At the end of 2013, however, the UN announced that the SDGs, under preparation by the OWG, would be used to replace the MDGs.
There would be only one set of goals, and the post-2015 agenda would be a sustainable development agenda.
The high-level panel suggested twelve “illustrative goals and targets” as possible replacements for the MDGs, and recommended putting “sustainable development at the core” of the post-2015 agenda.
This signalled a decisive shift in the official discourse on the MDG-replacements from the idea of ‘human development,’ which had inspired the MDGs, to that of ‘sustainable development’ (the most influential conceptualization of which is articulated in the Brundtland Commission’s Report of 1987 as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”).
Is the UN’s confidence in the merits of its new agenda defensible?
Do the SDGs indeed represent a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision”?The distinction between the two concepts is noteworthy.While poverty-reduction is central to both human development and sustainable development, and while both view economic growth as a means rather than an end of development – thereby providing an alternative to mainstream, economistic perspectives that tend to treat economic growth synonymously with development – sustainable development places emphasis on meeting the needs of future generations by preserving the earth’s natural systems.The Journey to Agenda 2030 – From ‘human development’ to ‘sustainable development’ The origins of the MDGs lie in a series of UN summits and conferences held during the 1990s, on topics such as nutrition, gender quality, and childhood health.Drawing on targets set at these conferences, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) articulated a set of ‘international development goals’ in 1996, which, in turn, formed the basis of the MDGs. Following the adoption of the UN Millennium Declaration, a group of high level experts was convened to formulate the MDGs, and the goals were presented as an annex to a report from the Secretary General to the UN General Assembly (UNGA).In the 1990s, as Fukuda-Parr and Hulme point out, international development specialists were bitterly divided over the merits of structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus, with the World Bank and IMF pitted against NGOs, “with the UN caught in the middle” (2011: 24).A less stealthy approach might have led to stiff, even debilitating resistance from the international financial institutions and powerful developed country governments.The new goals are designed to build on the MDGs and “complete what they did not achieve.” But while there were only eight MDGs, the SDGs are 17 in number, with 169 associated targets, and 304 proposed indicators. The governments that have signed on, however, are clearly pleased with themselves.This dramatic jump in goals and targets from the MDGs to SDGs has provoked criticism, even ridicule. “On behalf of the peoples we serve, we have adopted a historic decision on a comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centered set of universal and transformative goals and targets,” their resolution states.In this essay, I provide an assessment of the SDGs by posing and answering five questions relating to their scope, depth, and ambition.I start, however, with a brief note on the process through which the SDGs were created and the conceptual shift, from ‘human development’ to ‘sustainable development,’ that they represent.