The member states of the United Nations decided to launch a process to agree on a new set of sustainable development goals at the Rio+20 conference in June 2012. More than three years later, after perhaps the most intense and inclusive consultation in history with businesses, civil society, and citizens across the globe, governments of 193 member countries agreed on Friday, September 25, 2015 on a set of 17 goals, based on 169 targets. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development will guide development interventions for the next fifteen years.
So what does it all mean? What will change? Will it make a difference? Here are some of the things I have heard in New York over these last few days.
“A creative community is far more important than a brilliant individual.” Former President Bill Clinton put emphasis on the fact that the 2030 agenda is an exercise in collaboration and collective action and is based on the promise that great achievements are possible when different groups come together. What’s new is that business leaders of the world’s largest companies are starting to take the 2030 agenda seriously—both those who produce things and those who allocate the trillions of dollars of private savings across companies. One colleague remarked to me that 15 years ago no one really bothered about China. But in the span of 5 years, between 2000 and 2005, every CEO of a major company had to have a China strategy and firms competed with each other on how they were going to tap into the opportunities provided by China’s growth. I wonder if in 5 years, thanks to the 2030 agenda, we will be saying that most companies have developed sustainability strategies, and are competing with each other on the larger opportunities and reduced risks that those strategies are generating.
“Universal, transformative, and integrated” is how the U.N. secretary-general described the 2030 agenda. By framing the themes of ending poverty, building shared prosperity and tackling climate change as closely inter-woven, Ban-Ki Moon ushered in a new standard for the responsibilities expected from leaders of every government and organization. Maybe if Volkswagen had internalized this message earlier, it would have taken a different path to the one that has resulted in $30 billion of shareholder value being lost in just three days after its efforts to falsify emission data from its diesel engines came to light. I venture to say that we will see less of this kind of behavior in future.
“Law and justice are essential to achieving universal fraternity … No humans or groups can consider themselves omnipotent and more important than others.” Pope Francis opened the General Assembly session, and his message of inclusion and the pursuit of spiritual goods as well as material goods, coupled with a caution against corporate greed, highlighted the need for reduced inequality and more attention to justice and people’s rights. One colleague told me, “we spend a lot of time worrying about the costs of inclusion, but we’ve never really thought seriously about the costs of exclusion.” This will now change.
Skeptics will surely continue to say that there are far too many goals and targets. The effort to include everything, they claim, means that effectively nothing is excluded, so no priorities are set. As I have argued before, the focus on the number of goals and targets is misplaced. My friend John also outlines why his mum thinks 17 is an authentic number of goals, reflecting the fact that the world is complicated. She thinks that if there had been 10 goals, as many of the skeptics advocated, it would have looked contrived and artificial, and she would not have believed in the agenda. She’s right. By having enough goals to reflect different aspects of development, countries cannot game the system. Growth without reduction in inequality will not qualify as a success. Development built on environmental degradation, social exclusion, or the abuse of individual rights and freedoms will not count in the 2030 agenda.
“We pledge that no one will be left behind.” Nine short words, but a powerful and transformative message from the 2030 agenda document. The shift to monitoring improvements at the level of individuals, rather than countries, has profound implications that we are only beginning to understand. My friend Judith used an analogy of ending polio. You trace specific cases and deal with them one by one. Similarly, if you want to end extreme poverty, and not just halve it, you must be able to identify individuals living in poverty. You have to deal with people, not statistics. It’s been tough to bring together the scaling up agenda with the need for localized solutions based on inclusive community engagement. This is now starting to change with the 2030 agenda.
“We envision a world in which the right data is available to the right people at the right time in the right ways to help them make the right decisions for sustainable development.” This is the vision of the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. Anyone who thinks that not much will change either hasn’t been paying attention or doesn’t think that data are important for driving development. My colleague Andrew says that well over $60 million worth of satellite data has just been provided for free for public use and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Real time data, imaging the whole world, will soon be available at a resolution of 3 meters. This will allow communities and activists to engage in ways that have been impossible until now. There are already pilots mapping schools and other core services, generating real excitement at local levels. As we have argued elsewhere, data is getting personal and when things get personal, action follows.
The Millennium Development Goals did make a difference. One serious piece of research suggests that under the most conservative assumptions, 15 million additional lives were saved compared to pre-MDG trends. The 2030 agenda has the potential to do even more for even more people.
As expected, the U.N. was a zoo last week—government leaders and delegates, celebrities, businesspeople, civil society groups, media, curious on-lookers, and the redoubtable New York Police Department were out in full force. Shakira chose to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in front of the General Assembly. The lyrics still resonate with me: “Imagine all the people living life in peace … You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.” But what was going through my head as I wandered back home were the rhymes of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel: “Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it, I do believe it’s true.”