The United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are failing (2023)

The promotion of development has been on the agenda of the United Nations for decades. Referring to the Charter of the United Nations, whichexpress determinationto “promote social progress and higher standards of living with greater freedom”, the General Assembly adopted numerous resolutions focused on development and directing the organization to promote higher standards of living and other development-related goals highlighted in Article 55 of the Charter.

This has resulted in a profusion of organizations, funds, programmes, offices and other entities in the UN system that include development in their mandates and activities. HeUN Sustainable Development Group, which includes 37 separate entities, “guides, supports, tracks and oversees the coordination of development operations in 162 countries and territories”. Funding for United Nations development activities in these countries and territories totaledmore than $38 billionem 2019.

With all these entities and resources, one would think that the UN system would have a major development impact. Unfortunately this was not the case. A 2011 study assessing best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked UN development agencies among the worst and least effective. In fact, the studyconcluded, “We rank donor agencies from best to worst in terms of aid practices… The biggest difference is between UN agencies, which are mostly in the bottom half of donors, and everyone else.”

One of the reasons for this inefficiency is that much of the funds are consumed internally in salaries and staff costs and associated operating expenses. According to the assessment cited above, “bilateral agencies have lower overall costs than multilaterals, which in turn have lower cost rates than UN agencies. The most extreme of the latter are UNDP and UNFPA, which actually spend more on administrative costs than on aid disbursements (129% and 125%, respectively)”.

The UN penchant for high indirect costs has continued since the document was published. For example, the United Nations Regional Economic Commission for Africa allocated almost all of its regular budget to staff, travel, operating expenses, furniture and similar expenses in 2021, while dedicating less than 1% to“subsidies and other contributions”.The other four regional economic commissions for Asia, Europe, Latin America and West Asia have similar cost structures.

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Other UN entities also spend a large part of their budgets on staff and overheads. For example, UNESCO programs represented only a littlemore than 50 percentyour integrated budget. However, even the small portion of the budget allocated to programs, projects and activities is subject to mismanagement in UN organizations,as shownfor the recent revelation of financial mismanagement at the United Nations Office for Project Services.

The UN's development efforts can also charitably be characterized as mixed. A less charitable characterization is that they are unfocused, ineffective, and often at odds. Over the years, this unsatisfactory reality has led to frequent attempts to impose order and strategic vision on the UN system.

More recently, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterresadmitted, “[We all know that the system is not working to its full potential. We are held back by a lack of coordination and accountability for system-wide activities. … We need to change to secure the promise of sustainable development, human rights and peace for our grandchildren.” Heproposed changesto adapt the "UN development system to the purpose, opportunities and challenges presented by the 2030 Agenda". Chief among these efforts was strengthening the authority of UN resident coordinators over UN country teams to coordinate their development work. This recommendation has appeared in various UN resolutions and documents over the decades and has alwaysresistance facedinside the system:

Problems persist, such as resistance from larger UN entities to coordination. The UN's fragmented system of specialized agencies and semi-independent programs gives considerable autonomy to heads of organizations and limits decision-making by the Secretary-General. This favored institutional resistance. It also prohibited the streamlining of the more than 1,500 regional and national representative offices of the UN development system, a herculean task at best. While it may be too early to conclude, the German Institute for Development's observation that reform so far has not delivered much momentum to achieve better outcomes for the 2030 Agenda is cause for concern.

While poor coordination and inflated overhead costs are worrisome, there is a more fundamental problem with the United Nations development agenda, namely that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in the words of the development economistGuilherme do Leste, "absurd, dreamy and confused." Better coordination and greater efficiency cannot overcome a flawed approach.

(Video) Red Alert - How to meet the Sustainable Development Goals together | SDG Moment | United Nations

The success of the MDGs?

With much fanfare, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 as a successor to the expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs were the detailed roadmap to meet theUN Millennium Declaration, adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000, which reaffirmed the principles outlined in the Charter of the United Nations and expressed the intention to ensure that economic development and globalization were largely beneficial. Heresulting eight goals, 21 MDG targets and 60 indicators were mostly aligned with pre-existing development goals, such as improving primary school completion rates and access to safe water and sanitation.

The UN was and still is very proud of the MDGs. In 2013, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moonhe boasted, “The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been the most successful global campaign against poverty in history.”

This is very exaggerated. The 15 years between 2000 and 2015 saw a sharp decline in extreme poverty. However, most of the gains made in reducing extreme poverty are attributable to economic growth in China and India, not to any UN effort or the unique impact of the MDGs. as pointed outThe Economist:

China (which has never shown interest in the MDGs) accounts for three-quarters of the achievement. Its economy has been growing so fast that, while inequality is rising rapidly, extreme poverty is disappearing. China lifted 680 million people out of destitution between 1981 and 2010 and has reduced its extreme poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to 10% today.

Indeed, progress towards the MDGs has not been uniform. A 2015 analysis of theworld bank foundthat “progress in reducing poverty has been uneven across regions and 20% of countries are far behind... Progress is slower among countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where around 45% of countries are far behind”. Regional disparities were also evident for other indicators such as malnutrition and gender equality.

There is also the question of whether the measured progress would have taken place anyway. Specifically, how much improvement would have been achieved based on established economic and social policies, aid, private investment, trade and other factors that influence the targets measured in the MDGs? Proving cause and effect is very difficult, and attempts to assess the impact of the MDGs attractmixed conclusions.

Measurement is made even more challenging by the disparate quality of the observedby a Brookings Institution study on the impact of the MDGs:

When trying to assess trends during the MDG era, we found that many important observations are missing, many are likely to be subject to measurement error, and many are likely to be revised in the coming years. All this motivates considerable caution not to interpret any of our results with false precision. They are presented only as best estimates given the available information.

In addition to problems with data quality, there were large gaps in the data. According toworld bank analysis, in 2015 (the final year of the MDGs), countries on average reported data on only 68% of the MDG indicators.

SDG confusion

(Video) An overview of the 2030 Agenda

All of these issues apply to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The MDGs are the MDGs on steroids. As a Preamble to the 2030 AgendaStates:

We are determined to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want, and to heal and protect our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps urgently needed to put the world on a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we promise that no one will be left behind.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets that we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they failed to achieve. They seek to realize the human rights of all and achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.

Such radical rhetoric was the epitome of arrogance. Unfortunately, it is not surprising that: development initiatives have left millions of people behind; human rights continue to be denied to many in authoritarian states like China; and women lack empowerment in countries like Afghanistan.

Signs of poor performance showed up early. In 2019, Secretary-General Guterreswarnedthat "there is no escaping the fact that the global landscape for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals has generally deteriorated since 2015" and that the targets of reducing extreme poverty, hunger, protecting biodiversity, gender equality and other targets will not be met according to projections. In fact, oneindependent evaluationthat same year, it reported that, four years after the adoption of the SDGs, no country was on track to meet all the targets and that many indicators were showing setbacks.

The situation has deteriorated since then, prompting Secretary-General Guterres to issue calls earlier this year to "rescue" the Sustainable Development Goals. In February, thenoted:

Around 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty. More than 160 million people joined the hungry. We are facing the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression, with hundreds of millions of people unemployed or underemployed, especially in the developing world. With a global financial system failing in the Global South, the growing divergence between developed and developing countries is becoming systemic. The overwhelming message from our consultations was that it's time to change course; and that Our Common Agenda offers a way to tackle this crisis head-on and accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Secretary-General Guterres blames the pandemic and other crises for the setback, but long before COVID and recent conflicts, it was clear that the SDGs were failing. The problem has less to do with external events (crises occur with depressing regularity, though rarely as clustered and severe as those of the past two years) than with the fact that the SDGs lack focus, misinterpret their usefulness, and how development is achieved. they are based on questionable data and require unreasonable financial commitments.

Lack of concentration.The scope of the SDGs is the antithesis of a focused development strategy. As deliberations began on a successor to the MDGs, campaigners rallied to ensure that the number and character of targets and indicators were substantially expanded. They did it. As was observed byThe Economist, “The SDGs must define how to improve the lives of the poor in emerging countries and how to direct government money and policies to areas where they can do the most good. But the efforts of the SDG drafting committees are so extensive and ill-conceived that the whole enterprise is setting itself up for failure.”

As each lobby and interest group added its priority, theThe SDGs have become increasingly difficult to manage. Looking back, the eight goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators of the MDGs are a model of modesty and focus compared to the 17 goals, 169 targets and 231 indicators of the SDGs. In addition to the expanded number, the nature of the targets has also been expanded. It was no longer acceptable to focus on traditional development goals such as increasing employment, per capita income, literacy, life expectancy, access to water and sanitation, etc. To address the “complex nature” of poverty, the SDGs needed to include urbanization, abuse, climate change, mental health, smoking, sustainable tourism and more.

In some cases, targets and indicators make sense. For the most part, these more sensitive indicators follow the MDGs in that they measure traditional development outcomes such as reducing extreme poverty or improving health and education. Other objectives are related to development, such as access to energy, employment and industrialization. But some, like halving the number of road deaths worldwide, are not development related.

(Video) The SDGs are failing us

In some cases, the goals are hopelessly ambitious. For example, not just improving situations, the SDGs broadly aim to “end poverty everywhere”, “end hunger”, “end child labor in all its forms”, “eliminate gender disparities ”, “eliminate all forms of violence against all”, women and girls in public and private spaces”, and “eliminate slums”. These are not realistic goals, they are illusory aspirations.

The result is a hodgepodge that, to be inclusive, makes everything equally a priority... which means, of course, that nothing is a priority. As the economist observesGuilherme do Leste, “The MDGs were so attractive because they were so precise and measurable. ... As a subsequent UN document in 2005 made clear, the MDGs held everyone accountable for actually achieving these "quantified and time-bound" targets. In the SDGs, it is difficult to imagine what the quantified and time-bound goal is for harmony with nature.”

Development of wrong reading.Without modesty, the objective of the SDGs is“Transforming our world”.This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the SDGs are and how development takes place.

The SDGs do not drive development; they are not a development strategy. At best, the SDG indicators are measures of progress towards development. For the UN, saying that the SDGs are driving development or transforming the world is like saying that the speedometer makes the car go. Only it's worse: at least the speedometer is an accurate and objective measurement; the SDGs measure so many things that challenge their application as a development strategy. Asan observed economic analysis, “The theoretical basis of the SDGs is weak and there is no comprehensive theory of sustainable development. Instead, there are different theoretical approaches and controversial definitions. The SDGs provide a list of goals, without clear priorities or theory on how those goals might be achieved.”

However, even if the SDGs were a development strategy, they would be the wrong approach. The trajectory of trying to achieve development by imposing a generic plan, however well-intentioned, is not a good one. Development is not a top-down process, but an organic process that flourishes when economic freedom and the rule of law are protected.According to data from the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom, economic freedom is positively related to many of the goals and targets considered desirable by the SDGs, including better health, cleaner environment, higher per capita income, democracy and poverty reduction.

When governments are involved in economic decision making, their actions, however well intentioned, tend to coerce, standardize and restrict freedom. They cannot explain individuals' individual circumstances and needs as effectively as the free market. And however well-meaning they are, they will almost certainly impede efficiency and thus promote wasted resources and effort. The Index of Economic Freedom provides compelling evidence that it is not the policies we fail to implement that impede economic growth. Rather, it is the self-defeating policies that our governments too often implement.

Each country, indeed each region within countries, faces different development challenges and must apply solutions tailored to their unique circumstances. A global development effort, even if implemented with more precision and focus than the SDGs, will inevitably be inadequate for many less developed communities. By focusing on top-down government intervention and political efforts, the 2030 Agenda undermines its own cause.

Doubtful data.Why say that the SDGs are “at best” a measure of progress? Because there are serious issues with the data used for the indicators. This is a concern because data is essential to the SDG effort, i.e. to determine where progress is being made and where more resources and interventions should be applied. Without internationally comparable, vetted, reliable and regularly updated data, the main objective of the SDGs is undermined. Unfortunately, there are several reasons to question the data used to measure progress towards the SDGs.

First, the total number of indicators is enormous, approximately four times the number of the MDGs. Many of these indicators were introduced with the SDGs. Asappointed by the World Bank, “When the global indicator framework for the SDGs was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017, 84 (36%) of the 231 indicators did not have internationally established methodology or standards.”

While attempts have been made, with some success, to establish a uniform methodology for these indicators, most governments had no previous experience in collecting and verifying these data. So it isno wonder“The statistical systems of most countries appear to have difficulties in providing data on SDG indicators”, and there are serious data gaps. according to aWorld Bank Rating, “On average, countries reported one or more data points on just 55% of the SDG indicators for the years 2015-2019. No country reported data on more than 90% of the SDG indicators, while 22 countries reported less than 25% of the SDG indicators.” The situation is worse for developing countries that have fewer resources and less capacity to collect and report data and are often overwhelmed. But "even highly developed countriesstill unable to report more than 40-50% of SDG indicators…[in general] four years after the 2030 Agenda implementation period, only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for adequate global and regional monitoring”.

In addition to the data gaps, there are discrepancies. Even relatively straightforward national account data can be difficult to compare across databases and countries. For example, much of the economic data for the SDGs is compiled by the United Nations Statistics Division through questionnaires sent annually to national statistical offices or obtained from data collected by other international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Even assuming governments are reporting data in good faith, this is not a guarantee with countries likePorcelainwhose economic data have long been consideredfalton—Differences in data sources (e.g., central banks versus national statistical agencies), methodologies, remittance dates, or poor data quality (e.g., private remittances that are often unreported) can lead to data inconsistencies that inhibit full comparisons . Furthermore, even when there is a single source that applies a consistent methodology to the data, scope can be an issue because data are not collected for all countries. For example, high-income countries are not included in the World Bank's list.International debt statisticsdatabase.

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>>>Index of Economic Freedom 2022

Then there is the problem of subjectivity. The SDGs are full of imprecise targets andhow to guarantee“significant mobilization of resources from various sources… to implement programs and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions” or to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms”. What qualifies as significant mobilization or substantial reduction? Even if countries are able and willing to track and report data in a timely and accurate manner, subjective assessments such as these undermine objective assessments of when targets are achieved.

irrational cost.The SDGs may be a poor development strategy, but they provide a valuable service to the UN as they can be used to justify huge financial commitments. as pointed outBjörn Lomborg, chairman of the Copenhagen Consensus expert group:

The OECD has estimated that achieving the 169 specific development goals would cost between $3.3 and $4.5 trillion a year, about the same as the 2016 US federal budget and much, much more than the nearly $4.5 trillion 132 billion spent globally on overseas development aid last year. year.

That sounds like a lot, but cost estimates continue to rise. According to a 2020world bank analysis, “The UN estimates that US$5 trillion to US$7 trillion per year is needed between 2015 and 2030 to achieve a set of SDGs globally, with estimates of US$3.3 trillion to US$4.5 trillion per year in developing countries, particularly for basic infrastructure, food security, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, health and education”. Hundreds of billions in additional funding are needed to tackle hunger, health and other SGD goals. Currently, theUN Notesthat “there is a considerable gap in SDG funding” amounting to more than $1 trillion a year.

Even before the COVID pandemic, there was little evidence that developed countries were willing to provide the funding to meet these estimates. The notion that the world will allocate more than 8% of global gross national income to the SDGs is simply irrational, especially as the SDGs fell short of what was promised.

Don't confuse money and development goals

How do you recognizeSecretary General Guterres, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs “are heading in the wrong direction”. This shouldn't be surprising. Even a well-designed and well-executed development strategy is unlikely to transform the world. The SDGs are neither, and disappointment is normal at the UN, where over-promising and under-delivering is a way of life. Secretary-General Guterres calls for a bailout, but the UN's plan to push the 2030 Agenda simply turns into a muddled, failed effort.

AsMilton Friedman noted, “One of the big mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions and not by their results”. The SDGs are not a roadmap for development, and we must not let the desire to help blind us to SDG issues. The SDGs are too broad and vague, a fact that the UN implicitly recognizes in itsSustainable Development Report 2022that identifies a subset of the SDG targets that need special focus. But this again misses the point and reveals the mindset behind the SDGs, namely that despite decades of failed and disappointing development agendas, experts know what people and countries need better than the people themselves. AsGuilherme do Lestenoted:

The "what should we do?" industry shows no signs of shutting down anytime soon. It gives us public intellectuals something to do, and it gives politicians something to recommend. ... But the SDGs may be the best demonstration yet that action plans do not necessarily lead to action, that "we" are not necessarily the right people to act on, and that there are alternative routes to progress. Global progress has much more to do with defending the ideal of human freedom than with action plans.

While many individual SDG targets can be useful and worth pursuing, asserting a top-down development strategy based on achievement metrics simply repeats the failures of the past. Development flourishes when political impediments are removed and people can seize the opportunities that come their way. There is a role for governments and the UN, but the drive and ambition of people in a free environment is at the heart of development.

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This article is an essay in "Agenda 2030: a critical reflection", a book to be published by Fundación Disenso de España.


Do you think that the SDGs are attainable by 2030 Support your answer? ›

Not a single goal will be met by 2030 if current trends continue. There are no A grades. This is not necessarily a bad outcome. The goals are self-consciously ambitious, and are at least partly intended to encourage extra effort beyond current levels.

What are the challenges faced in achieving SDGs by 2030? ›

We can break these down into three main challenges– instability, implementation, governance. Increasing global instability, including the recent financial crisis, the political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, and the problems caused by changing climate conditions has brought about growing insecurity.

Have the UN SDGs been successful? ›

Positive progress on the sustainable development goals

Whilst a number of SDGs have been negatively impacted through the confluence of limiting factors, the converse is also true; positive progress on isolated SDGs have paved the way for development in other areas.

What are the goals of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? ›

The Global Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seek to end poverty and hunger, realise the human rights of all, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.

Is SDG 2030 still feasible? ›

The world is not on schedule to meet the SDGs by 2030, as the SDGs 2020 Report demonstrates. We still have a way to go to the finish line in 2030, and the COVID-19 crisis has already threatened to slow us down.

How close are we to achieving the SDGs? ›

The SDGs will be reached by 2073 on current trends. We all want that to accelerate, but the risk is that progress will decelerate due to climate change. Economists still argue over whether, despite a big drop in poverty, the Millennium Development Goals were achieved or not.

What are the major problems of sustainable development? ›

The challenges of sustainable development are as follows:
  • Political instability between nations, that occurs due to conflicts.
  • Poverty.
  • Unemployment.
  • Building institutions that follow strong governance.
  • Climate change.

What are the major issues in the sustainability agenda? ›

Sustainability can encompass a broad range of issues that affect business — from pollution and climate change to education, poverty, health and human rights. It involves a connected world with a broad range of stakeholders—from employees and communities to governments and NGOs.

What are the weaknesses of SDGs? ›

Strengths and Weaknesses

Strength: It encourages a better, balanced world and focuses on economic, environmental, and social problems. Weakness: This idea can only succeed in a whole country if the whole country is contributing for this "better world" idea.

What has the UN failed to achieve? ›

Unfortunately, the U.N. also had many failures, such as stopping the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In addition, U.N. aid workers were blamed for spreading cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Allegations of sexual misconduct and rape were leveled against U.N.

What is the current status of Sustainable Development? ›

Recently, the global Sustainable Development Report, 2022 was released. India was ranked 121 out of the 163 countries. It was ranked 117 in 2020 and 120 in 2021.

Has the UN accomplished anything? ›

Since the General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the United Nations has helped to enact dozens of legally binding agreements on political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.

What is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and why is it important? ›

The 2030 Agenda envisions a secure world free of poverty and hunger, with full and productive employment, access to quality education and universal health coverage, the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, and an end to environmental degradation.

What is the real meaning of Agenda 2030? ›

The 2030 Agenda is universal, transformative and rights-based. It is an ambitious plan of action for countries, the UN system, and all other actors. The Agenda is the most comprehensive blueprint to date for eliminating extreme poverty, reducing inequality, and protecting the planet.

What might prevent Sustainable Development from happening? ›

Inadequate economic, social, and environmental methodologies for policies, programmes, and projects are the main impediment to sustainable development implementation.

Is Sustainable Development is attainable? ›

Concluding, sustainable development is achievable, however, it is only achievable is everyone is dedicated to achieving it.

What can you contribute in attaining the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals how will you start and what are your future actions to be taken? ›

7 Easy Things We Can All Do to Reach the Sustainable Development Goals
  • Get Informed About the Global Goals. ...
  • Educate Your Friends, Colleagues, and Families on the Global Goals. ...
  • Explore The Realities of the Global Goals, and What They Mean for Your Community and Country. ...
  • Give Your Time and Skills. ...
  • Give Your Money.
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