This is the only way to find out what the global trends are. It is also important to be able to 'differentiate'. A general figure on access to education, for example, does not say much. One has to know what the distribution is: between boys and girls, city and countryside, rich and poor. If you notice that the countryside is lagging behind, you can adjust your policy accordingly.

But how does one get hold of reliable figures? Through censuses and surveys, which must not skip remote areas. This is not easy. Fortunately, there are additional ways of collecting information. In Uganda, for example, people are attempting to carry out surveys with a mix of radio and texting (Trac.fm). Or one can use 'OpenStreet Map': freely accessible maps that anyone can contribute to, like Wikipedia. This way, remote areas around the world can be better mapped out.

When it comes to processing data, this is referred to as a 'data revolution'. Compared to the initial period of the MDGs in 2000, computers are now much more powerful and processing programs much more effective. This is in the sense that it must be possible to read the trends in real-time. A lot of work for the statisticians of UN organisations like WFP (food aid), WHO (health), UNICEF (children) and UNEP (environment)! But beneficial for policies that need to be able to react quickly to trends. Meanwhile, indicators have also been developed at a regional (EU: Eurostat) and a national (Belgium: Federal Planning Bureau) level that go further and are more precise than the UN's international indicators.

Are the SDGs the same for all countries?

Absolutely, the SDGs are the same for all countries. But of course the context differs from country to country. The DR Congo, for example, has to tackle poverty and hunger differently from Belgium. So each country will have to decide for itself how it wants to achieve the SDGs. This also applies to Belgium.

What can I contribute to the SDGs myself?

The SDGs are indeed aimed at individual citizens too. SDG12 (sustainable consumption and production) in particular is at the scale of the citizen. After all, by making conscious choices, you as an individual can force companies to work in a more sustainable way. You can also opt for green energy or to use the car less.

More tips can be found at the websites bewustverbruiken.be and milieuadvieswinkel.be.

What does 'sustainable' mean again?

A development is sustainable if it is 'meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.' (Brundtland Report 1987). So this goes far beyond just being ‘long-term’. It boils down to a holistic vision that aims to keep the Earth habitable for posterity: a healthy environment, replacing an economy that depletes raw materials with one that recycles them (circular economy) and so on.