The SDGs are what the world needs. Will they be what the world gets?

December 6, 2018


The Sustainable Development Goals were designed to transform our world. When they were designed three years ago, we had no particular reason for optimism. While the Millennium Development Goals had seen significant progress, 700 million people still lived in extreme poverty; climate change seemed to be accelerating; and several conflicts remained entrenched. Yet the world leaned into determination, not resignation. Along with the 2030 Agenda, further historic global agreements on development financing, disaster risk reduction, humanitarianism and climate change, all agreed within a 12-month period, were celebrated as new common commitments to interdependence, cooperation and fairer sustainable progress.

Three years later, we sense the mood changing.  The setbacks that began to emerge even as the ink dried on the 2030 Agenda seem to have entangled into reinforcing loops of trauma and regression: record forced displacement, jobless growth, deepening inequalities  (with the top 1% of earners capturing double the growth in global income since 1980 of the poorest 50%), mass extinction of species , intensity and frequency of disasters and other impacts of climate change, spread and intensification of conflicts,  deepening divide between citizens and their governments and a hollowing of human rights and democratic institutions. Tragically, the same multilateralism that could light a way out of this web of crises has also become a lightning rod for its malcontents.

What then is the prognosis for the 2030 Agenda? Rather than giving up or seeing it co-opted for political ends, we need to double down and see it as an unapologetic reminder of our shared commitments. Only the 2030 Agenda has the breadth to provide a common language – a keystone – to prove the value of a multilateral world and bridge our diverse challenges. It is the only common framework that governments, international organizations, civil society and local authorities have to coordinate planning, financing and on-the-ground development, peace and humanitarian work, linking village budgets to regional and global visions for generations to come.

The SDGs are what the world needs. Will they be what the world gets?


Against the backdrop of the
institutional transformation happening across the UN, UNDP is emerging refreshed, anchored in the 2030 Agenda and committed to the principles of universality, equality and leaving no one behind. It is building on and amplifying its initial years of SDG support. For instance, its commitment to helping deliver the UN’s MAPS (Mainstreaming, Acceleration and Policy Support) approach for SDG support has morphed from an attempt to help countries craft customised and integrated roadmaps to 2030 into what is now considered a pragmatic flagship offer from the whole UN Development System. UNDP’s own cross-cutting expertise in areas like poverty reduction, resilience, energy, governance, health and gender are helping support the UN’s vast networks of experience and expertise, using approaches such as scenario modelling, people’s engagement, and participatory SDG monitoring. UNDP is also focusing on a range of new initiatives and innovations through multi-sectoral partnerships: from rolling out national Multi-dimensional Poverty measurement, understanding and leveraging new forms and sources of data, to game-changing models like Accelerator Labs and Country Support Platforms for tackling intractable, complex challenges. All these enable UNDP in connecting sectors, adopting open sourcing of ideas and investments, and linking people directly into the networks, technology and support they need to take control of their futures. Ultimately, these form part of the groundwork for the modus operandi of an effective UN development system, helping multiply the UN’s impact far beyond the sum of its parts -- all through the unifying logic of the 2030 Agenda.

Of course, the 2030 Agenda won’t suddenly click into gear because the UN starts collaborating better. But this collaboration is the connective tissue that binds together the needed network of governments, academia, businesses, community groups and others needed to implement the SDGs. Such connectivity will be needed at the ongoing UN Conferences on Climate Change  and the Global Compact on Migration and at next year’s SDG Summit. Progress will only survive this current mood of self-fulfilling insularity if it’s reinforced through a wider web of solutions created across whole societies: delivering nature-based development, building peace and resilience, ensuring green and decent jobs and equality – with full inclusion of all women, people of all ages, and all persons with disabilities.

As 2018 draws to a close, we see clear foundations for a better future despite – or perhaps because - it hinges on an ambitious remnant of a determined collectivism. 2015, in the end, may have produced a vision just radical enough to cut through the Gordian realities confronting us today.