The Sustainable Development Goals: A missed opportunity 

Source: The Sustainable Development Goals: A missed opportunity | zimbabweland

The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) are at their mid-point of implementation to 2030. Some are claiming there are reasons to be ‘hopeful’, but I am not. I was back in 2015 when they were launched, as they seemed a real opportunity to address transformations to sustainability across sectors, breaking down siloes. As many warned at the time, this hasn’t happened. The SDGs sadly have become a vehicle for mobilising funds for particular pet projects and the transformative, political potential has all but been lost.

As governments convene today and tomorrow at the UN General Assembly to review progress, the UN is downbeat. In its draft statement, the High Level Political Forum notes that:

The achievement of the SDGs is in peril. At the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda, we are alarmed that only 12 per cent of the SDGs are on track and 30 per cent remain unchanged or below the 2015 baseline. The progress on most of the SDGs is either moving much too slowly or has regressed. Our world is currently facing numerous crises. Years of sustainable development gains are being reversed. Millions of people have fallen into poverty, hunger and malnutrition are becoming more prevalent, and the impacts of climate change more pronounced. This has led to increased inequality underpinned by weakened international solidarity and a shortfall of trust to jointly overcome these crises.

Why is this? Just as the MDGs before, the SDGs have  become focused on ‘development’ issues in the global south. The universal ambitions have not been reached and northern countries, including the UK, have been lacklustre in their response, showing no leadership. With the world’s political axes reconfiguring, looking to China, India, Brazil (and the expanded BRICS bloc) must be a priority, but they don’t see the SDGs as ‘theirs’, more a liberal intervention from the West, with ‘high impact initiatives’ being the new flagship . And what has been offered has been a menu of technological solutionism that does nothing to address the underlying political dynamics that cause the problems in the first place.

Zimbabwe I am sure will be there, along with many African countries, but as the recent election showed Western development priorities are not the only game in town. New configurations are emerging and the SDGs, and the focus of the SDGs may soon be seen as last year’s (or decade’s) thing, outdated before even completed.

This is a shame, but it is witness to the failure of the UN to move with the times and seek a truly cross-sectoral, radical transformation towards sustainability, not just a catalogue of interventions across 17 goals and 169 indicators. Sadly the feared default mode of international bureaucratic and political systems has emerged, and the opportunity that was clearly there in 2015 has not been grasped.

You can read some of my (changing) views on the SDGs (and the MDGs) in the following blogs, plus commentary from the STEPS Centre since 2015. Plus an open access book and a couple of academic articles on what a ‘transformative’ approach might look like

2019: Realising the SDGs: why a sustainable livelihoods approach can help – Institute of Development Studies (

2019: The SDGs: A new politics of transformation? – Institute of Development Studies (

2015: Will the Sustainable Development Goals Make a Difference? | HuffPost UK News (

A collection from the STEPS Centre: Reshaping development goals – STEPS Centre (

Article: Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches

Book: The Politics of Green Transformation

Article: Transforming Innovation for Sustainability

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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