The UN must suspend the SDGs to tackle more urgent crises

The Sustainable Development Goals are vague, utopian and unlikely to be met by 2030. Instead, the world faces four immediate challenges, writes Jon Lidén.

The World Today Published 28 July 2023 Updated 3 October 2023 3 minute READ

Jon Lidén

Founder and Director, Anthropos Development

The Sustainable Development Goals – the targets adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 – are truly extraordinary. When taken together and at face value, they are not so much a programme of 17 targets as a blueprint for a utopian global society.

The aim was for a world free from extreme poverty, with no hunger, with universal access to affordable healthcare and education, major diseases eliminated, gender equality, climate change and biodiversity addressed, conflicts resolved through international collaboration. And all this was to be achieved within 15 years. We are now a little more than halfway through that timeframe with seven years left.

The Sustainable Development Goals are disappearing in the rear-view mirror – and with them the hope and rights of current and future generations

United Nations report on the SDGs, 2023

As forests are felled or burnt at record rates, when global warming is a present crisis rather than a future threat, with nuclear powers rattling their arms and with migrant numbers at historic highs, the goals seem not only naïve, but detached from reality. As the UN’s own 2023 report put it: ‘The Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] are disappearing in the rear-view mirror – and with them the hope and rights of current and future generations.’

It wasn’t meant to get to this. The SDGs grew out of the success of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were inspired by the optimism of a new and unsullied millennium and helped focus the attention of donor countries, wealthy private foundations and low- and middle-income countries around eight limited but seemingly achievable goals.

Coinciding with a period of extraordinary global economic growth, the MDGs, seemed to achieve miracles. Extreme poverty plummeted from 47 per cent of the global population to 14 per cent. Undernourishment fell by half, as did child mortality and the number of children not receiving a primary education. The gender disparity in education worldwide practically disappeared. The Aids, TB and malaria pandemics were brought under control, with new HIV infections down by 40 per cent and malaria deaths down by 67 per cent. Maternal mortality declined by 34 per cent worldwide. The number of globally reported measles cases declined by 67 per cent thanks to better vaccination coverage.

Astonishing success

These numbers represent an astonishing success. They spurred a broad agreement to repeat the exercise and ‘finish the job’, as a supremely confident development community liked to say at the time. At the outset, there were two big differences between the Millennium and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The first was the process to define the goals. The MDGs were created in a matter of weeks by a small group of people around Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, and were kept narrow in scope. While this may have helped their success, it was criticized as being the product of largely northern technocrats without much input from those affected most.

With the SDGs, it was thought the process should be broader and more inclusive to avoid a patronizing focus on what low-income countries could achieve. Instead, it would be a set of goals for the world as a whole. The UN set in motion an enormous drafting effort involving all 193 member states and thousands of civil society groups which took years to achieve.

As any negotiator knows, the price for consensus is vagueness, and the larger the group, the hazier the text. So, the SDGs call for such generalities as: ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’; ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’; and ‘Ensure healthy lives and wellbeing for all at all ages’. This time there were 17 goals and no less than 169 sub-targets.

The second difference from the MDGs was just how much the global environment had changed from 2000 to 2015. Yet, little of this was reflected in the vision of the SDGs.

The UN’s 2023 assessment of roughly 140 out of 169 targets that provided enough data to measure showed that only about 12 per cent were on track; close to half, though showing progress, were moderately or severely off track; and some 30 per cent had either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline. The UN warned that the world was back at hunger levels not seen since 2005.

Only about one in three countries will meet the target to halve national poverty levels. It will take up to 286 years to close gender gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws, at the current rate of progress.

Interconnected crises

The sustainability goals have become a distraction, hindering a focus on what really matters. The world is currently in the midst of a set of existential, interconnected crises. A criterion should be to prioritize what needs to be tackled immediately to make any of the goals achievable or even meaningful.

Three such crises concern how we treat our planet: climate change, biodiversity loss and food security. The fourth concerns our ability to deal with the other three: the dysfunctionality of our Bretton Woods financial system and the multilateral decision-making system.

António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, may call for a postponement of the SDGs for 10 years – that would be a disaster

As we approach the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on the Sustainability Development Goals in September, there is a danger that many will, like António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, say we must simply try harder, or even worse, call for a postponement of the goals by 10 or 15 years. This would be a disaster. It would simply take the pressure off and lead to disillusionment with the whole process.

Instead, the secretary-general should call for a temporary suspension of the SDGs until the foundations to succeed are in place. Suspension of the SDGs would allow him to focus the work of countries and the UN on the emergency plans we have in place for climate – the Paris Agreement – and biodiversity – the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework – and on the work necessary to stop the spread of famines and the long-term threat to food production.

Moral imperative

It would also provide a moral imperative to fix the international financial system, greatly accelerating the Bridgetown Initiative started by Mia Mottley, the Barbadian prime minister. It would also free the substantial resources the UN now spends on planning, measuring and reporting on failures to achieve the SDGs.

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It would not mean that the fight to combat polio, Aids, TB and malaria or to broaden education and gender equality would stop. It would simply allow the world’s minds and resources to focus on solving our existential crises.

This is a decade in which we need to fight for our survival – not lull ourselves into an illusion of slightly delayed progress. We have to get this across and suspending the Sustainable Development Goals may just be a way to do that.