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You may not know it but the member states of the United Nations have signed up to a list of goals that could change the face of the world… and that includes the UK. Former ambassador and World Bank executive Myles Wickstead CBE explains why it’s vital that we meet the Sustainable Development Goals.



The Sustainable Development Goals: what are they, and who cares?

The United Nations celebrated its 70th anniversary on 24 October 2015. At a time when it sometimes feels as if the world is falling apart under the stresses and strains of global terrorism, civil war and refugee problems, abuses of human rights and environmental damage, it is as well to remind ourselves of the timeless values reflected in the UN Charter; values not just of this group or that group, but the universal human values of ‘we the peoples’. And while we must of course acknowledge that the UN has sometimes failed, we should also reflect on its considerable successes under the three key pillars of peace and security, development, and human rights. It is the right framework within which to develop our hopes and aspirations for the future both of humankind and our home, the planet.

Does that have any relevance to concrete action in the real world? Perhaps. At a UN summit in late September this year, governments signed up to a document called, ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. Did you, I wonder, understand the potential implications of this, not just for developing countries, but for all of us? Were you, indeed, aware that it happened at all? If the answer is ‘yes’, move swiftly on. If ‘no’, the rest of this piece might be of some interest.


The broad framework for aid and development from 2000-2015 was governed by the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDGs). This was essentially a compact (though incidentally not a formal agreement) whereby the developing countries would put in place the conditions to achieve a number of goals, essentially around basic health and primary education, and the developed countries would provide support in the form of financial and other assistance. The overarching objective of these MDGs was to halve the proportion of people in the world living in absolute poverty (ie those subsisting on less than $1.25 per day) by 2015.

To the surprise of many, this overarching goal was achieved and in fact achieved some way ahead of time. Aid has undoubtedly contributed to this success, but it has had mainly to do with strong economic growth in China and India, and a number of other countries too, including in Africa. But of course we cannot proclaim ‘job done’ when we have the other half still living in absolute poverty, and when (for example) in spite of significant progress, too many mothers die in childbirth and not enough children live beyond the age of five.

So what next? People have been giving that some thought over the past two or three years, though the context is very different from a decade and a half ago. 9/11 continues to cast a long shadow. The financial crash of 2008 helped to accelerate a shift in the world order, in which the so-called developed countries have grown (if at all) at extremely modest rates compared with most of the developing countries, and the G8 has leaked power visibly and rapidly to the G20. The developing countries have on the whole done a much better job of delivering on their MDG promises than the developed countries have in supporting them. And we are now all much more conscious of the potentially devastating effects for us all of climate change, as well as global terrorism.

This is not the place to describe in detail how those processes have led to agreement on a new set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), contained in the ‘Transforming Our World’ document mentioned earlier in this piece. It is worth saying, though, that (unlike the MDGs) the SDGs are the result of a very consultative process, engaging governments, civil society and the private sector. Perhaps as an inevitable consequence of that, there are a lot of goals (17, as against 8 MDGs) and ten times as many ‘Targets’ (169 of them). Indicators, which will measure progress against those goals and targets where possible, are being constructed and are expected to be completed by March 2016.


It is worth saying too, by the way, that this agreement represents a very significant triumph for the United Nations and the Secretary-General, and for the conduct of international diplomacy, in which UN member states can take some justifiable pride for their willingness to find solutions to difficult issues in the broader global interest. It has, amongst other things, reinforced the importance and legitimacy of the UN as the international body responsible for setting global norms and aspirations.

It is unlikely that most of us will be able to remember 17 goals, let alone 169 targets. But it is important to remember the overarching goal: eradicating extreme poverty everywhere by 2030. The ‘Transforming Our World’ document gives us a handy little reminder about the key elements of the rest of it. Think ‘P’. The key elements of the new agreement are:

Prosperity (the need for inclusive economic growth);
People (the importance of equity and fairness, and leaving no one behind, whatever their ethnicity, sexuality, disability etc);
Planet (the importance of respecting the environment and dealing with the causes and consequences of climate change);
Peace (progress on any of the above will be difficult or impossible without a reasonable degree of peace, security and good governance);
Partnerships (the three key organisational pillars, governments, civil society and the private sector, need to work together to make progress).


I rather assume that readers of BULLITThd will generally be in favour of such objectives. But it’s actually a little closer to home than that. These are universal objectives, so apply as much to the UK as to less economically developed countries. So in addition to helping other countries make progress towards these goals through its international development programme, both through direct assistance to countries, but also through addressing issues such as climate change and the environment, the Government has committed itself to making progress within the UK on some really quite tricky issues. So for example, Target 10.1 commits governments to: “By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average”.

That is a significant commitment from a Conservative, British prime minister and one with which at least some in the party are likely to feel ideologically uncomfortable. The same is true of commitments to address climate change or preserve environmental sustainability. That is why we need to insist that, as much in the UK and the US as Liberia and Indonesia, governments draw up a plan for how they propose to implement the SDG agenda, thus giving parliaments and civil society organisations something by which to hold governments to their commitments.

The private sector too has a potentially huge role to play in delivering this agenda, in the UK and internationally. Their expertise and financing is required, and if people get rich through working hard and delivering essential services, so be it. Though, if they are ready to put something back into the system, as Bill Gates has done, so much the better. What should really concern us is not people getting rich (with the important caveat that that should not be through the exploitation of others), but people staying poor, especially when the progress that has been made over the past 15 years shows that it is possible to eliminate absolute poverty over the next decade and a half, and do so in a way that does not endanger the future of the planet. A failure to do so would be shameful for all of us. Getting some energy behind the SDGs is the best way to bring solidarity to that challenge.


Why should we care about any of this? A peaceful, stable world in which people are making progress and in which the very existence of the planet is not threatened has to be in all our interests. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to put up the shutters and act as though the world outside doesn’t exist. We all benefit from, for example, more open trade. And some of the key challenges of our time, diseases that cross borders, climate change and environmental pollution, can only be addressed on a regional or global basis. Aid is, in the overall scheme of things, generally less important than it was; but it will continue to be an important instrument for supporting those global public goods as well as helping very poor people more directly.

Especially as all the evidence suggests that, on the whole, aid is an effective way of supporting poverty reduction.

Making progress on all this demands a sixth ‘P’: political will. Governments sometimes need a little help to demonstrate political will, and that is where you come in. Encourage the British Government both to support progress towards the SDGs in other countries, but also to set out how it plans to see the UK make progress in this country. This is a universal agenda; we are all in this together, and perhaps not only our well-being but our very survival depends on making significant progress towards the SDGs.

“Everything is tending, and has for some time been tending, to a complete separation between the higher and lower orders of society; a state of things which can only end in the destruction of liberty.”

Dead Guest Editor, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey


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