War. Climate change. Natural disasters. It seems like the entire world is rife with despair, conflict, and impending doom. Open up a news app on your phone and there it is, in your face: Stories of barrel bombs, trade wars, and devastating earthquakes. Turn on the television and what do you see? Images of death and deprivation. Listen to a politician’s noisy harangue and suddenly you feel like the very foundations of civilization are crumbling. All of this madness will certainly have you convinced that the world is seconds from oblivion.
Now, before you resign yourself to your hovel to await the apocalypse, I ask you to ignore the mass media campaign of dystopia and focus on some of the unparalleled, seemingly impossible achievements of the international community over the past few years. Yes, President Donald Trump is trying to undo many achievements one by one, especially those which are extremely high profile, like the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). But for now, let’s focus on the triumphs that receive only scant attention in the mainstream western media (with the opposite being true for many media outlets in Global South countries): the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other global policy frameworks that defied all odds and brought states together in an era of constant political conflict.
So, what then are these SDGs and why do they matter? Simply put, the SDGs are policy tools that mark a paradigm shift in how we understand economic and social development. They are built on three, equally important pillars of sustainable development: the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of human society. UN member states’ commitment to the goals, as well as the overarching framework of which they are a part, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is a clear departure from business as usual. For a policymaker, the 2030 Agenda and SDGs provide a roadmap to formulate and implement national-level sustainable development policies on key topics ranging from poverty and hunger to urbanization and the sustainable use of land and ocean resources, all while balancing the needs of people within the limits of the planet.
In the context of human development, the SDGs are vastly different from their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Whereas the MDGs presented a development paradigm in which the Global North must use its resources to help the countries of the Global South, the SDGs are for all countries, everywhere, from Norway and Denmark, to the Central African Republic and Bhutan. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and SDGs, all countries are now developing countries. The reason is that the standards to achieve high levels of development have risen, and include due recognition of the above mentioned three dimensions of sustainable development. No longer can economies simply “grow” for growth’s sake, consumption takes place without an understanding of our world’s finite resources, or energy be spent without due acknowledgment of the toll all of this takes on people and planet.
The Earth has reached a breaking point, and recent political and scientific developments on the climate change front have only increased the urgency with which we must act. It may be cliché to state that “there is no planet B,” but seriously, the human race has no choice but to get its act together, and fast. The SDGs and related global sustainable development frameworks represent our collective redemption and, despite the fact that the world is in a rough place right now, every country in the world, in an era when states seem completely unable to get along, have worked together to produce a policy agreement of unprecedented scale (reason enough to stay positive!).
The 2030 Agenda and its SDGs are a transformative framework to guide human development in a way that promotes people-centered, planet-sensitive policymaking for current and future generations. An outdated human development paradigm has left us in a mess and only a united front can bring us back from the brink. Now if only the mainstream media had some sense, more people would know about the successes of the international community, would understand the new path forward that has been laid out. But since money and ratings matter more than an informed audience, nothing will change. So put aside those blaring stories of failure that have been assaulting our senses over the years. The bad news will surely never stop. But take a moment to reflect on the good, and figure out for yourself how to be a part of what comes next.
I will continue to write about the international community’s work on sustainable development and hope to inspire regular people like you and me to action as to achieve a behavioral paradigm shift in our relationship with the planet, other human beings, and ultimately, ourselves. Stay tuned!