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Development Cooperation Handbook/Introduction to the Sustainable Development Goals

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a UN’s proposed list of goals supposed to set out how to improve the lives of the poor in emerging countries. The SDGs are the successors to The Millennium Development Goals that governments around the world signed up to in 2000 and promised to reach by 2015.



The current international development agenda is centred on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were officially established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations (UN) in 2000. The MDGs encapsulate eight globally agreed goals in the areas of poverty alleviation, education, gender equality and empowerment of women, child and maternal health, environmental sustainability, reducing HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases, and building a global partnership for development.

The target date for the achievement of the MDGs is at the end of 2015. Discussion on the post 2015 framework for international development began well in advance. Formal debate concerning the SDGs first occurred at the 2012 United Nations conference in Rio de Janeiro.[1] The 192 UN member states agreed at the Rio+20 summit to start a process of designing sustainable development goals, which are “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”.[2]

The Rio+20 outcome document, “The Future We Want”, also calls for the goals to be integrated into the UN’s post-2015 Development Agenda.[3]

Overall, the MDGs have a decent record of success. Some (such as reducing maternal and child mortality) will be missed by miles. But others, such as cutting by half the share of people who live in abject poverty, have been reached. The MDGs themselves do not always deserve the credit: the plunge in the global poverty rate has far more to do with growth in China than anything agreed on at the UN. But in other cases, such as boosting access to clean water, the prospect of missing an international target shamed countries into acting better than they might have otherwise.

At the moment there are 169 proposed targets, grouped into 17 goals. Their supporters justify the proliferation by saying the SDGs are more ambitious than their predecessors: they extend to things such as urbanisation, infrastructure and climate change. The argument is that cutting poverty is not a simple matter. It is rooted in a whole system of inequality and injustice, meaning that you need lots of targets to improve governance, encourage transparency, reduce inequality and so on.

The SDGs are unfeasibly expensive. Meeting them would cost $2 trillion-3 trillion a year of public and private money over 15 years. That is roughly 15% of annual global savings, or 4% of world GDP. At the moment, Western governments promise to provide 0.7% of GDP in aid, and in fact stump up only about a third of that. Planning to spend many times the amount that countries fail to give today is pure fantasy.

The backers of the SDGs concede from the outset that not all countries will meet all the targets—an admission that robs the goals of the power to shame.

Current processEdit

Since Rio+20 did not elaborate specific goals, a 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) was established on 22 January 2013 by the decision of the UN General Assembly. The OWG is tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs for consideration during the 68th session of the General Assembly, September 2013 – September 2014.[4]

The OWG uses a constituency-based system of representation, which means that most of the seats in the working group are shared by several countries.

The Rio+20 outcome document states that, “at the outset, the OWG will decide on its methods of work, including developing modalities to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders and expertise from civil society, the scientific community and the United Nations system in its work, in order to provide a diversity of perspectives and experience”.[3]


The length of the objectives has been sharply criticised. The Economist says that "the efforts of the SDG drafting committees are so sprawling and misconceived that the entire enterprise is being set up to fail. That would be not just a wasted opportunity, but also a betrayal of the world’s poorest people."[5]

By establishing myriad of top-down targets, the SDG drafters also flout one of the most important lessons of development: that everywhere is different. Local context is vital; policies that work in one place may not work in another. The MDGs were broad enough to allow local variation. The SDGs are narrow. They will lead to cookie-cutter development policies, which will almost certainly work less well.

Worst of all, the SDGs are a distraction. Over the next 15 years, the world has a chance to eliminate extreme poverty—that is, to end the misery of almost 1 billion people who live on no more than $1.25 a day. This goal will not be achieved automatically; in many places the trends today point in the wrong direction. But it could be reached at reasonable cost. Basic transfer programmes to lift everyone above the bare-minimum poverty line would ask for about $65 billion a year, a modest amount compared with $3 trillion. This aim is SDG One. It would have a much better chance of being achieved if it stood at the head of a very short list.

That could still be done. Governments are to approve the SDGs in September. By then the list should honour Moses and be pruned to ten goals aimed squarely at reducing poverty, boosting education (for example, extending girls’ schooling by two years) and improving health (say by halving the rate of malaria infection). Today’s SDGs are full of good intentions, but everyone knows where good intentions lead.


  1. Ferdinando Giugliano (15 Jan 2015). "Lobby groups launch global anti-poverty campaign" (Template:Registration required). Financial Times. Retrieved 12 Feb 2015. 
  2. UN General Assembly Creates Key Group on Rio+20 Follow-up, Press Release United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, retrieved 26 February 2013.
  3. a b The Future We Want, Outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, retrieved 26 February 2013.
  4. New open working group to propose sustainable development goals for action by general assembly’s sixty-eighth session, Press Release United Nations, retrieved 26 February 2013.
  5. "The 169 commandments". The Economist. 28 Mar 2015. 

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