6 Questions While Getting Ready for the SDGs

A group of children walking to a nearby river to fetch water in the Lao PDR.
A group of children walking to a nearby river to fetch water in the Lao PDR.

By Anuradha Rajivan

As world leaders gather this weekend in New York to officially adopt the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, 6 questions come to mind.

Much has been written already about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. In the making since 2013, two years ahead of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) deadline, the SDGs offer a lofty vision of including every last person in progress, while simultaneously ensuring that the planet is protected. They are being adopted in a complex global context where the immediate pressures of various current crises (economic strains, natural disasters, refugees) compete with long-term challenges (inequality, exclusion, ill health, environmental destruction). So as world leaders gather this weekend in New York to officially adopt the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, a few questions come to mind.

1. What do the SDGs imply?

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets—slightly awkward figures that reflect the huge ambition among countries—resulting from a couple of years of intense negotiations and compromises. Numbers aside, they (i) bring together the poverty-disparities discourse and the environment-climate change discourse, two separate strands in global development negotiations, into an integrated agenda; and (ii) they apply to poor and rich countries alike. This was not easy to achieve, and required leaders and lobbies to explicitly confront the possible tradeoffs of pursuing economic growth at the cost of everything else. While win-wins can be feasible eventually, short-run tradeoffs between prosperity, people, and the planet could not be ignored. The SDGs articulate a shared vision for the world 15 years from now. They are not just a list of good things.

2. Are the MDGs no longer relevant?

All assessments of the MDGs point to enormous material progress on average, and a decline in the share of extreme poor people by more than half worldwide since the MDGs were adopted in 2000. In fact, this progress is led by Asia, home to more than half of humanity. However, the MDGs agenda remains unfinished, as disparities are evident and serious challenges to people’s quality of life persist, while new challenges have emerged. The SDGs fold in the MDGs into a more comprehensive 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which includes the underlying causes and a clearer emphasis on the means of implementation under each goal, as well as overall.

3. What role should the private sector have?

Every dollar and economic activity has an impact on sustainable development – positive or negative. Businesses and financial markets are increasingly interlinking economies and ecologies across borders through global value chains. They will need to have a much bigger role, not just in financing, but also in their impact on realizing social goals, partnering with governments, working with civil society, and contributing ideas. While a growing number of forward-looking companies are indeed thinking about greater inclusion and a cleaner environment, most private actors have yet to get familiar with these issues, identify which goals apply to them, and see how they could measure their contribution. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a CEO-led organization emerging as a voice of business, is proposing to launch a guide to help both national and multinational companies with this, as well as prepare businesses for a low-carbon future.

4. How is ADB preparing for the SDGs?

ADB will use its comparative advantage in supporting higher aspirations in Asia and the Pacific for implementing the SDGs. More funds will flow from ADB’s expanding resource base. Annual lending and grants are expected to increase to about $20 billion, about 50% over current levels, and assistance to poor countries will rise even more, up to 70%. ADB has already contributed to the articulation of priorities for the new goals drawing from the perspectives of Asian countries, and explored wider opportunities in financing for development, partnering with other multilateral banks and UN agencies. Apart from our own funds, ADB will also draw in more private resources, strengthen financial markets, help countries broaden fiscal space, and access climate funds. Recognizing the bottlenecks in developing finance-ready projects, ADB is poised to evolve from primarily functioning as a financier to a stronger catalyzer, project developer and global partner. ADB’s initial work on its 2030 corporate strategy includes support for the SDGs. As ADB cannot do it alone, it will strengthen partnerships. There will be more sustainable development investments and wider financing options.

5. What happens next?

We will soon have the new goals and targets, but not the indicators on the basis of which we can actually monitor progress, so that will be the next step. Countries will then need to adapt the goals to their national contexts to build on existing progress, local conditions and priorities. If past MDG experience is anything to go by, adaptation rather than adoption was common in the region. Most countries pushed the level of ambition beyond the minimum required by the global goals, adding goals, and customizing targets and indicators. Development partners are also likely to customize their support in line with their strategic priorities, client expectations, value-add, and tools at their disposal Some forward-thinking businesses may review implications of the SDGs for their own strategies and find ways to reflect their contributions.

6. Should we be optimistic?  

It’s too early to tell. While the SDGs constitute a political commitment, they will not be legally binding. As currently articulated, they are not easy to communicate beyond the development crowd. And there will be naysayers too. Yet, as the only game in town with negotiated political support, the SDGs have the potential to coalesce into a common platform for coordinated action and results reporting. After all, they are good for humanity anyway.