8 questions about the SDGs

Chris Simoens
01 December 2015
In September 2015 all UN Member States approved an ambitious ‘2030 Agenda for sustainable development’. A new set of development goals was launched: the sustainable development goals or SDGs! And this time it is ‘all hands on deck’ because all countries are involved. Besides, every individual citizen is supposed to play his/her part. A first introduction.

What exactly is the content of these ‘sustainable development goals’ or SDGs?

By means of the 17 ‘sustainable development goals’ the UN wants to step up its efforts for achieving a better world by no later than 2030. That means, among others, a world ‘free from poverty, hunger, sickness, in which each individual can lead a fulfilling life’. All this is properly described in an extensive document entitled: ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development’. The 2030 Agenda is based on 5 pillars: people (live in dignity), planet (protect the planet), prosperity (a life that offers opportunities for development), peace (free from fear and violence) and partnership (a renewed global solidarity shared by all so that nobody is left behind). The 17 SDGs are described more precisely in 169 targets.

In what way do the SDGs differ from the MDGs?

15 years of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) achieved significant improvements. Yet, the needs remain urgent, all the more so since the whole world is facing serious challenges, e.g. climate change and environmental damage. Precisely because these challenges concern the whole world, the sustainable development goals apply to all countries and all indiviuals. The MDGs, conversely, mainly served as a guideline for the (poor) South, supported by the (rich) North by means of debt reduction, trade and aid. However, the classical North-South relationship is no longer valid today. ‘We are all in this together.’ Besides, the  SDGs are definitely more ambitious. An example: they want to eliminate poverty instead of halving it. Moreover they strongly highlight sustainability: we must ensure a healthy planet for future generations.

Aren’t there too much SDGs?

The fact is that we are living in a complex world. Compared to the MDGs, the  SDGs are much broader. They also include human rights, peace and security, respect for the rule of law and good governance. Moreover, it is vitally important to note that not one of the SDGs exists separately from the others. In order to eradicate poverty (SDG1) or hunger (SDG2), you need all other SDGs as well. The SDGs – however varied – form one single agenda for a more liveable world, also for our children and grandchildren. Even though working with 17 goals (and 169 targets) is more complicated than working with 8 goals.  

And how about the costs?

Estimates vary from 3.5 trillion to 5 trillion dollar per year. A  colossal sum. Although not all that money has to come from development cooperation. Today the global budget for development cooperation amounts to 135 billion dollar, a record, even if many countries do not realise the target of 0.7% (of their GNI). Other sources are gaining importance: remittances (money migrants send to their home country), income from taxes (and the fight against ‘illicit flows of funds’,  investments (foreign and domestic, private and public) … Especially the least developed countries and the fragile states still remain largely dependent on development aid.

Many of the SDG engagements refer to international commitments that have been made earlier and that are legally binding in that context.

Aren’t the SDGs too ambitious?

The SDGs are certainly ambitious and so they are meant to be. The SDGs form a kind of common dream with noble targets for a better world: something to reach for. Let’s take SDG16 on peace and justice. Of course Israel and Palestina will give effect to their quest for peace in a different way. And dictatorial regimes endorsing the SDGs will not immediately change course. But the SDGs are an incentive. In a subtle manner all countries are involved in a process allowing the SDGs to be successful even in the most difficult countries. The SDGs will not  succeed in making ‘thinking in terms of economic growth’ fit into the borders of the planet. But also here the SDGs are starting a process. Although not binding, the agenda that has been signed by all countries has a moral power. Besides, many of the SDG engagements refer to international commitments that have been made earlier and that are legally binding in that context (e.g. the ILO Conventions on ‘decent work’ as mentioned in SDG8).

How can all this be assessed and monitored?

The VN monitors the SDGs by means of some 300 indicators. These indicators haven’t been discussed at the UN-conference in September. In March 2016 a new (technical) summit will be organized for statisticians. In June there will be a high-level meeting for ‘follow-up and reform’. From then onwards the summit will be organized on a yearly basis.  

In this context data are essential. They are the only means to find out what the global trends are. It is also important that you know how to ‘differentiate’. General data, e.g. on the access to education, do not reflect much. It is important to know how the access is spread over different groups: boys and girls, city areas  and rural areas, rich and poor. If you notice that rural areas lag behind, you can adapt your policy.

How do you obtain reliable figures? From censuses and surveys, which have to include remote areas. Not a simple question. Fortunately there are new ways to collect information. In Uganda surveys are carried out with a mix of radio and sms (Trac.fm). Or you can use ‘OpenStreet Map’: freely accessible maps everybody can contribute to, as is the case for Wikipedia. That way, remote areas all over the world can easily be mapped.

Data processing is referred to as a ‘data revolution’. As compared to the starting period of the MDGs in 2000, the current computers are much more powerful and the processing programmes much more efficient, meaning that it will be possible to read the trends in ‘real time’. A lot of work to do for the statisticians of UN organizations such as WFP (food aid), WHO (health), UNICEF (children) and UNEP (environment)! But very interesting for the policy that must be able to quickly respond to trends.  

What does ‘sustainable’ mean? 

A development is sustainable if it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland report 1987). So this is much more than ‘lasting long’. It essentially comes down to a holistic vision that wants to keep the earth liveable for the generations to come: healthy environment, replacing an economy that is depleting the natural resources by a recycling economy etc. .


Are the SDGs identical for all countries?

Yes, the SDGs are identical for all countries. Of course the context differs from one country to another. DR Congo will approach poverty and hunger in a different way than Belgium. So every country will have to decide for itself on the way to achieve the SDGs. The same applies to Belgium.

How can I contribute to the SDGs?

The SDGs also address the individual citizen. Especially SDG12 (sustainable  consumption and production) is tailored to the citizen. Indeed, by making informed choices an individual can force companies to work in a more sustainable way. Zara and H&M for example purchase most of their goods abroad (in Bangladesh, Ethiopia…) where the working conditions often are not as they should be. You can also opt for green energy or for making less use of your car. Please find more tips in Glo.be 3/2015.



Sustainable Development Goals
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