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The Sustainable Development Goals Need a Can-Do Attitude

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Leadership & Transparency
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By Teresa Fogelberg Global Reporting Initiative

The new UN Sustainable Development Goals are here and I’ve got a message for all the people who say they can’t be achieved. It’s time to renew your faith in humanity and help us get on with the tasks at hand.

You see, I still believe that we are capable of doing great things.

What are the SDGs?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed upon by all 193 UN member states, set the global development agenda from now until 2030. The 17 goals and 169 specific targets cover the most pressing challenges facing all people, the private sector and the planet, including poverty, gender inequality, clean energy, sustainable production and climate change. The goals are lofty and laudable. There can be no doubt that if we achieve them, the world will be a much better place for everyone to live.

“The Stupid Development Goals”
Long before they had even been agreed upon, the skeptics and the critics were already arguing that the SDGs would be dead on arrival. Earlier this year, a popular economics magazine called them the Stupid Development Goals. And just last week, a post here on Triple Pundit posits the question “Are the UN Sustainable Development Goals Doomed?” and then proceeds to lay out a number of cynical arguments for why the question is answerable only in the affirmative.

Some of the critiques lobbed against the SDGs are legitimate and we shouldn’t assume that now that the goals have been agreed upon the work ends there. The success of the SDGs relies heavily on action and collaboration by all actors: business, governments, civil society organizations and citizens. But this fact doesn’t mean that every objection to the SDGs is valid. Nor does it mean that we should throw our hands up and say that nothing can be done to improve the lives of millions of people across our planet.

Here are two of the most common indictments against the SDGs and why I think they miss the mark.

The goals are wildly unrealistic
Perhaps the most prevalent charge hurled by detractors is the claim that the SDGs are grandiose and wildly unrealistic. Already at goal one, which calls for an end to poverty in all forms everywhere, the skeptics roll their eyes and declare that the goals are far too ambitious and are therefore unobtainable. These same people gripe that gender inequality is an intractable problem and that switching to cleaner sources of energy will leave the global economy hamstrung. And some of these same nay-sayers complain that nothing can be done to address climate change.

How do I respond to these challenges? I ask the critics questions like the following:


  • Do we believe that a person born in poverty should have to live that way for the rest of his life?

  • Do we accept that women can be denied equal access to education and economic opportunity?

  • Are we really incapable of developing cleaner sources of energy or teaching ourselves to produce goods without destroying the environment?

  • Have we abandoned the ingenuity and creativity that’s always been the hallmark of mankind?

  • Is there a point to having global development goals if they aren’t ambitious?

I submit to you that the answer to these questions must be a resounding no. The alternative is accepting the notion that the world we currently live in is as good as it gets. That’s not something I’m willing to do.

Business will never buy into the SDGs
There’s another group of critics out there who say the SDGs can never be achieved because business can’t or won’t work towards the goals in good faith. Some say doing so would be too costly. Others claim that the private sector cannot translate this type of soaring, aspirational rhetoric into practical action. Still others have erroneously claimed that the SDGs do not take corporations into account and therefore nothing will change.

Now this last accusation is false. The private sector has been involved in the creation of the SDGs from the beginning and the goals recognize the important role that businesses must play in order to achieve them. Additionally, SDG target 12.6 asks all UN member states to develop policy to encourage companies to make sustainability reporting part of their reporting cycles, an explicit acknowledgement that corporations must play a role. In this respect the SDGs leap forward from the Millennium Development Goals, which they now replace.

That having been said, I can’t deny the truth of the claim that businesses can find it challenging to convert international principles into practical action. Enabling business action on the SDGs is exactly what we plan to do at GRI.

To help, we’ve co-created the SDG Compass with the UN Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The SDG Compass is a guide that businesses can use to align their strategies with the relevant SDGs and measure and manage their impacts.

Also, working in collaboration with Tata Consultancy Services, we just upgraded our Sustainability Disclosure Database, which now houses the UN Sustainable Development Goal Target 12.6 – Live Tracker. In order for governments to develop initiatives to increase sustainability reporting, they first need to understand the current state of play within their respective jurisdictions. The SDG Target 12.6 - Live Tracker will provide an overview of sustainability policies and reporting practices by companies around the world. This will enable smart policy and drive the innovation needed to achieve the SDGs.

Sitting here now, I can’t say for sure whether, 15 years from now, the new UN Sustainable Development Goals will be achieved or not. But I do know that we ignore these urgent issues at our own peril and I am hopeful that mankind is industrious enough find solutions.

Teresa Fogelberg is GRI’s Deputy Chief Executive and heads the Government Relations, International Organizations, Development and Advocacy Team, which works to enable smart policy on sustainability around the world.

Image credit: United Nations screenshot 

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