Move over MDGs, here come the SDGs ... all 17 of them!

Sustainable development is the model of economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

Photo credit: File

What you need to know:

  • Even as Kenya starts toddling the first steps under the watch of Sustainable Development Goals, some critics argue that the targets are impossible to achieve, and that they are too many to properly rationalise within national frameworks.
  • Some cannot understand the significance of these targets to the man tending his flock in Wajir, the businessman ferrying charcoal in Mwingi, the woman selling fish in Kondele, or the tycoon teleconferencing from the swankiest boardroom in Upper Hill.
  • And what is the difference between these goals and the Millennium Development Goals, whose Kenya report card was not impressive enough?


A few weeks ago I sat down to interview Mr Salat Mohammed, the chief of Wagalla Sub-Location in Wajir County, on a topic not related to this story. But as we wrapped up the interview, we got into the “any other business” section, and I informed him that I would be travelling to the US in a few days.

“Ah! What is happening there?” he asked. “What news will you bring?”

I informed Mr Mohammed that I would be attending the United Nations General Assembly (Unga) and tried to demystify the UN itself to him.

I also told him that the Unga would be launching a raft of goals that would inform a lot of the development discourse he would be hearing from leaders and aid organisations for the next 15 years.

But even as I told him about the Sustainable Development Goals, I noticed that maybe I was wasting my time. The concepts were too cryptic, the goals too “out there”, for him.

“What do we, the people who will not be going to New York, stand to gain from this?” he asked. He had read my mind, and now he wanted me to tell him why I thought the launch of the SDGs was such an important milestone that I had to inform him about it, let alone travel to New York to witness the occasion.

“What change will these things bring to the people of Wajir?” he continued, narrowing the scope of what he expected in answer to the few people around him who really mattered to him.

I mumbled something, told him these “things” were important to him and his people, and assured him that change would be coming to Wajir soon.

He was not convinced, and so he dismissed me and my attempts to educate him on a meeting of world leaders taking place thousands of kilometres away, and whose effects were somehow expected to trickle down to his windswept, forlorn village in north-eastern Kenya.


As I left Mr Mohammed behind and headed back to the capital, I felt both challenged and inadequate. Challenged because I could not satisfactorily place the SDGs within the Wajir context, and inadequate because Mr Mohammed had expected me to have localised answers to his provincial problems.

A few days later in New York, I sat down to interview Ms Amina J Mohammed, a Nigerian technocrat who also answers to the rather important title of the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Planning.

Post-2015 simply refers to the period that extends soon after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this year, and within the UN circles that period is simply the SDG era.

Impossible to achieve

Many things have been said about the new goals; things like the targets are wholesome, or better designed, or more realistic, than the MDGs. Other people, however, feel that the goals are impossible to achieve, and that they are too many to properly rationalise within national frameworks. It was because of these concerns that I dragged Ms Mohammed away from her busy schedule, and also because the chief in Wajir had asked me questions I could not answer well.

As I planned the interview with Ms Mohammed, I sought to make it clear to her that my greatest interest was Chief Salat Mohammed’s interest too: why is this so important for the man tending his flock in Wajir, the businessman ferrying charcoal in Mwingi, the woman selling fish in Kondele, or the tycoon teleconferencing from the swankiest boardroom in Upper Hill?

Also, what was the difference between these goals and the Millennium Development Goals, whose Kenya report card was not impressive enough?

Ms Amina started by explaining the shift from the MDGs, which she termed as “unfinished businesses despite the successes”.

“We had hits and misses (with the MDGs) and this is what was used to come up with the new goals,” she said. “While the eight MDGs which came into effect in 2000 were aimed at reducing poverty, hunger, disease, gender inequality, and maternal and child mortality by 2015, the new universal goals are planned to go much further by addressing the causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people.”

The MDGs focused on the social and economic aspects of development while the new goals are focusing on the environmental aspect of development too, added Ms Mohammed.

Each of the 17 goals has targets attached to it, and in total there are 169 targets. For example, targets under Goal One, which seeks to completely eradicate poverty, include reducing by at least half the number of people living in poverty by 2030, and to implement “nationally appropriate” social protection systems and measures for all.

Unlike the MDGs, which were drawn solely by the UN, these new global goals were arrived at after thorough consultations with global representatives.

They are the outcome of the Rio+20 summit in 2012, which set up an open working group with representatives from 70 countries to come up with a draft agenda.  The draft was presented to the UN general assembly in September last year, member state negotiations followed, and the final draft was agreed on in August this year.


The indicators of how the goals will be measured are, however, yet to be agreed upon by a UN special team. Each indicator is being assessed for its feasibility, suitability and relevance, and roughly two for each target are expected.

The indicators are due to be finalised in March 2016.

The open working group which came up with the SDGs was co-chaired by UN ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary. Mr Kamau’s important role in giving direction to the targets is being seen by African commentators as one of the reasons Africa should lead in the adoption and implementation of the SDGs.

“This agenda should benefit Africa more than the MDGs because it was birthed under its watch,” said Ms Mohammed. “My position as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Planning gives us a lead role. Much deliberations were done during the 69th General Assembly, whose president, Sam Kahamba Kutesa, was Ugandan.

And then look at Macharia Kamau’s role in the working group... Africa played a big role all through.”

But how will this work when the African continent has continuously faced greater challenges to stability and progress? Civil wars, terrorism, and corruption have affected economic growth and reduced overall development in much of Africa to snail-pace speeds.

“Africa needs to take heart, especially on what has happened in the last three years and is still happening in South Sudan, Nigeria and other areas,” said Ms Mohammed. “The continent is already being more coherent about the way it is responding to development partners, whether national, regional or global, and that is the way to go. It is saying: ‘We are not about conflict, but growing our economy and transforming it’.”

President Uhuru Kenyatta, while addressing the General Assembly on September 25, said new ideas and courage will be critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals that were adopted on the same day.

“Without resources, the goals may never be realised,” said President Kenyatta. “Resources from development partners are critical. We should address issues that have in the past impeded developing countries from channeling adequate resources to the needs of the poor. I believe that addressing debt sustainability and trade will go a long way in addressing these needs.”

But the President’s speech, just like Ms Mohammed’s assertion that the continent has become coherent on development issues, scarcely began to answer the questions Chief Salat Mohammed had posed to me in Wajir. On paper, the warm reception the goals received was quite encouraging, but Mr Mohammed needed more than cordial emotions if he was to understand the immense importance of the SDGs to him and his people.


The first glimpse of hope, and an explanation of Mr Mohammed’s role in shaping the success of the new goals, came from Ms Mohammed, who said leaders would be instrumental in giving the new development targets direction and momentum.

“These things are about good leadership, strong institutions, negotiations, and the rule of law,” she said. “We all know that it is not just about the money, because if it was, South Sudan would not be in the tragedy that it is in now, and Nigeria would not be where it is. It is about strong leadership.”

In essence, what Ms Mohammed was telling Chief Mohammed is that a deliberate ownership of the goals by leaders like him would translate to ownership of the same by his people.

But what, exactly, is “sustainable development”, and why does Chief Mohammed need to internalise an entire set of 17 goals?

The UN describes sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.

“Everyone understands the need to grow the economy, but not everyone takes into account the negatives that an unbalanced economy can have on the environment and on people’s well being,” says the UN. “The universal goals aim at improving the lives of everyone, everywhere without exclusions.”

But critics, including economists, environmentalists, and political scientists, have raised various concerns as to whether the world needs another set of goals, and if it does, how they should be crafted and adopted.

Mr Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist, is among those who have been campaigning for a leaner set of goals with greater focus.

“There is a reason Moses came down Mt Sinai with Ten Commandments and not 169,” he told digital magazine OZY in July this year. “One hundred and sixty nine targets are impossible to remember, let alone implement, and the world would do much better to focus on the 19 targets the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s Nobel laureate economists prioritised.”

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has also publicly said the goals are “too many to communicate effectively” and suggested 12 goals at the most, preferably 10. It’s not clear, though, which goals the UK government would have liked to be taken out if they had the choice.

Ms Mohammed, however, thinks both Mr Lomborg and Mr Cameron are being economical with the truth: “They say 17 goals is not neat?” she asked. “But so is the world!”


The Goals

 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere

2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning

5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all

7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all

9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

10: Reduce inequality within and among countries

11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources

15: Sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation, halt biodiversity loss

16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies

17: Revitalise global partnerships


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