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What are the UN's sustainable development goals and why do they matter?

The National logo The National 18/01/2022 Neil Halligan

Covid-19 has had a significant effect on countries' progress in achieving the UN's 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), particularly in education, health and unemployment, said one of the co-chairs who helped to deliver the agreement in 2015.

David Donoghue, the former Irish diplomat who co-chaired the complex SDG negotiations in 2015, along with his Kenyan counterpart Macharia Kamau, said the impact of the pandemic was a "temporary setback".

"We're already halfway through [the 15-year timeframe of the goals] and Covid, of course has knocked us back a little bit, but I think it's only a temporary setback," Mr Donoghue told The National.

Gender equality is one of the goals that we see as absolutely central to all of the goals because if we don't achieve fundamental rights for women ... you're not going to achieve any of the goals

Sonja Hyland, senior official at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs

"The UN itself actually sees the SDGs as a guide to build back better after Covid – that the SDGs are the blueprint for the future and we have to almost leap forward in rebuilding countries and rebuilding societies after the pandemic."

He said the Global Goals Week at Expo 2020 Dubai this week shines a spotlight on what countries are doing to achieve the SDGs.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said the next eight years are an opportunity to build a brighter, more sustainable future by 2030.

“The SDGs aren’t something we can cram for a night or year before the deadline," Mr Gates said in his address on the opening day of Global Goals Week, which was held outside New York the first time in its history.

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, during the Global Goals for All event at The Nexus for People and Planet. Expo 2020 Dubai © Provided by The National Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, during the Global Goals for All event at The Nexus for People and Planet. Expo 2020 Dubai

Focusing on SDG 3 (good health and well-being), Mr Gates said: “It’s especially true given the pandemic, which has set back progress on many fronts. If we’re going to reach the critical goals by 2030, we need 2022 and every year after to be a year of action.

"It’s going to take all hands on deck – governments, philanthropies, non-profits and the private sector; a committed focus to working together to reach the SDGs in the next years.”

What are the SDGs?

Seven years ago, all 193 member countries of the United Nations unanimously adopted a landmark set of development goals intended to galvanise and guide the world’s efforts to eradicate poverty, end hunger and address climate change by 2030.

The 17 sustainable development goals – also known as the Global Goals – are broken down into 169 specific targets that each country has committed to try to achieve voluntarily over the next 15 years.

For richer donor countries – such as the UAE – the 2030 agenda also provides a framework for greater co-ordination of efforts to finance the achievement of the targets in developing countries.

The first goal is to end poverty – defined as living on less than US$1.25 (Dh4.60) per day.

Others include ensuring gender equality and quality education, access to clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy, urgent steps to combat climate change, building new infrastructure and ensuring sustainable economic development.

Why are they important?

The UN describes the SDGs as a "blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030".

SDGs’ predecessor, the UN’s millennium development goals (MDGs), are credited with contributing to significant global gains in halving the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, greater access to education and health care in the developing world and a reduction in hunger. They were adopted in 2000.

The 17 SDGs offer a more comprehensive development agenda covering most of the pressing issues in the world today. While they are considered vastly ambitious, they are expected to have a far greater impact than the MDGs.

Citizens are able to see what their governments have signed up to and the commitments they have made. In Africa, for example, citizens are aware that their governments have signed up to provide access to health, education and clean water.

How has Covid affected SDGs?

For most countries, the implementation of the goals was headed in the right direction before Covid stalled that positive momentum.

"A lot of indicators have become worse under Covid, but there are one or two where it has actually improved," said Mr Donoghue, who retired from Irish foreign service in September 2017 but remains actively involved in pushing forward the 2030 agenda.

"Connectivity has improved, which in turn will help us to achieve the health and education goals and many others.

"It's too early, perhaps, to raise score sheets, but every year the UN has a particular forum which assesses how we're all doing globally."

Sonja Hyland, a senior official at the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs who has been particularly involved in taking forward the implementation of the SDGs in her own country and has previously worked in Ethiopia and South Sudan, said poorer nations' education was severely affected.

"Education would have been quite badly affected by Covid, particularly in developing countries." Although a lot of children were in school, Ms Hyland said, "Covid closed down many schools and obviously not every child in the world has access to digital learning".

Are all SDGs equal in importance?

The goals are all interconnected, which makes the agenda quite complex and, in a way, reflects the reality, Mr Donoghue said.

While all the goals are equally important, gender equality is one that stands out above the others, Ms Hyland said.

"Gender equality is one of the goals that we see as absolutely central to all of the goals, because if we don't achieve basic fundamental rights for women and women's economic empowerment and political empowerment, and participation in peace and security issues, you're not going to achieve any of the goals," she said.

"It’s a very central goal that is still not on track and it's one of the ones in our own development programme in Ireland that we’re very focused on because we see it as sort of the leverage goal, in a way, or the catalytic goal that helps to develop all the other goals."

Sonja Hyland, deputy secretary general for Global Issues, Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, during Women’s World Majlis – Gender Equality, the Mother of all SDGs, at Women’s Pavilion. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai © Provided by The National Sonja Hyland, deputy secretary general for Global Issues, Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, during Women’s World Majlis – Gender Equality, the Mother of all SDGs, at Women’s Pavilion. Photo: Expo 2020 Dubai

Goal 13 – take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts – was agreed three months before the Paris Agreement and took on greater importance when Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal.

"It was almost like an insurance policy in case we didn't get the Paris Agreement," Mr Donoghue said.

What happens in 2030 if a country does not achieve its goals?

No one country has achieved all of the goals as yet, but many developed countries are well on their way to hitting the 2030 target.

Mr Donoghue said it is hoped that peer pressure among countries in a given region will help get others to achieve the goals.

"There's no legal penalty if you don't make enough progress, and there are no benchmarks between now and 2030. The idea is that we were supposed to achieve them all by 2030." he said.

Ms Hyland said each country is setting out from different starting points.

"For some countries, probably by the time the goals were approved, they had achieved them and moved way beyond them. For some countries, it's a huge leap to try and get to the global goals.

"I think the whole point of having it global, rather than just developing countries, is to make the point that developed countries have a moral responsibility to support developing countries in trying to reach the goals."

Are SDGs just for governments?

Three years before the negotiations started in 2014, the UN launched 'My World Survey' about the SDGs, seeking input from the general public.

"It was the chance to say what kind of set of goals should we have for the next 15 years," Mr Donoghue said.

"That involvement of civil society and private sector, and so on, continued during the negotiations and most importantly, it is continuing now in the implementation phase.

"Although it was 193 governments who negotiated the actual text of the 2030 agenda plus the SDGs, civil society from all around the world was heavily involved in the negotiation behind the scenes."

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