Why are the United Nations’ sustainable development goals stalling?

Pacific Standard reports: It’s the most ambitious project in the history of humankind. If successful, it would solve many of civilization’s most pressing challenges. But due to a single, fatal defect, it’s poised to fail—catastrophically.

“It” is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently reported, the efforts to meet the goals are lagging and must pick up the pace to hit the 2030 target. Fortunately, there’s still time to save the project, and it can be done by applying a straightforward fix.

But first, it’s worth slowing down and adding a bit of context to this endeavor. The goals—known as the SDGs—were adopted just two years ago by 193 nations, with the aim to guide global, regional, and national efforts to reduce poverty, address climate change, and build inclusive societies. They are, in a sense, the sequel to the blockbuster Millennium Development Goals, which was arguably the most successful anti-poverty initiative in history.

Why are the SDGs stalling? For one, it’s because, in their very conceit, they’re defective. While this list of 17 goals and 169 targets is longer than the Constitution, it’s not the goals’ breadth, depth, or even ambition slowing us down; it’s the absence of internal logic. The SDGs are a postmodern, deconstructed, Jackson Pollock-version of a to-do list.

The reason for this is simple. The U.N. reacted to legitimate critiques of the original Millennium Development Goals—that the goals were conceived by a too-small group with “relative casualness,” with insufficient input from the public, and from developing countries. Thus, the successor SDGs were informed, in contrast, by years of meetings, consultations, stakeholder forums, online input, and door-to-door surveys.

That was undoubtedly wise. But the U.N. stopped there, with an indiscriminate list of objectives. Virtually every perspective is reflected and no perspective is subordinated. The pithiest analysis came from an executive at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: “No targets left behind.” [Continue reading…]

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