17 January 2024
Why the SDGs are a Good Idea
Photo Credit: Parradee Kietsirikul
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The beauty of the SDGs is that it gives us a comprehensive framework of goals and targets and creates a shared language with which to understand the complexity of the actions we must take to achieve development that is sustainable across social, environmental, and economic aspects – and over time.

It connects the different international agreements, efforts, and areas of work that different actors from the local to global level are undertaking into one common point of reference.

By Nathalie Bernasconi-Osterwalder, IISD Interim Co-CEO, and Trine Schmidt, IISD Strategic Advisor

As we head deeper into the New Year, it’s good to reflect on goals – personal resolutions we launched this year and collective ambitions we have for humanity. We were dismayed reading a recent piece where the writer brought these two ideas together, casting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as planet Earth’s lofty resolutions and arguing the Goals are too ambitious and complex.

Admittedly, the SDGs represent a complex framework. However, we shouldn’t confuse complexity with a lack of prioritization, which is shaped in specific locations by the vast multitude of local actors working for the SDGs. And it’s far too soon to abandon ambition.

To succeed with even a simple New Year’s resolution, you must consider the trade-offs, co-benefits, and investments required. Hitting the gym more often will give you more energy and benefit your health, which can positively impact your private and professional life. But in the short term, it could mean spending less time with your child, a longer commute, and the cost of a gym membership. Without considering these dimensions, you may succeed in one aspect of your life but negatively impact other areas and sabotage your healthy lifestyle over time.

Yes, the 17 SDGs are much more comprehensive and – thankfully – ambitious than the average New Year’s resolution. More than an extension of the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs see development issues interwoven with our environmental and climate goals, hence the added complexity of the SDG framework. They also brought a paradigm shift as Member States agreed to a set of universal goals for developing and developed countries alike.

Despite what some may say, the SDGs are not a list of desirable outcomes without a strategy. Strategies and implementation plans for the SDGs exist at the country level in national action plans. In many cases, they also find a home in municipal plans. These development strategies cannot be imposed from the outside, which is why the SDG framework by design emphasizes national and local ownership. That’s their innovation. Countries, companies, and communities around the world can – and have – adapted the Goals to their local circumstances to set their own paths toward the shared global vision. With local ownership, communities can work to reduce trade-offs. When we build the much-needed infrastructure in a developing country, for example, we should not rely on yesterday’s solutions, but instead develop and assess more innovative and inclusive options, in harmony with the local context, communities, and nature.

The SDGs are the overarching framework of where we want to go and do not dictate which route countries should take. Unlike a New Year’s resolution, achieving the SDGs is not an individual challenge. It’s a collective endeavor. That’s good news. Anyone who has attempted a personal resolution knows you stand a better chance of achieving a goal when you team up. We keep each other on our toes, challenge each other to do better and not give up.

While it’s true that halfway to 2030, we are not nearly as far as we’d like to be on the SDGs, we are not without achievements. And who’s to say where we would have been today without the goals we set? We still have seven years to go. Rather than resort to pessimism and non-action, let’s rise to the challenge. At a time of polycrises – when we seem to be moving apart rather than coming together – it is important to safeguard this collective vision for the world we want to share. 

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