The Sustainable Development Goals: The United Nations’ Final Frontier

The United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015. These 17 goals, which consist of 169 targets, are the UN’s attempt to address the developmental shortcomings of the world by the year 2030. In contrast to the Millennium Goals of 2000 (completed in 2015), which aimed to eradicate poverty, the SDGs focus on developing economic prosperity, establishing environmental protection, and ensuring social justice – primarily in the developing countries of the world.

Now a year out from their launch, the SDGs have been scrutinized for their effectiveness and methods of implementation. Despite the noble intentions of the SDGs, they fail to provide a comprehensive answer and ultimately struggle to become the very thing they intend to be–a sustainable solution to the world’s most pressing issues.

“No one left behind” is one of the many official slogans that was rolled out with the presentation of the SDGs. Sadly, one of the most glaring faults of the goals is the exclusion of some of the most desperate global communities, particularly migrants and refugees. Despite the estimated 63 million people who were displaced in 2015 alone, not one of the 17 goals explicitly mentions refugees, and only a few targets address displaced migrants. Even in the references to migrants in the targets, the wording is vague (target 10.7, for example, “Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies”). It is clear that the goals collectively work to address the challenges faced by refugees and migrants, like education and human trafficking. It is also true that the goals are working to address the root causes of migration, such as justice, access to labor, economic equality and safety. However, it seems an oversight that the goals do not accurately reflect the scope of the global refugee crisis in today’s world. No longer can the crisis be maintained by refugee agencies who wish to view the problem as a temporary one. The sheer amount of migration – especially into Europe – and the sustained lack of education for refugee children has made this a long-term development problem. Due to the enduring and complex impacts of the global migration crisis, a sustainable solution should be given enhanced emphasis and elevated in priority within the SDG framework.

Refugees are facing unique problems that are in desperate need of individualized and innovative solutions–the lack of education for refugee and migrant children being one. Between countries like Nigeria and Syria, there are well over 10 million children refugees in the care of UNHCR, and the majority of them are not being educated. Millions more reside in refugee camps in places like Jordan and Lebanon that face a variety of cultural and economic barriers to creating educational opportunities. Although SDG #4 aims to “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning” there is no specific target that discusses the complexity of attaining education for refugees and migrants within camps. This presents perhaps the greatest obstacle to a sustainable world. How can countries facing war and conflict expect to develop any lasting solutions if a large percentage of their populous is uneducated? What incentives do host countries have to accept uneducated citizens into their labor force? These oversights, show that the scope of the SDGs is simply too big to effectively “leave no one behind.” This oversight may be symptomatic of the UN’s recurring sovereignty-induced paralysis, or worse, an inclination to resist laying blame on the states producing the migrants. Even in the pursuit of diplomacy, the UN must be willing to recognize the most desperate sector of the world’s population and be intentional about including them in its most prominent and public agenda.

“We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere.” Phrases like these in the SDG preamble accurately embody the overly ambitious nature of the goals. In July 2016, a special report was published revealing the dismal outlook of the completion of the goals. Among a variety of things, it showed that many of the goals lack the necessary data needed to implement realistic solutions. The UN has one small statistics department and thus must rely on partnership with countries around the world to gather statistics. Many developing countries lack the necessary resources and infrastructure to accurately measure problems and solutions. With the proven evidence that better decision making comes from access to information, it is clear that this is a problem. Beyond more sustainable and targeted solutions, access to information provides raw data and evidence that can better persuade donors and critics. Small capacity for data collection is among the many infrastructural issues of implementation.

Other obvious and recurring roadblocks include a general lack of funding and the enforcement capacity of the UN. While the UN has never been able to effectively force any country to do anything–they have the capability to make implementation of the goals a more appealing idea. It is certain that many countries would like to solve hunger, poverty and violence in their country in a sustainable way. But if they are presented with the idealistic and generalized goals of the SDGs today, it would be easy to doubt the possibility of accomplishing anything.

A possible solution to this is altering the SDGs from a catch-all solution to a national, regional and global indicator list to better personalize the goals to individual countries. Governments may respond better to the specific task of addressing the greatest need in their own country– rather than being asked to solve an overwhelming global issue (“decrease hunger in Burundi by 50 percent” instead of “help us eradicate global hunger”). Frankly, in an increasingly isolationist world, this individualized approach may become the most effective way to motivate governments to implement solutions that eventually address the global shortcomings highlighted by the SDGs.

There is value in stepping back and seeing the SDGs for what they are: a well-intentioned attempt to create a narrative around the world’s biggest problems through global cooperation. The awareness campaign of the SDGs is perhaps the UN’s biggest success. The SDGs are emerging in one of the most interconnected and technologically capable times the world has ever seen. There is a greater possibility for the spread of ideas, global discussion and awareness than there was with the MDGs. But is a colorful and shiny campaign enough to aid in the enforcement or implementation of the goals? The push to bring the SDGs to attention by the UN creates the glaring question: who is the ultimate champion of these causes?

The groundwork cannot be done from an office in New York City. Creating jobs, educating about clean water, giving dignity to the poor, making the lives of migrants easier–these are things that will ultimately be accomplished by dedicated governments, NGOs and individuals. Even the social media campaign must become more targeted. These solutions must be taught and understood by the people who need them: developing countries (many of which do not possess a Twitter). After a certain amount of advertising by the UN, the true changemakers must step forward and take responsibility for the creation of sustainable development. This ownership will be especially important in the next year as the SDGs have the potential to be overshadowed by the pomp and circumstance of the appointment of a new secretary-general.

However, perhaps with a new leader in place, especially one that has the opportunity to bring a fresh vision and revitalization to the UN, it is possible that countries will be more willing to address the concerns illuminated by the SDGs. Additionally, because of his extensive experience in humanitarian affairs, the newly appointed António Guterres has the potential to expand the reach of the SDGs to include refugees and forcibly displaced migrants. It is a positive sign that Guterres has already gone on record saying that addressing the needs of refugees and those in conflict zones will be a key priority of his term.

The United Nations has long struggled with maintaining its reputation as an effective and cooperative institution. Proponents argue that wide-reaching, unenforceable goals are better than no goals at all and that they could be aiming for the completion of a few goals in the pursuit of many–a sort of “shoot for the moon” approach. However, the likely failure of the SDGs to fulfill the entirety of their aspirations would further damage the image of the UN, something that could make the entire institution obsolete. In an institution that is lacking clear leadership and positive rhetoric, the SDGs may be a last attempt at proving the effectiveness and reach of the UN. Therefore, they must succeed.

The continuing bureaucratic failure of the institution is devastating to world diplomacy in an age riddled with the effects of mass migration, climate change and globalization. The UN must be critiqued, not out of cynicism, but with the hope of reform for sake of ourselves and of future generations. The world wants and craves a successful United Nations that has the capacity to face the unique challenges of this intricate and fragile world. It is not enough to wait until harm is done to address the shortcomings of the UN just as it has never been effective to combat inefficiency and bureaucratic red tape with complacency. The public has the vital responsibility of holding their governments accountable to supporting and improving the UN through the allocation of funds, commitment of bodies for peace-keeping troops, or proven dedication to implementing the SDGs in their respective countries. There certainly can be a balance between holding the United Nations to a higher standard and understanding its limitations. It is vital to exhibit belief in the power of an international institution that has the best interests of humanity in mind–but it must show us that it is an institution worth believing in.  

About the Author

Rosalyn Kutsch
Rosalyn Kutsch (FCRH '19) is an international political economy major and Spanish minor in the College Honors Program. On campus Rosalyn competes with Model United Nations; serves as a social justice leader with the Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice; and competes on the Women's Varsity Rowing Team. Rosalyn is from Bozeman, Montana and enjoys hiking, skiing and traveling in her free time. Contact Rosalyn at rkutsch@fordham.edu.