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Can the sustainable development goals help transform the world by 2030?

31 August 2015

2015_08_31_Reflection_Photo1Mariel de Jesus

In 2000, the global community took on the serious task of addressing the world’s most pressing development problems. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) laid out specific, time-bound objectives with the aim of improving the situation of the poorest of the poor. Now that the MDG period is officially ending, the question on most peoples’ minds is: now what?

Last year, the UN began a process of consultations to help answer that question. The result was a draft of 17 Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs and 169 targets that lays out the priorities and the objectives for a new global commitment. Last 1 August, the UN finalized the guidance document entitled Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UN has crafted an ambitious agenda of SDGs and targets that seek to build on the MDGs and help achieve what the MDGs could not. The new plan is universal, applicable to both developing and developed countries. This is one of the features that make this agenda a considerable advance over the MDGs.

Where the MDGs simply identified broad goals, the new SDGs take into account the different country contexts, capacities and levels of development. The goals recognize the need to build strong economic foundations and to ensure inclusive and sustained growth. There is also a recognition that the MDGs were unable to reach the poorest and most vulnerable, and therefore, the new agenda promises that no one will be left behind in the pursuit of a new and more sustainable world. The reality of climate change is also acknowledged and there is a strong push for the adoption of a much needed climate agreement in Paris in December.

Where the MDGs are vague in their implementation, the SDGs will define the means to implement.

The SDGs will come into effect on 1 January 2016 and this will provide the framework for the next 15 years. Partnership is a key element in this process. Rather than having each country work on the goals individually, the SDGs call for a collaborative, global engagement. The process calls for governments, private sector, and the other stakeholders to mobilize their available resources in support of the goals.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network  was in Manila, Philippines last 3 August and talked about the Age of Sustainable Development. The network was launched in August 2012 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to mobilize scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable development problem solving at local, national, and global scales.

Sachs’ visit was one of the highlights of the official launch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)-Philippines, a multi-stakeholder group that will be involved in crafting concrete solutions to pressing development problems.

Sachs made a very clear statement that we need to find new ways to do things. Innovation is necessary in the fight against poverty, in adapting to climate change, and in achieving lasting peace.

Although sustainable development is a goal and guiding principle for countries, it is also proven difficult to achieve. There is a general understanding and agreement that sustainable development must integrate economic development, social equity, and environmental protection. This appears simple, but implementing programs to achieve this balance is challenging.

Economic development still holds primacy for government and business, and social equity is not given adequate attention. Many sustainable development initiatives are anchored on environmental themes and has led to a compartmentalization of sustainable development as an environmental issue. And indeed most of the time, implementation of sustainable development projects are taken over by environmental departments and agencies. This results in some difficulty in achieving an integrated and comprehensive approach to sustainable development.

The new sustainable development goals as outlined in the document will try to overcome these challenges by clearly defining a plan for the three areas of critical importance – people, planet, and prosperity. The agenda also identifies peace as an area for action.

Sachs expressed a great deal of optimism and hope for SDGs and was also looking forward to what the SDSN Philippine chapter will do to help identify local strategies. Clearly, no one government agency or organization will be able to tackle these challenges alone. Therefore, a multi-sectoral approach that gathers partners who are committed to a more sustainable future is one way to generate support for the goals at a country level.

One area that is not mentioned in the goals is an area that Sachs pointed out as a critical factor–governance. While sustainable development is about integrating economics, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion, advancements in these three areas are not possible without a strong foundation of good governance that is necessary to implement development initiatives.

Although the UN document identifying the 17 SDGs are already published, this is only the first step in what will be a 15-year process. This month, the 2015 International Conference on Sustainable Development will be held at Columbia University in New York, USA. The objective of the conference is to identify and share realistic, evidence-based solutions to support the SDGs. The UN will officially agree on the goals immediately following the conference.

The work is clearly laid out for the global community as there is greater awareness and acknowledgement that the current development path we are on will not lead us to the future we want. The impact of climate change threatens the development gains we make and we must find ways to stay within the planet’s safe operating space. The world’s current pattern of economic growth is leaving many of the poorest and most vulnerable behind.

The SDGs are an opportunity for us to get on a different path, but it must be a collaborative effort. Sustainable development must harness the skills and capacities of government, business, academe and civil society. We need to make the changes necessary to ensure a safer, more prosperous, more equitable and more sustainable world.

Mariel de Jesus works with the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines. Mariel coordinates the Philippine Working Group that tackles and reckons with professionals and practitioners on various development concerns through a sustainability science approach and include community forest and watershed resource management, disaster risk reduction and resilience, youth skills training and values formation in indigenous communities, among others. ESSC joined the launch of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network-Philippines last 3 August.

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