This weekend the UN sustainable development goals will be agreed upon at a summit in New York. Asghar Zaidi explains how the new goals aim to cover a much broader range of issues and be more widely applicable than those they are replacing

At the end of one of the largest summits at the United Nations headquarters in New York, government representatives from all over the world will sign a commitment to new global development goals. These will replace the millennium development goals, setting objectives for bringing peace and prosperity, and reducing the impact of climate change.

UN member states have agreed on a list of 17 broad goals and 169 more specific targets. These goals are not legally binding but they will be important. They are aimed at eradicating hunger and poverty, while at the same time promoting peace, prosperity, health and education and combating climate change.

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) come into effect at the end of 2015, following the completion of the millennium development goals (MDGs), and cover the period 2016-2030. Unlike the MDGs, which were aimed largely at poorer countries, the SDGs are designed to be universal. The idea is to involve the whole world in taking responsibility for development.

It is therefore not surprising which countries are predicted to meet the goals first. Sweden, according to one report, will lead the pack, while Norway, Denmark, Finland and Switzerland are likely to be close behind.

Different from millennium development goals?

The SDGs follow the tradition of the MDGs, which arose as a product of the consensus built in the United Nations during the 1990s. However, they cover a much broader range of issues. The millennium goals only covered “safe” themes such as poverty, primary education and child mortality. The SDGs weigh in on more meaty topics, such as governance, institutions, human rights, inequality, ageing, peace and climate change.

This is thanks to the huge number of people who contributed their views on what the goals should be through massive consultations. Not only governments but also charities have been involved this time around. In total, more than seven million people have given their views.

“The idea is to involve the whole world in taking responsibility for development.”

So, thanks to contributions from organisations such as HelpAge International for example, older people are now explicitly mentioned in the 12 of the 17 goals. And, in a number of targets, there is a broader commitment that “all indicators should be disaggregated by sex, age, residence (urban/rural) and other characteristics, as relevant and possible”. However, they could do more to break the information down by specific age groups.

Behind the pledges are two broad ideals: “no one will be left behind” and the aim “to reach the furthest behind first’. This implies that every individual in the world will benefit from the rights and opportunities on offer and that the most vulnerable will get the highest priority in the human development agenda.

These commitments could not come at a more opportune time – nor the idea that no goal is met unless it is met for everyone. Billions of people around the world continue to live in poverty, in societies where inequalities are rising. And it’s clear that people on the margins – children, the elderly and disabled people – are being affected most seriously by global health threats, natural disasters, conflict and violence.

That said, not everyone agrees with the goals. Medical journal The Lancet, for example, describes them as “fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucrats of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure”. And of course, there will be questions about how effective they will be.

How will we measure progress?

The SDGs and their targets will be followed-up and reviewed systematically using a set of global, largely quantitative, indicators. These will be developed by the specially convened Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators and agreed subsequently by the UN Statistical Commission as well as the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly. Each nation and region will also develop its own indicators.

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Most importantly, the statistical work required at the outset will include specific information on the baselines for those targets and for many countries the baseline data does not yet exist.

The development of this indicator framework will be difficult. It must address all the SDGs and all the targets but it must also be pragmatic about how they will be implemented by national authorities. The pledge to leave no-one behind would imply the need for more data and information on different social groups, and in many countries the existing statistics are currently not suitable for this purpose.

The SDGs give us an unparalleled opportunity to shape the international and national development agenda that will have people and their prosperity at their core. The hard work of ensuring that the SDGs are implemented and deliver on their commitments will test our commitment to ending the most serious problems we face today.

First published by The Conversation

Photo credit: © UN Photo/Amanda Voisard