Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) 101

Recently, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were thrust into the forefront of our collective consciousness as the young climate activist, Greta Thunberg, made her way, by sailboat, into the New York Harbor, where she was greeted by a flotilla of 17 vessels, each with a design representing an SDG on its sail. The Youth Climate Summit and the Climate Action Summit that followed her arrival served as an alarm bell to all of us that when it comes to climate change we need to get it together, while highlighting the SDGs.

Overview - What are the SDGs all about?

In September, 2015, during the UN Sustainable Development Summit, 193 United Nations member states unanimously adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at tackling poverty, and meeting people’s economic and social needs, while also safeguarding the environment. The goals, all ambitious, range from specific (e.g. no poverty, zero hunger) to general (e.g. responsible consumption and production), and represent a call to action for the international community, nations, NGOs, and individuals.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

These are the 17 SDGs:

  1. No Poverty

  2. Zero Hunger

  3. Good Health and Well-Being

  4. Quality Education

  5. Gender Equality

  6. Clean Water and Sanitation

  7. Affordable and Clean Energy

  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth

  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

  10. Reduced Inequalities

  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities

  12. Responsible Consumption and Production

  13. Climate Action

  14. Life Below Water

  15. Life on Land

  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

  17. Partnerships

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When first introduced in 2015, the SDGs were not conceptually new, but rather built upon a history of progress toward similar ends. For example, in 1992, during the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, states adopted Agenda 21, as a plan for international, national, and local actors to address human-caused effects on the environment. This vital work continued as UN member states adopted, unanimously, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September, 2000, during the Millennium Summit. Indeed, throughout the coming years, sustainable development was continually on the agenda for the United Nations. In June, 2012, again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, an outcome document titled The Future We Want was adopted, setting in motion a process over the next three years that would crescendo in the production of the Sustainable Development Goals.

NGO advocacy

If nations are to adopt specific policies aimed at meeting the SDGs, NGO involvement is vital. NGOs must be communicating with national governments, framing things in terms of the SDGs, and pushing for policies that help meet these goals. NGOs must advocate. 

For example, after the successful Paris Climate Agreement, many were breaking out the champagne, rightly treating this as the win it was. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), however, was quick to reframe this victory in the sobering context of the larger set of SDGs. Indeed, the NRDC reminded policy makers of the importance of the goals, and of embedding them in the United States’ collective consciousness as not just being about development, but also about progressive politics. The NRDC’s continual advocacy for the SDGs includes incorporating them in the crafting a policy framework.

The NRDC serves as a great example of an NGO’s willingness to reframe their work to incorporate the SDGs in their advocacy efforts. Whether an organization is fighting for clean water, to reduce poverty, or to build infrastructure, these goals serve as an anchor for all such organizations, which can only lead to more collective action. When we work together on something, even on something as big as this, we will always be more successful than acting alone (see goal 17: Partnerships).

Eyes towards the future

“Be a global citizen. Act with passion and compassion. Help us make this world safer and more sustainable today and for the generations that will follow us. That is our moral responsibility.” - Former UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon. As the sailboats are put away, and the public ruminates on all that has been said and all that has yet to be done, it is important to consider Ban’s call for us each to think as global citizens. Nations, individuals and NGOs have a duty to each other and to the future. That duty is best served by anchoring ourselves to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which will enable us to act in concert, and to reframe our policy efforts towards this unified, coherent, vital set of goals.