Sustainable Development Goals: a universal agenda for a sustainable future

Earlier, last month, a historic moment took place:
world leaders at the UN summit adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This new agenda consists of 17 goals that are the successors of the Millennium
Development Goals and have to tackle poverty, inequality and climate change. The
slogan of the new agenda: ‘leave no-one behind’. Whereas the MDGs were mostly
about ending poverty in developing countries, the SDGs comprise an agenda for
everyone: rich and poor. In the formulation of the goals, a large consultation
process took place to ensure that everyone could give input about what is
important according to them. As a result, the Sustainable Development Goals
cover a wide range of topics. They do not only aim to fully eradicate poverty
and achieve gender equality by 2030, but also to battle climate change and work
towards peaceful societies. Quite an ambitious agenda, you could say. No wonder
that the opinions about it vary a lot. Whereas some people are concerned that this universal agenda will
not be able to include the most marginalized groups and fragile countries, others
think that 17 goals (with 169 targets) are too many or are skeptical about the
practical implementation of the goals and how this will be monitored.

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goals for everyone?

The Sustainable Development Goals are also
called the global goals, in order to make them more easily understandable for
the general public. And I think this is a good name; these goals are global and
universal; it’s not about how to develop underdeveloped countries, but it’s
about how all countries can move towards a more sustainable future together. Even
‘developed’ countries face issues like inequality, social unrest or climate
change.  In this new agenda, an explicit
link is made between poverty, inequality and climate change. Every government
has to look at its own policies and see how these impact the development not
only of their own country, but also of other countries, for example in the
context of (arms) trade, food production and tax regulations. These links are
very complicated and it is not surprising that some people are critical about
the large agenda that the SDGs comprise. How can every country work on 17 goals
and 169 targets? Some people warn that there is a risk that countries only focus
on the goals that are easy to achieve. However, I think that the goals are
formulated on a global level, but on country level some goals might make more
sense than others. The ambassador of Somalia at the UN, for example, already mentioned
that in his country, the priorities are the goals about gender equality, economic
growth and hunger, even though for example climate change could have a big
impact on the country as well. Furthermore, I think it’s good that the SDG
agenda is so broad, because it shows the complexity and scale of the challenges
that the world faces today. Since it’s hard for every country to focus on so
many goals, it could actually help for governments to work together in order to
achieve these goals. The great thing is that this is even a goal in itself!
Goal 17 is to; ‘strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the
global partnership for sustainable development’.

will these goals be implemented?

There are no legal mechanisms that can
force countries to implement the agenda, although the high presence of world
leaders at the UN summit showed that these new goals are taken seriously. But
it still depends on the political will of individual countries and how much
money they will make available for these goals. The question is if northern
countries will see the SDG agenda just as a way to shape their foreign policies
and development policies, or if they will also be serious about implementing
these goals in their own country. In this, it is also important that people in
the countries themselves are aware of the goals and see its importance, not
just for developing countries, but for every single country in the world. For
example, an interesting study
found that people in the Netherlands are supportive of development aid, but
mostly in the ‘traditional’ sense, for example by contributing to education or
health care. However, not many people see links between poverty and global
issues like climate change or international security.

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action in the Netherlands

These days, sustainability is a hot topic
in the Netherlands, many people are more and more conscious about the food they
eat and the resources they use. Sharing economy, local organic food and fair
trade are all trending. People want to actively contribute to a better world,
which could also be seen during the actions that were taken to welcome refugees
into countries all over Europe. I think the public attention to these topics is
very important, and we should try to use it to show the underlying factors of
these issues and their links to inequality and poverty around the world. When I
tell people that I study Sustainable Development and that I’m working on women,
peace and security, it often feels like it’s hard to explain and that it’s
something that is far away for most people I know. But by showing the links
between issues here and what is happening on the other side of the world, it
might be possible to make people a bit more aware about it and take action.
This action can take shape through adopting a more sustainable and conscious
lifestyle, but also by pressuring governments or companies to do the same. A
great example is the court
case on climate change
that took place in the Netherlands. A large group of
people and Urgenda, a civil society organization, went to court against the
government, to ensure that they would reduce CO2 emissions by 25%. They won the
case, but the government is going in appeal against the decision now. This case
shows two things: first of all; if people are aware of issues like inequality,
poverty and sustainability, they can take action and even pressure their
governments to do this. Second of all, it shows that this is still very much
necessary. If the Dutch government takes the Sustainable Development Goals
seriously, it’s not more than logical that they take action towards more
sustainable production of energy, battle climate change and many other issues
like gender equality and sustainable food production. And to do this, it is
important that many people are aware of these global goals and their necessity.
Not just in other, far-away countries, but in our daily lives in the
Netherlands as well.      

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Anna Gorter

Anna is working with the Women, Peace & Security(WPS) team at Oxfam Novib. A Masters student at Utrecht University,her ability to bring people together and put together events along with her passion on WPS will leave you inspired. If you need an energy boost from your afternoon dip, make sure to bump into her in room A.0.13 (or at


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