My previous article laid out some general details about the United Nation’s latest global sustainable development framework, the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The objective was to whet appetites (hopefully!) and prepare readers for several new articles related to the SDGs and other international sustainable development agreements. This latest entry in the series will explain a bit more about the so called “paradigm shift” associated with the world’s adoption of the 2030 Agenda, and the gradual (and sadly, far too slow) transition into the era of sustainable development.
The 2030 Agenda and its SDGs are said to be “transformative” in nature, and their adoption is the cornerstone of a new way of understanding economic and human development. But big questions remain: What is the essence of this transformation? What is the nature of the paradigm from which we have moved beyond? Which countries are the targets of these new development principles?
My first article in this sustainable development series touched upon the UN’s last development agenda, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had a fifteen-year lifespan (2000-2015). These goals sought to increase awareness of the needs of the developing countries of the Global South, and spurred richer, more developed Global North countries to put their money where their mouths were to ensure that the eight goals were achieved. According to the paradigm of the MDGs, the world was essentially split between the “haves” and “have nots,” and it was the sacred duty of the “haves” to ensure that the “have nots” could rise to a level and type of development more similar to their own.
To many, this development paradigm stank somewhat of The White Man’s Burden, where the former colonial powers, in their unending benevolence, had to save the countries they once ruled from the darkness and despair of underdevelopment. Nevertheless, despite some of the inherent issues related to the paradigm of the MDGs, they helped to mobilize people, resources, and political will towards development efforts in the Global South. As a result, there were many successes associated with the MDGs and the energy they galvanized around global development.
Throughout the world, extreme poverty has fallen, child mortality has decreased, hunger is down, literacy is up, HIV/AIDS is more under control and better understood than ever before, and on and on and on. The flaw in the MDGs though, was that, despite the fact that there was some element of environmental concern within the agenda (primarily through a very weak goal on sustainability), their underlying principles were part and parcel of an economic paradigm that was neoliberal in nature, obsessed with growth, and focused on a culture of consumption as a means to achieve, as well as an indicator of, economic progress.
Now, as the planet teaches us some difficult lessons we sorely needed to learn, as entire ecosystems collapse, as plastic continues to fill our oceans, as climate change becomes more and more out of control, and, at least from the social and economic side of things, as inequality continues to grow despite millions being pulled out of extreme poverty, something certainly needed to give. With the adoption of the SDGs, a drastic shift in mentality has occurred, a mentality that is far different from how the MDGs were created, and how governments at the time of their adoption understood the needs of people and planet. From the economic troubles of the 2000s that have fueled anti-elite anger throughout the world, to the uncontrollable environmental degradation plaguing our planet, the SDGs seek to ameliorate an out of control neoliberal economic paradigm. They are, without a doubt, a fresh attempt at something far different from anything that has come before.
Since the SDGs are a comprehensive set of policy principles that are indivisible and universal, they are meant to be implemented in their entirety by all countries, whether Global South or Global North. This means even the most developed countries must now incorporate the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental) into their policies and programs, and work to support, protect, and nourish people and planet. Significantly, an entire goal, SDG10, is dedicated to combating inequalities, both within and among countries. This is an especially important goal for a country like the United States, where despite its massive wealth and extremely high GDP per capita, inequality is a critical and growing problem.
As you continue your discovery of the SDGs and other international sustainable development frameworks, as you better understand the nexus between the economy and human society, between how we behave and the planet upon which we live, it is important to start gearing your mind for the paradigm shift associated with this new epoch in our collective human development. I wrote extensively in my last article that the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs are some proof that international cooperation in this day and age is not totally impossible. As a result, if over 190 UN member states can agree on such a transformative and evolutionary development agenda, then certainly we can all support (with at least some level of optimism) an economic system that is people-centered and planet-sensitive.
Time is running out, but we must not give up. Current and future generations are counting on all of us.