When the Sustainable Development Goal Declaration is agreed by heads of state at the United Nations next week, there will be cheers—and jeers. The jeers will come from people who see a long list of lofty goals and no practical path to achieving them; and from those who see little connection between the pontificating of, well, the pontiff and other eminences at global gatherings and people struggling with the harsh realities of daily life around the world.
But I, for one, will be cheering. Here’s why.
The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals are messy and complicated, and they clearly embody the many compromises needed to reach agreement. They’re also pretty darn inspirational. If we push past cynicism, doesn’t it seem like a pretty good idea to work collectively for the end of hunger and extreme poverty, for equality and empowerment, for kids learning in school and living until a ripe old age, for decent work, peace, and a real balance between human consumption and environmental protection? And isn’t it an even better idea for the global community to work simultaneously on multiple, intertwined problems than on a few narrowly focused ones, and to intentionally integrate economic, environmental, and social concerns? Sure, it’s messy. Life is messy.
The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (Image credit: The United Nations)
Another reason I’ll be cheering the goals is that they aspire to be universal, to apply in some form as much to the future of my children as to the future of children in every country around the world. While the development community has often dominated the discussion, the goals haven’t lost the critical thread of “this applies to all of us.” That thread is something that can serve as the point of departure for contemporary models of social change, which are not about people from wealthy countries who have the know-how and the resources to help those from poorer ones, but rather about people facing common problems with shared purpose, together.
The goals have merit because the process that generated them was more inclusive by orders of magnitude than similar exercises in the past. The national and thematic consultations, opinion surveys, opportunities for feedback, and many other efforts amplified the voices of people who have rarely been heard before in the halls of the United Nations. And because of this, everyone is accountable. No one can say “these aren’t our goals.”
The goals also focus attention in a useful way on how to conceptualize and measure complex concepts: quality education and learning, sustainable cities, justice and strong institutions, among others. And there’s a broadly shared expectation that monitoring of progress across and within countries will be just part of a larger effort in which people with a broad set of skills and passions join forces to use the power of data—a mash-up of traditional and novel sources—to accelerate progress.
All of these reasons make the goals worth cheering. But I’ll also be cheering because once they’re agreed, we can put the goal-setting process behind us, and get to work.