What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

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What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The SDGs are a United Nations-sponsored effort to create a common set of development goals for all communities in every country, with a deadline for attainment of 2030. The idea is to get governments, aid organizations, foundations and NGOs on the same page about what global problems most urgently need to be solved and how to measure progress and solutions.

The hope is that getting all of these groups pointed in the same direction will result in greater impact for massive, complex goals such as eradicating hunger and even ending poverty — aims that many development scholars feel are increasingly attainable. Adopted in September 2015, the SDGs replaced the Millennium Development Goals, which were in place for the past decade and a half. Countries started to implement the new framework in January 2016.

What were the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?

These goals were created through another United Nations-sponsored process and agreed upon back in 2000. They came about with many of the same motivations in mind: pointing the global community in a common direction on issues of particular concern for the developing world. Eight goals were agreed to, such as achieving universal primary education and reducing child mortality. (The complete list is here.)

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Supporters claim the MDGs galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world’s poorest communities. Critics, on the other hand, note that there was very uneven progress on the goals by topic, country or world region. (The International Monetary Fund provides a detailed monitoring report.) The 2015 expiration date of the MDGs initiated a process to establish the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The SDGs, in turn, were the answer.

Who created the Sustainable Development Goals?

A high-level U. N. Open Working Group was established in January 2013 to craft a new set of goals that would stand for another decade and a half, through 2030. Seventy U. N. member states shared 30 seats on the committee (meaning most seats were shared by two or three countries, a so-called “troika” arrangement).

At its final meeting, on 19 July 2014, the group unanimously approved a draft set of 17 SDGs. In turn, these were finalized by the U. N. General Assembly at a Special Summit on Sustainable Development from 25-27 September 2015. The final agreement is here.

What are the major differences between the SDGs and the MDGs?

The new list largely keeps the MDGs intact while updating and expanding on some of them. For example, there are new goals related to water and sanitation, energy, climate change and inequality.

The biggest change is that the MDGs applied only to countries in the developing world. The SDGs, in contrast, apply uniformly to all countries, in the developing and developed worlds alike. Thus, they aim to hold all governments to account for their development efforts.

Did the MDGs address cities?

The closest that the MDGs came to explicitly acknowledging cities was in Goal 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability. One of that goal’s targets read, “Achieve, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers,” with the implicit assumption that slum dwellers live in cities.

This target is considered one of the successes of the MDG process. The U. N. claims, “More than 200 million [slum dwellers] gained access to improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities, or durable or less crowded housing, thereby exceeding the MDG target.”

However, the number of slum dwellers keeps growing. By 2012 it was up to 863 million, as compared to 760 million in 2000 and 650 million in 1990.

Did there end up being an urban-focused SDG?

Yes. Of the 17 finalized SDGs, one of those, Goal 11, centres on a pledge to “make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” That goal is backed by specific targets and indicators (currently under negotiation), such as eliminating slum-like conditions, reducing urban sprawl, and ensuring universal access to safe and sustainable urban transit. See the full text of these targets here.

Goal 11 marks the United Nations’ strongest expression ever of the critical role that cities will play in the world’s future.

Who pushed the urban SDG?

Early on there seemed to be minimal support for a specific SDG focused on cities. However, urbanists from nearly all continents mobilized a push to include a specific goal to address urban areas. They assembled research, built support among the world’s local governments for the idea, lobbied the working group and amassed a social media campaign using the hashtag #urbanSDG. The Campaign for an Urban SDG eventually became the more formal voice of that push, abetted inside the U. N. by the Group of Friends of Sustainable Cities, co-chaired by Singapore and Sweden.

Proponents point to the massive population growth expected for cities in the coming decades, with close to three-quarters of the world’s population expected to live in urban areas by 2050. If the human condition is to improve, they argue, it’s essential that cities function well. More on how the supporters made their case is here; more on their arguments is here.

Who opposed the urban SDG?

Working group representatives from a number of countries were initially sceptical of including a goal specific to cities. They argued that other goals, such as ending poverty or providing quality education, applied just as well to cities as to rural areas. Some also feared that including a goal aimed explicitly at urban areas would divert attention and international aid flows away from rural areas.

Sceptical delegations included Great Britain, Croatia, South Korea and the United States. Eventually, however, all joined in the unanimous committee vote that approved the final draft SDGs list, which includes the urban goal.

What does the urban SDG mean for cities?

Some of the impact is political. Despite the increasing importance of cities across much of the world, local authorities often struggle to win the financial resources and legal authority necessary to deal effectively with urban problems. The urban SDG will likely spark conversations in some countries around decentralizing power and providing more taxation authority at city and regional levels.

The urban goal could also raise the profile of cities in the global dialogue, which has long been and remains dominated by the interests of nation states — as in the broader United Nations system. A good example is the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, which in July 2015 discussed how to allocate the expected USD 2.5 trillion in international aid that will be doled out by 2030 to help achieve the Post-2015 Development Agenda. With the urban SDG now on the books, some portion of that development finance will trickle down to cities in order to tackle the urban SDG targets.

What happens next?

The SDGs took effect in January 2016 and run through 2030. However, indicators for the SDG targets remain under debate, part of a process of refinement that will continue through 2030.

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