SDGs – The Definitive Guide on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

What are the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of 17 global goals to achieve by 2030.

All 17 goals are connected, built on a holistic approach, meaning that no goal is to be left behind and that “success in one affects success for others” (1).

Who created the SDGs and why?

The SGDs are an initiative created by the United Nations at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.

The SDGs aim, according to the UNDP, at producing a set of “universal goals” that meet the urgent environmental, political and economic challenges our world is going through.

The SDGs were preceded by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) created in 2000 to tackle poverty. The achievements of the MDGs are impressive and remain intact but for millions of people around the globe a lot more has still to be done. This is where the SDGs come in as they are an engagement to finish what the MDGs started and to address other critical challenges (2).

The 17 SDGs

The 17 global goals to achieve by 2030 are:

  1. No poverty – End poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  2. Zero hunger – End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.
  3. Good health & wellbeing – Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all and at all ages.
  4. Quality education – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
  5. Gender equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.
  6. Clean water & sanitation – Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Affordable & clean energy – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
  8. Decent work & economic growth – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  9. Industry, innovation & infrastructure – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequalities – Reduce inequality within and among countries.
  11. Sustainable cities & communities – Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
  12. Responsible consumption and production – Ensure sustainable consumption and production pattern.
  13. Climate action – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
  14. Life below water – Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
  15. Life on land – 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. Peace, justice & strong institutions – 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. Partnerships for the goals – Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

Is it possible for the United Nation’s SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals – to be achieved?

Regarding the answer to this question we believe there are two points of view. The optimistic and the pessimistic one.

The optimistic:

It is possible to achieve the SDGs as there has been tremendous progress under the MDGs. So if the MDGs were a great success, why wouldn’t the SDGs?

One of the optimist view proponents is Jessica Toale, Advisory Board Member of We Make Change, who believes the younger generations, where she includes herself, are more implicated in such goals. And “multiple studies have shown how we look at the world with a slightly different lens than the generation before us. We have different values, a different approach to work, which we expect to be meaningful. We care about issues like inequality and climate change. We are more global in outlook” (3).

The pessimist:

As expressed by Amy Lieberman in her report, the SDGs are not achievable because progress remains “uneven and not moving fast enough” to meet all 17 goals by 2030. Recently, she adds, according to the UN’s 2018 annual checkup report on the SDGs, the results are not satisfactory enough. The goals set up by the SDGs are way too ambitious compared to what can actually be done within the specific time frame.

What does it take for the SDGs to be achieved?

Since all 17 goals are big challenges, it will require a lot of effort from both the international community but also from the citizens of the world.

Here are 5 recommendations from Ortwin Renn, Managing Scientific Director at IASS Potsdam, as to how to achieve these goals:

  • – Take it step-by-step.
  • – Think regional, not global.
  • – Work from bottom-up.
  • – Strategically balance conflicting objectives.
  • – Use stories to drive change.

In summary, it will take a lot of continuous efforts, funding and perseverance for the SDGs to be achieved.

How did the SDGs come to be? Why were those 17 goals chosen?

The SDGs came to be as a result of the success of the MDGs. As the deadline of the MDGs was approaching, about 1 billion people were still living in extreme poverty which encouraged nation states and the UN to take initiative in a new set of goals which are now known as the SDGs.

These 17 goals were chosen during the “largest consultation programme” the UN has carried out to receive opinions on what the SDGs should include (4).

After the Rio summit in 2012, a group was assembled to devise a draft agenda. The group was composed of representatives from 70 countries and came up with 17 suggestions by July 2014. The agenda was agreed upon on August 2015. The UN also conducted a series of what was called “global conversations” which included “11 thematic and 83 national consultations and door-to-door surveys” (5). The UN also started an online survey in which people were asked to “prioritize the areas they would like to see addressed in the goals” (6). These results were incorporated into the working group’s discussion and led to the birth of the 17 Goals.

How are SDGs an improvement over MDGs?

MDGs found “concrete, specific and measurable” goals to achieve. However, the MDGs were highly criticised because its goals were so targeted that they left out other equally important areas to improve. Since the MDGs were criticised as being “too narrow in focus”, it was decided the SDG’s would encompass other issues. Such as gender inequality or climate change

Another point of improvement is the fact that when the MDGs were written, the context of the 2000’s was “rich donors aiding poor recipients” and since then a lot has changed (7). One of the most important problems is “inequality and not national-level poverty” which applies to both rich and poor countries (8). Thus, SGDs are applicable to every country.

In terms of funding, the MDGs were focused on aid flow. Instead, SDGs put “sustainable, inclusive economic development at the core of the strategy” and “address the ability of countries to address social challenges through improving their own revenue-generating capabilities” (9).

In general, in comparison to the MDGs, the SDGs are more sustainable in nature, inclusive and target-specific which could potentially lead to long term progression.

Why are SDGs so important?

SGDs are important because they continue what the MDGs fought for.

Indeed, the SDGs will continue striving for equality, justice, against poverty but will also add equally important problems that we are facing. Such as “equitable development and environmental sustainability” (10).

We have seen the positive results of the MDGs and that brings us hope that the SDGs can be achieved.

How can I help the SDGs?

Goals such as fighting for equality, stop climate change and eradicate extreme poverty can be overwhelming. It is easy to feel very small and powerless when facing these 17 goals. But change starts with you and with little actions that all of us can undertake every day.

On the individual level, you too can help achieve the SDGs. Here are, from the UN’s Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World, just a few of the examples you could partake in:

  • Turn off the lights when you don’t need them.
  • Speak up to your local governments to engage in new initiatives that don’t harm the people or the planet.
  • Recycle.
  • Replace old appliances with energy-efficient models and light bulbs.
  • Donate what you don’t use.
  • – Use refillable water bottles and coffee cups.
  • Voice your support for equal pay for equal work.
  • Encourage your company to work with the civil society and find ways to help local communities achieve their goals.

How can my organisation help the SDGs?

On a business and organisation level, there are many ways that a business can help achieve the SDGs.

This fantastic SDG Compass document suggests 5 steps:

  1. Understanding the SDGs – Familiarise your company with what the SDG’s encompass.
  2. Defining priorities – Companies are encouraged to prioritize based on an “assessment of their positive and negative, current and potential impact on the SDGs across their value chains”.
  3. Setting goals – Setting goals for your company is essential for business success and “helps foster shared priorities and better performance across the organisation”. By showing that your company is aligned with the SDGs, the “leadership can demonstrate its commitment to sustainable development”.
  4. Integrating – In order to achieve the set goals, it is essential to integrate “sustainability into the core business”. This can also be done by partnering with other organisations that have similar goals.
  5. Reporting and communicating – The SDGs enable companies to “report information on sustainable development performance using common indicators and shared set of priorities”.

Goal 16.9: Identity For All

One of the targets of Goal 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – is providing legal identity for all, including birth registrations.

Globally, there are 1.2 billion people without a legally recognised identity. 290 million of which are children under the age of 5. Without an identifying document they have no access to services such as healthcare or education. They are at risk, living on the fringes of society.

Vulnerable populations such as refugees are the first to suffer the problems of the current identity management systems: siloed, inefficient and paper-based infrastructures.

Without portable, private and secure identities they become even more vulnerable, losing access to basic human rights and becoming in danger of trafficking, slavery and sexual exploitation.

At Tykn we are supporting target 16.9 by developing digital identity technology for the socio-economic inclusion of refugees. Which will level the field and allow them safe and private digital access to much needed services in their host countries. Services such as banking, education and healthcare.

If you’d like to read more about how our technology makes digital identity private and secure, we wrote this in-depth guide on Identity Management and Blockchain.

Are the SDGs legally binding?

The SDGs are not legally binding (11).

However, governments are expected to take “ownership and implement adequate national frameworks” to achieve all 17 goals. Indeed, the principal responsibility that countries have is to “follow-up and review the progress made in implementing” the SDGs (12).

How are SDGs measured?

The progress towards the SDGs’ targets is measured through a set of indicators for monitoring performance. Indeed, each Goal is broken down into a range of different targets, “with a total of 169 targets spread out across the 17 goals” (13).

The goals will also be measured not at a global level but at a national one. Additional monitoring, however, will still “occur at regional and global levels” (14). 

In regards to monitoring, “each level of monitoring requires different types of indicators”. Discussions with a number of national statistical offices (NSOs) such as the OECD, for instance, report “100 to be the maximum number of global indicators on which NSOs can report and communicate effectively in a harmonized manner” (15).

How much do SDG’s cost?

According to this Forbes article penned by Michele Giddens, the SDGs will be expensive in addition to being difficult to achieve.

The UN estimates that the “total cost would be about $11.5 trillion, including $1.4 trillion a year just to achieve the first SDG, which is to end poverty for 700 million people (16).


The graphics on this post were created by Freepik.

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