The quest for sustainable development for all

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, November 16th, 2017


At the Millennium Summit in 2000, the global community – the heads of Governments from193 countries – committed to achieve sustainable changes on a massive scale for millions of people across the world and  identified the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met by 2015. It is heartening to mention that since their adoption, the MDGs have played a key role in lifting more than one billion people from extreme poverty, reducing the number of people suffering chronic hunger, preventable death and illness, and enabling more girls and boys to attend school than ever before. But, humanity continues to face an overwhelming array of challenges from rising inequalities and entrenched poverty to stubborn conflicts, contagious diseases, climate change and rapid environmental degradation. Against this backdrop, in September 2015, UN Member States unanimously adopted another ambitious new development agenda, “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda 2030)” establishing 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by all countries and stakeholders by 2030 to build a better future. This UNDP publication attempts to shed light on how in practice, the SDGs can best be applied to this end. It draws from the lessons in over 50 recent National MDG Reports, produced by governments and stakeholders directly involved in the MDGs, and in many cases –transitioning to the SDGs.


The Report is divided into four main sections. The first section reflects on MDG achievements and shortcomings, highlighting evidence that they made a difference and pointing to the unfinished business they left behind. The MDGs were the world’s first global agenda designed to strength human development forward on multiple fronts: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases and ensuring environmental sustainability. Global statistics reveal two decades of significant progress in all MDG areas. The world met and exceeded its first MDG target, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by more than half, from 1.9 billion people in 1990 to 836 million in 2012. The world also met its education target, reducing the number of out-of-school children of primary school age from 100 million in 2000 to 57 million in 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa made the largest jump, achieving a 20 percent rise in net enrolment. In developing countries, the number of under five child-deaths declined from around 13 million in 1990 to 6 million in 2015. But, despite these gains, MDG achievement was uneven across regions and countries. The sub-Saharan African region as a whole for example, fell short of the poverty target. In many places, progress was not sustainable or equitable enough to achieve targets; in others progress stalled or reversed due to disasters, conflict, environmental degradation, climatic and/or economic volatility. Of the 700 million people who continue to live in extreme poverty, many suffer from malnutrition, preventable illnesses and exclusion due to their income, gender, residence, linguistic group, religion, disability or some other trait.


The second section elaborates the lessons that made the MDGs an increasingly effective driver of positive outcomes. Lessons are organized around the four operational elements of MDG implementation: i) advocating and communicating the MDGs; ii) adapting and localizing the MDGs; iii) delivering and accelerating the MDGs; and iv) monitoring and reporting on the MDGs. Most of the lessons and examples in this section are drawn from 55 National MDG Progress Reports produced by governments, in consultation with MDG stakeholders, between 2013 and 2015. Achieving the MDGs was fundamentally tied to achieving greater political space and voice for people affected by poverty and marginalization. A defining achievement of the MDGs is their integration in the national development plans of countries around the world. By 2015, over 80 percent of UNDP’s 140 programme countries had incorporated at least a subset of the MDGs within their national development plans. Drawing on this, the third section presents the MDG Lessons for SDGs. The SDGs differ fundamentally from their MDGs predecessor. They are set apart by their universal reach, which obligates all governments to solve problems at home and do all they can to overcome the challenges that face us all. The SDGs recognize that all responsible – in government, civil society, development agencies and the private sector – must necessarily play a role, if we are to overcome urgent environmental, social and economic challenges. Evidence, including in this Report, suggests the MDGs drove local progress in at least four ways: 1) Persuading and empowering decision makers to pursue progressive policies; 2) Making local challenges more visible; 3) Enabling stakeholders to hold leaders accountable; and 4) Motivating greater coordination and coherence. The world took a collective leap forward under the MDGs. Countries made progress through innovation and learning in social protection, workfare, stimulating growth, empowering women, curbing infectious disease and restoring biodiversity, among other outcomes. However, much of the work of applying the resulting lessons and investing in proven solutions remains. The new and growing challenges and opportunities that have emerged since the year 2000 must inform and guide SDG implementation, alongside lessons from MDG practice. They include: growing inequalities, environmental destruction and climate change, demographic transitions, science, technology and innovation and migration.


The final section of the Report offers ten specific recommendations for SDG implementation, following the evidence and analysis of previous three sections. They are: 1) Acting early to leave no one behind – The SDGs commit all countries to “leaving no one behind”, enabling all people to participate in and benefit from globalization and development. 2) Setting targets that reflect people’s priorities for the future – As committed in Agenda 2030, all countries should establish their own SDG targets reflecting their particular context and priorities, while stretching ambitions to achieve globally agreed economic, environmental and social goals.


3) Empowering local change agents – This opportunity requires national and local change agents in government, civil society and the private sectors to be the driver’s seat. 4) Inviting broad engagement – The MDG experience tells us that engagement is effective when people understand they are being listened to and can make meaningful contributions; where people trust that they have a say in decisions and are able to hold leaders to account. 5) Realizing sub-national strategies – Sub-national-level strategies are a powerful tool to enable and motivate effective local and central government action to achieve Global Goals. 6) Pursuing “big picture” opportunities – The SDGs are “integrated and indivisible”; the success of one leads to the success of others. A country’s ability to combat hunger, for example, is directly linked to its infrastructure, land-tenure, healthcare and capacity to manage natural resources and mitigate disasters. 7) Prioritizing policy accelerators – Prioritization does not imply bypassing relevant SDG targets but rather identifying specific areas that can serve as an entry point for the transformational change sustainable development demands. 8) Strengthening adaptive capacities – The search for the “right” policies is a continuous process of trial and error that involves everyone. 9) Building a big tent – Solutions to real-life problems generally lie outside the boundaries of individual ministries, tightly focused initiatives or disciplines. Global Goals can be a powerful way to rally and convince diverse actors to work together to solve problems they care about. 10) Using SDG reporting to engage all of society – Meaningful public engagement and accountability requires a common understanding of what to expect and demand from the public and private sectors.  Rules, regulations and mechanisms should require governments to make their actions to deliver SDG services and policies transparent, justify their actions, respond to feedback and act upon requests. Civil society and academic institutions can similarly map their contributions, identify priority areas for action and assign leads based on respective strengths and expertise.


The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail:

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