Can we achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

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Can we achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030?

We are a third of the way to 2030. 20030 is the date to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Can we achieve the Goals by 2030? Gary Rynhart and Jan Vandemoortele disagree.


United Nations SDG Goals Annual Meeting, on Day Two 21-23 March 2018, Photo Credit: Neil Baynes/Flickr

Gary Rynhart says YES.

He has worked with the UN for nearly 20 years. He has worked for the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Beirut, Bangkok, and Pretoria. He lives in South Africa. He is the author of Colouring the Future: Why the United Nations plan to end poverty and wars is working.

Jan Vandemoortele says NO.

He worked with the United Nations (UNICEF, UNDP, ILO) for over 30 years. He was the co-architect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). He lives in Bruges, Belgium.

GARY says YES: The SDGs are about a lot of very difficult problems. But there is a good chance we can achieve them. There are six reasons for this.

First, 191 countries actually agreed the SDGs. That is very surprising.

Second, all development organizations are taking action on the SDGs. Before, it was individuals giving money to help poverty or other social or health problems but they did not work together.

Third, the private sector is very important to achieve the Goals. This was not true before.

Fourth, there are now a lot of new technological ideas.

Fifth, change in generations. Surveys show that if companies offer millennial employees a strong idea of how to help social or environmental problems, it is successful. More and more we expect business to do something. This is changing what companies do.

Finally, there is now a lot of looking at and reporting progress.

JAN says NO: There is no chance we can achieve the SDGs. There are six reasons for this. First, the European Commission says that European countries lead globally on the SDGs. But none are going to achieve the Goals by 2030. So even the leaders are behind!

Second, the SDGs are not really getting people or communities to take action. Mostly because they are complicated. Journalists, teachers, and preachers do not really talk about them. Civil society does not really use them to check what governments are doing, as was the case with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Third, the private sector has engaged with the SDGs, but it is not clear if this will bring progress.

Fourth, a lot of people think technology will help, but development is mostly about changing ideas. Reducing deaths of mothers, for example, is as much about changing ideas about women as good healthcare.

Fifth, there is very little evidence that companies are changing and there are many examples of bad behaviour. The SDGs have not changed the ideas of big business. It usually puts profits before people and planet. Governments that agreed the SDGs mostly have not changed.

Finally, the SDGs are mostly not very clear and so we cannot test them.

GARY says YES: One of the reasons why people don’t think we can achieve the SDGs is the general idea that things are terrible. It is more and more common to read articles in the media about how bad modern society is. Serious poverty is increasing. Wars and famine are everywhere. It is the end of democracy, and so on. It is part of the way we see things. But it is not true.

The world is actually more peaceful than before. The number of wars between countries is at its lowest. The world is richer than before. And fewer people are living in serious poverty. These are all facts.

We can say that much of this is because of efforts by the UN over the past 20 years to get agreement on how to tackle the big problems of our time – wars, poverty, famine, and disease – and to measure the success of those efforts. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) more than halved the number of people suffering from hunger; they really expanded universal primary education; they reduced the child death rate by more than half; and they halved the world maternal mortality.

What the MDGs did and the SDGs are now doing was to show the way clearly to ‘what success looks like’ and that everyone in development can support.

JAN says NO: People will disagree on the facts. Yes, survival, nutrition, and education have improved around the world. But if this time now is relatively peaceful, why is the number of people losing their homes in the world higher than ever?

I am not sure about what you say about fewer people living in serious poverty. I wish it was true. But it has more to do with the generally repeated idea that poverty is less and not with reality. The truth is that a dollar a day doesn’t keep poverty away, as the World Bank statistics want us to believe.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that a good way to make people believe something wrong is to repeat it very often. So, beware of ‘facts by repetition’.

And what about all the inequality? Evidence shows that high inequality has a strong and harmful influence on the way we feel, think, behave, and relate to each other. People who feel poor lose as many years from their life as those who are poor. Why do so many people, even in rich countries, feel insecure even when there is more wealth in the world?

Statistics may show a positive picture of the world, but they generalize and simplify reality too much. At best, they tell part of the story; at worst, they tell us the wrong story. No, this is not only that you see the glass as half full, and I see the glass as half empty.

GARY says YES: An important reason to be hopeful is generational change. Global Shapers is the most recent data from a world survey in 2017. Global Shapers says, directly or indirectly, about the SDGs, that 82 per cent of the young people surveyed say they are doing something to achieve them.

45 per cent of the people surveyed don’t know what the SDGs are. This means the UN has lots more to do to communicate them. But it shows how young people see the big problems. For example, refugees. To ‘I would welcome refugees in…’ most answered ‘my country’, ‘my neighbourhood’, and ‘my city’, and over one-quarter answered ‘my home’!

A Deloitte 2019 survey said 47 per cent of Millennials and Gen Zers say they want to ‘make a positive impact on community/society’ and 45 per cent say they ‘want to start a family’. Research Global Tolerance in the UK said 62 per cent of Millennials surveyed want to work for a company that makes a positive impact. Over half of young people prefer work that makes a difference to work that would pay them more! Those are lots of reasons to be hopeful.

JAN says NO: These responses by Millennials are hopeful, and very welcome. But they are only good intentions. The so-called ‘May ’68 generation’ had strong ideals too, but the result was the unsustainable results that the SDGs are now trying to help. For intentions to be a reality, they need support from institutions and good leaders, in politics and business. More than a generational change, we need a big change in how we organize and see the world.

Covid-19 is likely to be a big problem for the SDGs. But it may bring us closer to the change we need. Many say that a return to business-as-usual after lockdown would be a mistake. Many philosophers actually believe that a return to business-as-usual is unlikely. They think that people have had time to think about how progress has been 100% unsustainable, unfair, and very harmful. Let’s hope they are right.

What a surprise! A terrible virus can lead to changes in society based on green deals, solidarity, fair taxation, and social protection. And to see progress, not as who is the strongest but who is the kindest. These changes would certainly help the SDGs.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)