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Why the Sustainable Development Goals Matter

ROME – Following the progress made under the Millennium Development Goals, which guided global development efforts in the years 2000-2015, the world’s governments are currently negotiating a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2016-2030. The MDGs focused on ending extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable disease, and were the most important global development goals in the United Nations’ history. The SDGs will continue the fight against extreme poverty, but will add the challenges of ensuring more equitable development and environmental sustainability, especially the key goal of curbing the dangers of human-induced climate change.

But will a new set of goals help the world shift from a dangerous business-as-usual path to one of true sustainable development? Can UN goals actually make a difference?

The evidence from the MDGs is powerful and encouraging. In September 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the “Millennium Declaration,” which included the MDGs. Those eight goals became the centerpiece of the development effort for poor countries around the world. Did they really make a difference? The answer seems to be yes.

There has been marked progress on poverty reduction, disease control, and increased access to schooling and infrastructure in the poorest countries of the world, especially in Africa, as a result of the MDGs. Global goals helped to galvanize a global effort.

How did they do this? Why do goals matter? No one has ever put the case for goal-based success better than John F. Kennedy did 50 years ago. In one of the greatest speeches of the modern US presidency, delivered in June 1963, Kennedy said: “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it and to move irresistibly towards it.”

Setting goals is important for many reasons. First, they are essential for social mobilization. The world needs to be oriented in one direction to fight poverty or to help achieve sustainable development, but it is very hard in our noisy, disparate, divided, crowded, congested, distracted, and often overwhelmed world to mount a consistent effort to achieve any of our common purposes. Adopting global goals helps individuals, organizations, and governments worldwide to agree on the direction – essentially, to focus on what really matters for our future.

A second function of goals is to create peer pressure. With the adoption of the MDGs, political leaders were publicly and privately questioned on the steps they were taking to end extreme poverty.

A third way that goals matter is to spur epistemic communities – networks of expertise, knowledge, and practice – into action around sustainable-development challenges. When bold goals are set, those communities of knowledge and practice come together to recommend practical pathways to achieve results.

Finally, goals mobilize stakeholder networks. Community leaders, politicians, government ministries, the scientific community, leading nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, international organizations, donor organizations, and foundations are all motivated to come together for a common purpose. That kind of multi-stakeholder process is essential for tackling the complex challenges of sustainable development and the fight against poverty, hunger, and disease.

Kennedy himself demonstrated leadership through goal setting a half-century ago in his quest for peace with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. In a series of speeches starting with his famous commencement address at American University in Washington, DC, Kennedy built a campaign for peace on a combination of vision and pragmatic action, focusing on a treaty to end nuclear tests.

Just seven weeks after the peace speech, the Americans and Soviets signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, a landmark agreement to slow the Cold War arms race that would have been unthinkable only months earlier. Though the LTBT certainly did not end the Cold War, it provided proof that negotiation and agreement were possible, and laid the groundwork for future pacts.

But there is nothing inevitable about achieving large-scale results after stating a goal or goals. Stating goals is merely the first step in implementing a plan of action. Good policy design, adequate financing, and new institutions to oversee execution must follow goal setting. And, as outcomes occur, they must be measured, and strategies must be rethought and adapted in a continuing loop of policy feedback, all under the pressures and motivations of clear goals and timelines.

Just as the world has made tremendous progress with the MDGs, we can find our way to achieving the SDGs. Despite the cynicism, confusion, and obstructionist politics surrounding efforts to fight poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation, a breakthrough is possible. The world’s major powers may appear unresponsive, but that can change. Ideas count. They can affect public policy far more profoundly and rapidly than detractors can imagine.

In his final address to the UN in September 1963, Kennedy described contemporary peacemaking by quoting Archimedes, who, “in explaining the principles of the lever, was said to have declared to his friends: ‘Give me a place where I can stand – and I shall move the world.’” Fifty years on, it is our generation’s turn to move the world towards sustainable development.

Jeffrey Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. His latest book is The Age of Sustainable Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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