Can the UN’s New Goals Really Change the World?

There’s good news and bad news about the ambitious Sustainable Development Agenda that world leaders adopted Sept. 25 at the United Nations. The 17 goals and 169 targets of the new agenda create social, environmental and economic priorities to achieve well-being for the planet and everybody on it.

First, the good news. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are more ambitious than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, which hoped only that poor countries would make small advances in social standards. The SDGs “are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike.” This universality is a major step forward. The SDGs might also have global buy-in because they arose through a largely transparent intergovernmental process and are applicable to all countries regardless of income or development levels.

Gender equality was affirmed both as a stand-alone goal and as a principle cutting across all aspects of sustainable development. The Political Declaration recognizes critical international agreements on women and urges countries to address the needs of young people, seniors, migrants, indigenous peoples and people with disabilities, as well as those living with HIV/AIDS. It recognizes the importance of access to free, equitable and quality education, as well as to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and information, and it upholds reproductive rights.

These are all hard-fought gains for women’s and social justice movements, won over two long years of negotiations.

Now, the bad news. “Recognizing” and “reaffirming” are simply not enough. This language does not reflect the gravity of the situation. Last-minutes changes replaced the word “fulfill” with “promote” for human rights and other needs, which does not inspire confidence.

Worse yet, the voices of the marginalized were lost, as in the battle to ensure an end to violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

More ominously, the earlier Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa largely failed to meet expectations: no reform of global lending; no global tax cooperation body; no curbs on illicit financial flows; no accountability mechanisms for corporations’ rights violations; and no redistribution of power in international financial institutions. And no guarantee of enough funding to fully achieve the SDGs. Without financial commitment, how can the SDGs actually amount to much?

Getting developed countries to commit to development assistance is no longer enough. These countries must re-assess economic models and trade rules that make inequalities worse and create unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Capacity-building and a process for transferring environmentally sound technologies to developing countries should be key principles, not optional.

Women’s human rights, feminists and youth groups must be included in planning, implementing and monitoring the new Sustainable Development Agenda; governments will need their help and expertise to make it a reality.

In short, the ambitious commitments of the SDGs will be just another set of empty promises if member states do not tackle them with real political will and the necessary financing. The hardest work is just beginning.

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Marisa Viana is executive director of RESURJ, a global alliance of feminists under 40.