What are the UN’s sustainability goals? Part I

By | October 21, 2021

The surprise was great when the world had stood together and the UN Millennium Development Goals had largely been reached in 2015. In the same year, the eight Millennium Development Goals were replaced with 17 new sustainability goals and skepticism has not been long in coming. Because will we be able to achieve the ambitious goals? And what will be the biggest challenges?

  • What is the difference between the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainability Goals?
  • How to measure the results?
  • What will be the biggest challenges?
  • And will we be able to achieve the ambitious goals?

«We can be the first generation to succeed in ending poverty; just as we may be the last to have a chance of saving the planet “, it is stated in the UN’s so-called 2030 agenda. As the quote shows, there is a great responsibility on the world community in the years to come, and both authorities, organizations and private actors in the global North and South must be involved in pulling the load if we are to reach our goal.

2: From MDG to SDG

According to sportingology, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015 and aim to guide world policy in a more holistic and sustainable direction until 2030. The 17 sustainability goals form a global roadmap for national and international actors, and establishes measures aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, ensuring inclusive sustainable development and promoting welfare, peace and justice for all. The goals are universal, which means that they apply to all countries – both those that provide and those that receive development assistance.

The Sustainability Goals replace and continue the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The eight millennium goals are often celebrated as one of the most comprehensive and successful international efforts to combat poverty ever. Critics said the goals were too ambitious and vague, but the MDGs have been a success. Where the world community previously appeared to be fragmented with different actors promoting different and often conflicting goals, the Millennium Development Goals showed that it was possible to mobilize and coordinate across countries and actors. The success inspired us to take the step further, and in 2012 a UN-led process was initiated to create a global development framework. The result was the sustainability goals.

3: Poverty and hunger

Although the sustainability goals should be a total package, it can be emphasized that the first goal of fighting poverty is not only the most difficult and ambitious, but also the most important. The remaining 16 targets can be understood as means of “eradicating all forms of poverty worldwide” by 2030. People living in extreme poverty are defined in the sustainability targets as those who have less than 1.9 dollars (approximately 15 kroner) to live on during the day. Despite the fact that the Millennium Development Goals had a similar goal, world poverty has not been eradicated. However, the sub-target in the MDGs to halve the proportion of people living below the poverty line was largely reached. Today, it is estimated that approximately 767 million people live below the poverty line, which is more than halved from the start of the Millennium Development Goals in 1990.

With a poverty line of 1.9 dollars a day, it makes little sense to talk about poverty in, for example, Norway. But poverty also exists here – be it among the homeless or families who do not have the opportunity to send children on the same activities as their friends. However, the vast majority have more than 15 kroner a day to live on. The sustainability goals fortunately take into account such a subjective understanding of poverty in that one of the sub-goals related to poverty reduction is to at least halve the proportion of children, women and men living in poverty understood on the basis of a national definition.

4: How to measure the results?

If you compare the MDGs and SDGs, it becomes clear what is new, but also what potential challenges you may encounter up to 2030. The sustainability goals are broad and relatively vaguely defined, but the vague definitions have been necessary to establish global agreement and connection to them.

The world community has invested heavily in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. For countries in the South, which have received financial support, there is of course a certain prestige attached to achieving the goals, at the same time, not giving positive results can mean that new financial contributions are paid out. Both the MDGs and now the SDGs have challenges in assessing whether the goals are achieved or not, and statistics are often used creatively by the various parties to attract more support or to celebrate successes.

An example is how categories and differences in percentages and absolute numbers are used to legitimize the results. It is claimed, for example, that the proportion of malnourished people in the world has almost halved since 1990. This is undeniably positive, but note here that there is a difference between what the categories hunger and malnourished mean. There is also a difference between using a percentage change or a change in absolute numbers: In 1990, the world’s population was 5.5 billion, of which about one billion (or 18.6 per cent) lived in hunger. In 2012, we were 7 billion people on earth, of which 875 million (or 12.5 percent) lived in hunger. In absolute numbers, this means a reduction of “only” 125 million (equivalent to 15 percent). The relative percentage is more impressive, since the decrease from 18.6 to 12.5 per cent corresponds to almost 33 per cent.

The Sustainability and Millennium Development Goals involve and have involved large and complex processes that are not always as easy to measure. The example above is just an illustration of how figures can be used to promote their own interest – be it to get paid extra funds or to legitimize their own efforts. But even if such statistics can be read in several ways, it does not shake the fact that the MDGs, and now also the SDGs, have helped people with basic needs. Several have gotten better.

Sustainable Development Goals 1