UN plans ambitious goals for world’s future

Goal keepers: UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon poses with ambassadors in Ireland © UN

2015 is a critical year for international development, as the UN meets in September to approve sustainable goals for the future. Is its utopian vision setting the world up for failure?

Imagine a world without poverty; where gender equality has been achieved; everyone has access to ‘full and productive employment’; urgent action has been taken to halt climate change; all societies are ‘peaceful and inclusive’. This is the vision described by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed by the United Nations, and it could define the world’s development policies for the next 15 years.

The world has come a long way since a small team drafted a list of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the basement of the UN headquarters. Fifteen years ago, they were written with a ‘relative casualness’ — so much so that the head of the UN’s development programme forgot to include a sustainability goal until he passed the head of the UN’s environmental programme in the corridor.

But as the MDGs approach their expiration date, the process to draft their replacement has been far more thorough. The proposed SDGs have been written by a working group with representatives from 70 countries, alongside a series of ‘global conversations’ with governments and businesses, and an online survey which asked 7m people to prioritise the areas that mattered to them most.

The result is a list of 17 goals which address everything from ending hunger to conserving the oceans. This time around, they represent universal aims for every country to work towards, instead of just the poorest.

In July, a financial summit in Addis Ababa agreed over 100 economic measures to support the development goals for the next 15 years. World leaders will agree on the exact wording of these goals, and the 169 targets which accompany them, at a conference from 25-27 September this year.

Some leaders, including the UK’s prime minister David Cameron, have already criticised the SDGs for being too complex. 17 is ‘too many to communicate effectively,’ he has argued. ‘There’s a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust.’

On target

Many are sceptical of the utopian vision outlined by the SDGs. A peaceful world without inequality or hunger sounds wonderful, but it is impossible to achieve in just 15 years. Such unrealistic targets will set the world up for failure, and no one will take the project seriously. There are 1bn people still living in extreme poverty who deserve better.

But others argue that this ambition is the very thing which will bring about the SDGs’ success. Even if the goals are not fully achieved in the timeframe, it is better to aim high and make progress than not to try at all. The idealistic world painted by the SDGs offers hope to the most vulnerable people, and a uniting vision for those who are most capable of creating change.

You Decide

  1. Is the UN’s plan too ambitious?
  2. What is the most important problem to be solved in the next 15 years?


  1. Stage a mock UN in your classroom, and try to agree on your own list of Sustainable Development Goals for the future. Can you think of any actions that countries can take to achieve them?
  2. Choose one of the 17 proposed SDGs and create a presentation exploring why it is important and what needs to happen next.

Some People Say...

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Mahatma Gandhi

What do you think?

Q & A

Will there be many changes to the goals in September?
There are sure to be some, but it’s unlikely that there will be too many major changes. Some, like David Cameron, will push for a shorter list of goals, but others will only want to tinker with the details. There is definitely more work to be done; at the moment, some targets still aim for achievements of ‘x%’ by 2030.
Will they really make a difference?
Whatever the final goals, they are more than just a humanitarian wish list — millions of pounds will be invested in helping to achieve them, whether that be through public taxes or charity donations. That is why so many different organisations have fought to make sure that their cause — whether it is gender equality or forest conservation — has been represented.

Word Watch

Climate change
Once the SDGs are agreed, there will be a critical summit on climate change in Paris in December. From Pope Francis to Stephen Hawking, a growing number argue that climate change is humanity’s greatest threat.
Millennium Development Goals
Broadly, the world has made progress on the eight MDGs — most significantly, it reached the goal of halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. Other targets have been missed by a wide margin.
Online survey
It was almost universally agreed that ‘a good education’ is the number one development priority. Other areas were mixed: most countries ranked ‘better healthcare’ as second or third, except for those with the highest Human Development Index (a way of measuring standards of living).
Addis Ababa
The Addis Ababa Action Agenda argues that countries should have responsibility for their own development, but the international community must also work together. Rough calculations currently predict that eradicating poverty would cost $66bn a year, and improving infrastructure could cost up to $7tn (about 10% of world GDP).

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