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You need to know about the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The list of rules you might not have known the whole world was following. 

We talk a lot about social change at Thred. We have a whole section for it on our website. We recommend companies who operate within a system of social change, we update you when newsworthy steps towards social change have been taken, and we’ve even published a guideline suggesting how best to get involved with social change programs. But rarely if ever have we defined what social change actually is. Who originally decided what kind of change we should be aiming for, and what counts as a win? If morality is relative, whose compass are we using?

In 2000, the United Nations council, along with all 191-member states, agreed on eight global development goals for the world to achieve by 2015. Included were the dictums: to reduce poverty and hunger; achieve universal education; promote gender equality; reduce child and maternal deaths; combat HIV, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; develop global partnerships.

These might seem like obvious ambitions, but before 2000 the world as a whole had never explicitly agreed on a universal moral framework for how leaders should run their countries. It was merely implied, and unanimously hoped for, that administrations, militaries, and corporations would intuit what was right and good, and try to maximise happiness, freedom, and wealth where they could. In fact, before the United Nations was created in the wake of the Second World War, nebulous nation states were expected to help the process of globalisation by reaching the same conclusion about what constituted fairness without even communicating.

In 2015 the UN produced a report summarising the end results of the development goals, where they stated that, ‘The MDGs helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty, to make inroads against hunger, to enable more girls to attend school than ever before and to protect our planet.’

Indeed, the landmark commitment entered into by world leaders—to ‘spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty’—was translated into wide-ranging practical steps that enabled people across the world to improve their lives and their future prospects. And, more than that, they drew a never before seen line in the sand between what humanity viewed as good and bad progress. They gave us official moral objectives.

But before the 2015 report was even published, the UN nation states met once again at the Rio+20 summit, looking forward to create new goals that aligned with the changing world once the theoretical timeline on the MDGs had expired. This time, they set their sights higher.

There was a broad agreement that whilst the MDGs had provided a lasting framework for governments – a focal point around which they can develop politics and regulate aid programmes – as well as a rallying point for NGOs to hold regiments to account, they were altogether too narrow.

They were mainly teleological, focusing on the outcomes of inequality rather than its root causes. They made no mention of human rights and didn’t specifically address economic development. Whilst the goals theoretically encompassed the whole world, in reality they were more targets for poorer countries with little mention of how wealthy nations could improve the global situation beyond providing aid. The UN figured it could do better.

File:Dilma Rousseff Rio 20 2012.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

So now the world is living by a slightly altered set of standards arrived at in 2015 called the Sustainable Development Goals, of which there are 17:

1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

3) Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages

4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

10) Reduce inequality within and among countries

11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (taking note of agreements made by the UNFCCC forum)

14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation, and halt biodiversity loss

16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels

17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

Sustainable Development Goals - Wikipedia

Within the goals themselves there are a total of 169 ‘sub-targets’ all to be worked towards by 2030. The aim of the game is to meet these requirements to more specific objectives (for example, a subsection of goal one lays out a target of halving the number of human in poverty by 2030).

Whilst most of the UN member states appear to be broadly happy with the agreement, some, including Japan and the UK, feel that the agenda is too esoteric to implement and too vague to sell to the public. They’ve called for a narrower brief. Whilst some NGOs also believe that there are too many goals, there’s a general consensus that it was better to have goals that included more targets regarding female empowerment, good governance, and peace and security than fewer goals in total.

The SDGs were officially adopted at the UN summit in September 2015 and became applicable from January 2016. Whist they are quite broad (click here to check out the full list of sub-targets) it’s unprecedented that almost the entire globe was able to come to a consensus on what constitutes moral success. When you think about trying to measure equality, fairness, and feasibility whilst calculating the cultural, monetary, and geographical differences of all nations on earth, things get complicated. Balance isn’t easy to achieve, and certainly it’s something we’re still working towards.

Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of the SDGs, however, is lending weight to ethical arguments and interventionist tactics in nations that haven’t always followed the seam of universal opinion. These goals have put a cap on cultural relativism – whilst it’s technically culturally permissible for dog meat to be sold in China, it is not culturally permissible for the Taliban to stone women to death – and have allowed the world to decide the metric it wishes to be judged on.

The SDGs aren’t perfect, and the US proved that when it used it as an impetus to invade Iraq in 2003. The notion of universal standards of equality can be twisted for political gain. Plus ça change. However, the SDGs are pivotal because they, more than any other single concept, represent positive globalisation.

The current goals will remain relevant for another ten years, upon which another set of targets will be formulated along with the unfounded pressures a new decade will inevitably bring.

So, when we refer to the universal need for ‘social change,’ now you know what the ultimate goal is.


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