Summer 2016 (30.2) Essay

Lost in Transformation? The Politics of the Sustainable Development Goals

On September 25, 2015, the world’s leaders adopted a new suite of development goals—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—that are to guide policymakers for the next decade and a half. On first inspection, the declaration is breathtaking in its scope and ambition. Constituted by a list of 17 goals and 169 targets, it is arguably the most comprehensive global agenda adopted since the UN Charter in 1945. Its thematic repertoire ranges from poverty, health, education, and inequality, to energy, infrastructure, climate change, marine resources, peace, security, and good governance. The UN Secretary-General welcomed the SDGs by praising their “universal, transformative, and integrated agenda” that heralded a “historic turning point for our world.”

The most striking aspect of the new agenda is its universalist conception of sustainable development. Only half of the targets are modeled in the traditional and reciprocal vein of the MDGs. In that paradigm, less developed countries were tasked with halving or eliminating various indices of underdevelopment, while developed states made promises to boost aid, provide debt relief, and engage in trade reforms and technology transfers. In the new agenda we still find this standard approach. For example, there are targets to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030 and end all forms of malnutrition by 2025. However, many commitments in the SDGs now apply to states regardless of their level of development and extend across the agenda’s “three big buckets” of tackling poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all. Naturally, some of these universal targets concern the environment, given its inherently global nature. The SDGs commit all governments to tackle climate change, protect water-related ecosystems, halve per capita food waste, double energy efficiency, and so on. Yet many of the universal targets focus on issues that have traditionally been considered “domestic” or outside the domain of sustainable development. The reduction of income inequality and death rates, the elimination of discriminatory laws and domestic violence, the management of urbanization, and the facilitation of “orderly, safe, regular, and responsible” migration are cast as challenges for all states to address. The pertinence of these targets is underlined by the daily headlines on the refugee crisis, police violence, and discrimination in many highly developed states.

Despite the praise that this new agenda has received, this latest iteration of target-driven global policymaking faces two principal critiques. The first and most common relates to the sheer number of commitments. The danger is that states have created the proverbial “Christmas tree”—an agenda that is more decorative than communicative and operational. The second is that behind the facade of proclamations lurk various political compromises that could undermine the discursive and institutional strength of the agreement. The agenda may be big, but is it truly transformative? This essay takes up both concerns and offers some reflections on the SDG’s potential impact.

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