The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of targets and indicators formally adopted by the United Nations in 2015, after two years of deliberations with member states and civil society. Despite the initial criticism, the SDGs have proven to be a wonderful tool for addressing the challenges of tomorrow.

The sustainable development agenda, approved in 2015, not only builds on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but goes much further: it seeks to end poverty, reduce inequalities, ensure sustainable consumption, promote peaceful societies and achieve gender inequality in a relatively short period of time. The ambitious agenda consists of 17 goals and 169 specific targets.

With all forward-thinking action comes strings of doubt. Severe criticism immediately followed the presentation of the new sustainable development agenda. The Economist called the SDGs “worse than useless”, Foreign Policy called it “senseless” and even Pope Francis warned about “the bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals”.

First, it was argued that the new sustainable development agenda could not compare to the success and positive adoption of the MDGs. Yet, the SDGs not only compare but go above and beyond by providing a greater overall vision. This is done by 1) addressing human rights, root causes of poverty and gender inequality and 2) focusing on a wide array of countries and their achievements, rather than just the achievements of the poor (as do the MDGs).

Secondly, the SDGs are said to be “unfeasibly expensive”. However, this statement is quickly out-shined by the idea that the cost of inaction is actually much higher. It is widely known that the successful achievement of the SDGs requires annual investments of up to six billion dollars, but what is not known is that the private sector has the means of mobilizing enough resources to accommodate such a large sum of money. One must also not forget the number of instruments that have been created in order to help finance the SDGs (for example: The World Bank has issued bonds that directly link returns to the performance of companies advancing global development priorities set out in the SDGs).

Thirdly, SDGs targets are viewed by some critics as unattainable. This statement is in part true, due to the fact that some propositions such as “ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions” are grandiloquent. But one must pose the question: is it not better to have far-reaching goals instead of mediocre objectives?

Probably, the biggest concern with the SDGs has to do with the long list of targets involved. This argument is fair only until attention is drawn to the real magnitude of the problem. For example: the causes of poverty are systemic and cannot be addressed without a coherent approach that takes into consideration issues like inequality, injustice, and so on.

Logically that does not imply that businesses, governments, and civil society organizations should be engaged equally in the achievement of each and every target. That of course would be totally unfeasible and irresponsible. The approved document explains that “the commitments will be voluntary and country-led. They can be modified upon demand for different national realities, capacities and levels of development”.

Lastly, experts continuously voice that the SDGs are “profoundly contradictory to the point of being self- defeating” because they acknowledge a problem in the current economic system, yet rely precisely on the old model of industrial growth to achieve sustainable development. At this point, it is time to ask: it is not easier change the system from within while promoting sustainable practices?

It is important to note that the SDGs were not drawn up by a group of men in the basement of the UN headquarters, as supposedly happened with the MDGs. The SDGs are the result of a historical consultation that included: a working group with representatives from 70 countries, 11 thematic consultations, 83 national consultations and door-to-door surveys. The result of such an extensive process deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The SDGs are a very powerful tool for dealing with the upcoming global challenges. Governments, business, civil society organizations and ordinary citizens must follow the overarching framework of the SDGs to advance towards a more sustainable future. Excessive criticism is unjustified and out of order.

Long live the SDGs!


Communications consultant. I write mostly about public affairs, public policy, strategic communications and sustainability

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