The Sustainable Development Goals

Written by Ryan McGuine //

In the year 2000, the United Nations (UN) adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration, a document that established the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) — eight goals related to economic development with a target completion date of 2015. Those targets were:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce child mortality
  5. To improve maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

Each of the eight goals had an attached set of quantifiable targets that provided metrics to compare progress against. The MDGs were ambitious for a 15 year time frame, and as such not every target was accomplished. That said, delineating a set of targets helped to organize previously-scattered international efforts to alleviate poverty, concentrating aid spending on the most necessary causes.

The UN replaced the MDGs with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of objectives designed to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all,” intended to be accomplished by 2030. In a departure from the spirit of the MDGs, which were mostly crafted in private by a select group of top economists and diplomats, the SDGs were created by an intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) that consistsed of representatives from seventy countries. The OWG accepted input from academic institutions, think tanks, and even public opinion polls. Officially adopted with much fanfare by the UN in September 2015, the SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets. Those are:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being for people
  4. Good education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
  10. Reducing inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

Among the most frequent criticisms of the SDGs are that there are too many goals, and that priority is not given to actions with the potential to do the most good per dollar. According to this narrative, the MDGs were successful at accelerating the pace of progress toward improved health and education outcomes because they were succinct and energized global efforts around achievable, cost-effective goals. The comparatively sprawling and implausibly attainable SDGs, then, cannot possibly have the same beneficial concentrating effect.

Avid proponents of the SDGs would reply that the MDGs failed to acknowledge the holistic nature of development. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a worthy objective, but is unlikely to come to meaningful fruition without improvements in gender equality and the establishment of strong institutions — in other words, the MDGs addressed the proximate causes of development without addressing the fundamental causes of development. Determining who is correct is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that each side has its merits.

Finally, the inclusion of measurable targets under each goal warrants mention. “Measurement” is a theme at the center of nearly every discussion regarding global development, both because it is necessary to observe where countries are on their path to achieving goals, but also because any metric (especially if it is calculated using other measures, like the Human Development Index) has the potential to distort the reality on the ground.

Some targets, like health-related ones, tend to be straightforward — someone either died before their fifth birthday, or they did not. Others are less so. For example, the education of someone who graduated secondary school in Britain is not equivalent to the education of someone who graduated secondary school in Ghana, but that is not obvious when comparing only the highest level of schooling achieved. Similarly, the number of people living below the World Bank’s $1.25/day (now $1.90/day) poverty line globally was more than halved between 1990 and 2015. However, close to three-quarters of the achievement is attributable to China, thanks to its massive population and breakneck economic growth, while the plight of many of the world’s poorest remains unchanged. Measurement matters because it plays a major role in targeting certain populations for the allocation of scarce aid and development resources by the international community. Interested readers can monitor progress towards achieving the SDGs via Our World in Data‘s SDG Tracker.


2 thoughts on “The Sustainable Development Goals

  1. Nice post!

    I agree that there are too many goals in the SDGs. It’s hard to look at that list and try to take any goals off, though and I’m sure there are plenty of worthy causes that could still be added.

    How often are these goals and the UN’s progress reviewed? Annually or about every 15 years?

    1. The MDGs were the UN’s first “try” at formulating global goals, so there’s not a lot of history there. However, if the global community decides that the model is working well, it appears as though there will be new sets established every 15 years. That said, there are many civil servants employed by various UN organs whose job it is to continually improve the effectiveness of aid delivery. The process is typically referred to as “monitoring and evaluation” in the development world, but it is roughly equivalent to “lean” and “six sigma” ideas in industry.

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