A brief introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — Part 1

In 2015 all United Nations Member States committed to strive for ‘peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’. Thus, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born as a proposed way of turning this future into reality.

Based on the UN’s 5 pillars — people, peace, prosperity, planet and partnership — the SDGs comprise 17 goals, setting out a blueprint for what humankind should strive towards:

1. No poverty

2. Zero hunger

3. Good health and well-being

4. Quality education

5. Gender equality

6. Clean water and sanitation

7. Affordable and clean energy

8. Decent work and economic growth

9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure

10. Reduced inequalities

11. Sustainable cities and communities

12. Responsible consumption and production

13. Climate action

14. Life below water

15. Life on land

16. Peace and justice and strong institutions

17. Partnerships for the goals

So, these goals address economic, social and environmental issues simultaneously. This combination is what is meant by ‘sustainable development’ — the UN defines this as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In simple terms, that means raising global living standards without destroying the planet.

A critical part of the SDGs is the principle of ‘leave no one behind’, meaning the world’s poorest and most vulnerable are a key focus of the goals. This is in part due to the SDGs being a product of the Global South; the 1992 Earth Summit, held in Brazil, was instrumental in bringing the sustainable development agenda to the world stage. Meanwhile, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), also held in Brazil, played a pivotal role in the formulation of the SDGs. In a real sense this allowed the SDGs to improve on the weaknesses of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that had come before.

How do the SDGs work?

The SDGs act as the framework for how to achieve a peaceful and prosperous global society. However, they are not legally binding or part of international law.

Within the SDGs are goals, and then targets within each goal, with indicators used to measure the progress towards the targets. All in all, there are 17 goals, 169 targets and over 230 indicators. On top of this, there are specific Means of Implementation (MoI) points that direct actors towards the best steps to take to achieve a given goal.

Example: Goal 1 — end poverty in all forms everywhere

The goal here, obviously, is to “End poverty in all forms everywhere“. There are 5 targets contained within this goal, the first of which is:

1.1 By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.

The framework then provides an indicator by which to measure progress towards this target:

1.1.1 Proportion of the population living below the international poverty line by sex, age, employment status and geographic location (urban/rural).

Then, perhaps the most important bit, are the MoI. An example for Goal 1 is:

1.a Ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions.

This too has corresponding indicators:

1.a.1 Total official development assistance grants from all donors that focus on poverty reduction as a share of the recipient country’s gross national income

1.a.2 Proportion of total government spending on essential services (education, health and social protection).

Pretty straight forward, right?

Who operates within the SDG framework?

Well, everyone — governments, the private sector and NGOs, for starters.

Governments are meant to design their own national frameworks to achieve the SDGs, thus allowing all 193 member states to act within the same framework despite their own significant differences in circumstance. The SDGs measure the progress of countries against these goals in their Sustainable Development Report; the UK’s 2022 report can be found here. However, it is down to individual countries to improve on their weaknesses and further increase their progress towards the SDGs.

The SDG framework is also one that private actors can operate within, as key drivers of sustainable development. Private sector efforts to implement the SDGs include corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives.

Bloomberg, for example, has moved in this space, having created an intelligence model that helps investors understand the impact a company can have towards the SDGs. They do so by analysing the segment revenue of a company (revenue segments exposed to SDGs), alongside its performance against ESG metrics. As a result, one can also track a business’s performance and how much it contributes to the SDGs. This is especially important for impact investors, as they can see the best place to direct their capital for the purpose of sustainable development.

Furthermore, charities and NGOs can use this framework and indicator system to first measure their own impact, as well as clearly communicate the issues they are trying to tackle and the impact they hope to achieve. This is a powerful tool when applying for funding and grants.

In short, just about anyone can operate within the SDG framework. It is truly universal and provides a language by which people can coordinate sustainable development efforts globally.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 — The pros and cons of the SDG framework.