Envisioning a Sustainable and Dignified World

On 25 September 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted at a special summit of the United Nations (UN). It expresses the shared commitment of all member states to take the actions necessary to end poverty, overcome inequality, promote human dignity and protect the natural environment.

At the core of the 2030 Agenda are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On 1 January 2016, they succeeded the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had been the focal point of UN development efforts. Where the MDGs included eight goals and 17 targets, there are now 17 SDGs with 169 targets.

A number of challenges bear consideration as the focus shifts to implementation.

Addressing a broad range of issues

The MDGs were used to galvanize efforts to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. By contrast, the SDGs establish a broad range of economic, social and environmental objectives. While one target, for example, aims to ensure universal access to energy, others are about climate resilience, decent work and universal health coverage.

The scope of the new framework is also more expansive because a number of its targets aim to address conditions that can either catalyze or impede development. Put another way, it confronts factors that can often underlie the problems – whether poverty or preventable mortality – that development assistance is called on to alleviate.

One example is the quality of institutions, particularly those responsible for delivering public services. The objective is to build institutions that are effective, accountable and transparent, as a core part of fostering inclusive societies, free of corruption and grounded by the rule of law.

Balancing ambition and realism

Many of the SDGs set a high bar for achievement.

Take poverty, for example. The MDG target was to halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people living in absolute poverty. It was achieved ahead of schedule, in large part because of historic rates of economic growth in East Asia.

Now the target is to eradicate “extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030. As it stands, the UN estimates that 836 million people are living in extreme poverty. But even that figure is fluid. Numerous pressures, from drought to a natural disaster or economic downturn, can push individuals back into a life of vulnerability.

With other issues, such as maternal and child mortality, there still remains ‘unfinished business’ of the MDGs.

It can be argued that, by taking on all aspects of sustainable development and well-being, two of the hallmarks of the previous framework have been sacrificed: simplicity and focus.

The counter argument is that development challenges – such as gender inequality and economic exclusion – are inherently multidimensional and interconnected. To be effective, therefore, any approach devised to overcome them must reflect and respect that complexity.

The same understanding applies to assessments of development outcomes.

The last 25 years have seen significant development gains around the world. But they have been uneven within countries, as well as among those countries characterized by peace and good governance and others that have experienced fragility, crisis and conflict. Hence, a core tenet of the new agenda is: “no one will be left behind.”

That is why experts at the UN are currently working to refine indicators that will be used to measure progress with data that is disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location.

Mobilizing all resources

Implementing the SDGs will require financial resources vastly beyond the amount of official development assistance (ODA) that is provided each year by donor governments. This reality was reflected in the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, a framework that was adopted in July 2015 at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development.

The Addis Agenda reflects the evolving approach to development finance in its emphasis on the mobilization of resources at the domestic level. It stresses the enabling conditions of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, including countries’ policy and regulatory environments, as well as their adherence to the rule of law. Current debates about development finance are emphasizing the generation of national resources through such measures as the strengthening of tax systems and the combating of tax avoidance and corruption.

As well, the private sector – from local microenterprises to large multinationals – is now considered a core partner in development because of the role that job creation, investment and innovation play in stimulating growth.

ODA continues to play a role in development finance, but one that is increasingly seen as complementary to the mobilization of these other public and private resources. The need for such assistance remains most acute in the poorest countries, where domestic resources are limited and foreign investment minimal.

Moving forward at the national level

The 2030 Agenda has established the international community’s vision for a dignified and sustainable quality of life that everyone should enjoy. As its constituent parts, the agenda’s relevance going forward will depend, in large measure, on the degree to which the SDGs are incorporated in the policies and programs of UN member states.

The ideal outcome implied by the 2030 Agenda would be for each UN member state to establish a nationally owned strategy. It would inform the achievement of nationally determined objectives – anchored by the SDGs – that are linked to financing mechanisms. The approach each country takes will also need to grapple with the agenda’s relevance, as a universal framework, to domestic as well as international policy.

The mandate letter given to Canada’s Minister of International Development and La Francophonie includes support for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda as part of the Minister’s top priority of refocusing Canadian development assistance on “the poorest and most vulnerable”.

Parliament is central to these efforts. Parliamentary review of policy, legislation and budgets can ensure accountability between the commitments that were agreed internationally with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, and the measures that are taken to bring about its realization through national action.

Related Resources

Transforming our World: Canadian perspectives on the Sustainable Development Goals, Canadian Council for International Co-Operation, 2016.

James Michel, Beyond Aid: The Integration of Sustainable Development in a Coherent International Agenda, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2016.

Sarah Hearn, “The UN Global Goals: Treasure the Vision, Demand Implementation,” Center on International Cooperation, New York University, 21 September 2015.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), States of Fragility 2015: Meeting Post-2015 Ambitions, revised edition, OECD Publishing, Paris, 26 March 2015.

Report of the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, United Nations General Assembly, 69th Session, A/69/315, 15 August 2014.

Authors: Allison Goody and Pascal Tremblay, Library of Parliament