Sustainable Development Goals: are they too ambitious?

World leaders commit to 17 objectives to wipe out extreme poverty and hunger over the next 15 years

East Africa famine

The global adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals has been hailed as a "towering achievement" by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – but critics say the objectives are far too ambitious.

The 17 goals – agreed by heads of state and government representatives at the 70th General Debate of the UN General Assembly – aim to wipe out extreme poverty and hunger by 2030, while protecting the planet from degradation.

Gender equality, inclusive education, healthy living and urgent action on climate change are also among the goals, which are broken down into 169 more specific targets.

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"Our aim is clear. Our mission is possible. And our destination is in our sights: an end to extreme poverty by 2030; a life of peace and dignity for all," said the UN chief.

Now those promises on paper must be translated into real change, he said. "We owe this and much more to the vulnerable, the oppressed, the displaced and the forgotten people in our world."

Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, a 15-year agenda set in September 2000 to tackle poverty, the Sustainable Development Goals will apply to all countries, not just developing nations.

The new package of economic, social and environmental objectives aims to eradicate extreme poverty, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day, and reduce at least by half the proportion of all those living in poverty in all its dimensions, according to national definitions, by 2030.

The document detailing the goals acknowledges that it is setting out a "supremely ambitious and transformational vision". However, it points out that never before have world leaders pledged common action across such a broad policy agenda and that cooperation among signatories can bring "huge gains to all countries and all parts of the world".

The Economist has previously said the sheer number of goals is an example of what happens when bureaucratic process runs out of control. "Something for everyone has produced too much for anyone," it said, portraying the initiative as a utopian fantasy.

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University, described the goals as a "mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension", while the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council claimed that less than a third of the SDG goals were "well developed".

US economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has long supported the Millennium Development Goals, told the Financial Times that the new goals would be difficult to implement. But he added that there is now an "amazing amount" of discussion. "There is a sense that this is a sensible framework," he said. "I'm not saying a new dawn has broken, but at least governments are saying we need to try."

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals aim to:

  1. End poverty
  2. End hunger and achieve food security
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all
  4. Ensure inclusive education
  5. Achieve gender equality
  6. Ensure sustainable management of water and sanitation
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy
  8. Promote sustainable economic growth and productive employment for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure and sustainable industrialisation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources
  15. Protect and restore sustainable use of land ecosystems and sustainably manage forests
  16. Provide access to justice for all
  17. Revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development

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