Why the Sustainable Development Goals Matter

Sep 27, 2015

Helen Clark, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme

This week, more than 150 world leaders will come to New York for the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 where an ambitious new agenda for sustainable development will be adopted -- the Sustainable Development Goals.

Do global agendas matter? Yes, they do.

The Millennium Development Goals -- the MDGs -- were created to tackle some of the thorniest issues then faced in development -- like the eradication of poverty and hunger; getting all children enrolled in school; turning the tide on HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB; and reducing infant, child, and maternal deaths.

There has been significant progress on the areas targeted by the MDGs -- progress which would have been unlikely without the focus, funding, and action around those goals.

Yet there is much unfinished business from the MDGs too, and there are other major challenges for the new global development agenda:

• While the target of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015 was met, it is not much fun being in the other half -- the so-called "bottom billion," for many of whom life has scarcely changed in many respects.

• As well, child poverty is rising in eighteen of the 28 countries in the EU -- and has been linked by the International Labour Organisation to falling levels of maternal and child benefits. The era of austerity has not been kind to social protection systems in many countries.

• Gender inequality remains pervasive -- despite the fact that societies are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population. Where women are "out of sight out of mind", disempowered and under-represented in decision-making circles, meeting their needs often isn't a priority.

• The rapid pace of environmental degradation is damaging climate and other ecosystems on which human survival and well-being depend. Species loss undermines livelihoods, health, and food and water security. While the damage done to natural ecosystems affects us all, it does affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

• There cannot be sustainable development without peace and stability -- alas, right now the world suffers a big deficit in that respect.

Humanitarian emergencies created by war and conflict are overwhelming the international community's capacity to respond. Humanitarian relief spending has trebled in the last decade. On current trends there will never be enough money to meet vital needs for relief.

It is vital to work to reduce the demand for humanitarian support by investing in building more inclusive and peaceful societies. The new global agenda calls for access to justice for all, for accountable, inclusive, and effective institutions at all levels, and for serious action to tackle inequalities.

The Sustainable Development Goals are universal goals, applying to countries at all stages of development.

This makes the point that sustainable development in the 21st century isn't something which happens to somebody else, somewhere else. We all have a stake in it -- and every country has work to do to progress towards it.

But the best agendas are more words on paper unless they can be implemented.

The good news is that our world has more wealth, more knowledge, and more technologies at its disposal than ever before. The challenges we face are mostly human induced. We can tackle them, but not if we keep doing business as usual and expecting different results.

Radical adjustments are needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities. There is capacity to be built. Governance to improve. Sweeping policy, legislative, and regulatory changes are needed. A commitment to lasting peace and stability based on peaceful and inclusive societies is essential.

Strong leadership at all levels is needed to realize the better world envisaged in the Sustainable Development Goals.

First, leadership is needed on finding the funding required. Money isn't everything, but it certainly helps, including through Official Development Assistance.

Second, broad coalitions of leaders are needed. Clearly governments acting alone can't achieve the goals envisaged in the new global agenda. Their leadership is vital, but insufficient -- broader leadership is also required. That includes leadership from civil society -- from our NGOs, scientists, researchers, and academia; and from local government and the private sector too.

Third, leadership is needed more than ever from the multilateral system -- including from UNDP. Our job is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way which simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids wrecking the ecosystems on which life depends.

The new Sustainable Development Goals will guide development for the next fifteen years, offering a chance to meet the global citizenry's aspirations for a more peaceful and prosperous, and sustainable future.

Yet we will be striving to achieve the Goals at a time when volatility is the new normal. The realities of the world we live in must be acknowledged, and much earlier, more proactive, and more pre-emptive investment must be made in risk-informed development:

• The growing inequalities and unchecked discrimination which undermine social cohesion need to be tackled head on;

• Environmental degradation must be arrested;

• The downward spiral into conflict, instability, and crisis must be halted, and effective strategies based on building resilience must be adopted as ways of coping with protracted crises.

Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change. Postponed action will be too late. Ours is also the first generation which can eradicate extreme poverty and secure a more hopeful future for all. For this fearless leadership from us all is needed.

If the global community collectively is prepared to step up to the challenge of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, then there's a chance of achieving sustainable development -- and with it better prospects for people and our planet.