The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last month signifies a critical moment for global sustainable development.  Almost exactly 15 years after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were first revealed, world leaders met at a dedicated UN Summit following extensive global consultations to agree to a new blue-print “of action for people, planet and prosperity” to succeed the MDGs.

Ranging from climate change, gender inequality, food security and employment, the sustainable development goals are much broader than the 8 MDGs which focused largely on tackling extreme poverty and improving healthcare and education in the world’s least developed countries. The 17 SDGs and their 169 “associated targets” seek to build on the MDGs and to tackle what they did not achieve. Focusing on the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, the goals and their associated targets seek to stimulate action over the next fifteen years.

Although efforts to achieve the MDGs were hampered by challenges such as conflicts, food insecurity and the global financial crisis, and while progress has been uneven in some regions and countries, the goals have largely been met, thanks in particular to advancements in China and India. Since world leaders met in 2000 and committed to “spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty”, the goals have helped to stimulate an unprecedented focus on the world’s poverty-stricken community and contributed to some remarkable achievements. For example:

  • Nigeria recently marked its first year without a single case of polio, reaching a milestone which many thought would be impossible due to internal conflict which hampered efforts to contain the crippling disease.
  • Similarly, the fight against malaria has become one of the greatest success stories in global health and development. Since 2000, over six million malaria-related deaths have been averted, 97% of which would have claimed the lives of children under five years of age.
  • Since 1990, the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide, defined as living on less than $1.25 a day, has fallen from nearly 2 billion to about 1 billion, according to World Bank estimates. At the same time, major health advances have dramatically reduced child mortality and extended life expectancies across the globe.

It remains to be seen whether the SDGs will garner the same level of attention and success as their predecessors. For some early critics, they are too broad and unwieldy. At the same time, the breadth of the goals makes it possible for a wide variety of stakeholders to create a role for themselves, many who might not have otherwise become active.  For the private sector, the SDG’s offer the ability to connect their own purpose and values to these broad development goals.

Unlike the MDGs, they not only apply to developing countries but are explicitly universal; every country will be expected to commit and contribute to meeting them.  Access to qualitative data will also be essential to not only measure progress but to ensure the goals are met.

Furthermore, successes achieved through the MDGs will have to be maintained. With almost 200 million cases of malaria reported each year, such diseases will continue to require a high level of political and financing attention.

As with the MDGs, which created a global momentum for action and propelled the purpose-driven private sector and philanthropists to join all governments including middle- and low-income countries in working together towards these goals, a high level of cooperation will be required for the SDGs to succeed.