Chapter 1: Getting to know the Sustainable Development Goals (2022)

Chapter 1: Getting to know the Sustainable Development Goals (1)

An introduction to the SDGs

In September 2015 Heads of State and Government agreed to set the world on a path towards sustainable development through the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development[1.1]. This agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which set out quantitative objectives across the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development — all to be achieved by 2030. The goals provide a framework for shared action “for people, planet and prosperity,” to be implemented by “all countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership.” As articulated in the 2030 Agenda, “never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda.”[1.2] 169 targets accompany the 17 goals and set out quantitative and qualitative objectives for the next 15 years. These targets are “global in nature and universally applicable, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.”[1.3] A set of indicators and a monitoring framework will also accompany the goals. The indicators are defined by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), which will present its recommendations to the UN Statistical Commission in March 2016.

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Box 1: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals form a cohesive and integrated package of global aspirations the world commits to achieving by 2030. Building on the accomplishments of their predecessors the MDGs, the SDGs address the most pressing global challenges of our time, calling upon collaborative partnerships across and between countries to balance the three dimensions of sustainable development — economic growth, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion[1.i].

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Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

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

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

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

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

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

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The SDGs build upon the success of the 8 Millennium Development Goals agreed upon in 2000 to halve extreme poverty by 2015 as a midpoint towards eradicating poverty in all its forms. The MDGs focused on the many dimensions of extreme poverty, including low incomes, chronic hunger, gender inequality, lack of schooling, lack of access to health care, and deprivation of clean water and sanitation, among others. They achieved some great successes, for example halving the likelihood of a child dying before their fifth birthday (see Box 2). Yet, many countries did not make sufficient progress, particularly on environmental sustainability, and it is now widely recognized that additional work is needed to achieve the ultimate goal of ending extreme poverty in all its forms. Further, there is consensus that the scope of the MDGs needs to be broadened to reflect the challenges the world faces today. Around 700 million people still live below the World Bank’s poverty line, and billions more suffer deprivations of one form or another. Many societies have experienced a rise of inequality even as they have achieved economic progress on average. Moreover, the entire world faces dire environmental threats of human-induced climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Poor governance, official corruption, and in dramatic cases overt conflict, afflict much of the world today.

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Box 2: Lessons from the MDGs

The SDGs build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in mobilizing collective action around a time-bound set of globally agreed goals. The eight MDGs were adopted in 2002 as a framework to operationalize the Millennium Declaration. The Declaration, adopted by Member States of the UN General Assembly in the year 2000, articulated the world’s “collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level” and to eradicate the world’s most extreme and deplorable conditions, including poverty and destitution[1.ii]. The MDGs, which conclude at the end of 2015, focus on the most vulnerable populations, and address extreme poverty, hunger, disease, gender equality, education, and environmental sustainability. They mark a historic and effective global mobilization effort to achieve a set of common societal priorities. By packaging these priorities into an easy-to-understand set of eight goals, and by establishing measurable, time-bound objectives, the MDGs promote global awareness, political accountability, improved monitoring, mobilization of epistemic communities, civic participation, and public pressure.

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Many countries have made significant progress towards achieving the MDGs. In 1990, the baseline year for measuring MDG progress, almost half of the developing world lived on less than US$1.25 a day measured in 2005 prices (the World Bank poverty line used during the MDG period). According to new estimates from the World Bank, today less than 10% of the world’s population live on less than the equivalent $1.90 per day measured in 2010 US$[1.iii]. Furthermore, according to the UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2015, the likelihood of a child dying before age five has been nearly halved, and the global maternal mortality ratio dropped by 45%. Since 1990, nearly 3.3 million deaths from malaria have been averted, and new HIV infections have decreased by 1.4 million cases[1.iv].

Primary school net enrollment in the developing world has reached 91%. Ninety-one percent of the world uses improved drinking water. Additionally, ozone-depleting substances have been almost eliminated, with the ozone layer predicted to recover by mid-century. The MDGs have also provided a galvanizing force and organizing framework for development cooperation. Official development assistance (ODA) has increased by 66% since 2000, providing an additional US$135.2 billion of support[1.v].

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The SDG Agenda responds to these compound challenges, and is therefore broader and more complex than the MDGs. Most importantly, it adopts sustainable development as the organizing principle for global cooperation, meaning the combination of economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Hence, the overarching name “Sustainable Development Goals,” as the key message to the world community. Furthermore, the SDGs and related agenda apply to all countries, developed and developing alike. The post-2015 agenda calls for actors to move away from business-as-usual (BAU) approaches towards the sustainable use of resources and peaceful and inclusive societies[1.4].

The outcome document for the SDG Agenda synthesizes the breadth of these issues by declaring that the SDG framework will stimulate action on five key themes: people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnerships, which are described briefly below[1.5].


“We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.”[1.6]

The MDGs played an important role in focusing the world’s attention on reducing extreme poverty, yet progress has been incomplete. As of 2011, the percent of people in extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90 a day) in sub-Saharan Africa was 44.3%, and in South Asia was 22.3%[1.7]. In particular, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small-island developing states remain behind, as they face structural barriers to development. In many societies the most vulnerable populations have made little progress. Mass migration, often caused by violence and conflict, has led to massive displacement, instability, and large populations living in dangerously overcrowded refugee camps and informal settlements. Gender inequality remains widespread, as many young girls are deprived of education and forced into early marriages.

Under the MDGs the world has made tremendous progress in reducing child mortality, but six million children still die each year from preventable causes[1.8]. Maternal mortality rates have come down in most countries, but not sufficiently to meet the MDG. Large numbers of people do not have access to affordable primary health care [see Tracking universal health coverage: First global monitoring report], and major efforts are needed to ensure universal access to basic infrastructure, including energy, water, sanitation, and transport. While a lot of progress has been made in increasing primary school enrollment in all countries, completion rates remain low, and far too many children do not complete a full cycle of education from early-childhood development through to secondary school completion. Approximately 800 million people remain chronically undernourished[1.9] and do not have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Another billion or so face various kinds of micronutrient deficiencies [see The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015]. For these reasons the SDGs commit to ending extreme poverty in all its forms, including hunger, and call on all people to enjoy universal access to essential social services and basis infrastructure by 2030.


“We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.”[1.10]

The scale of human impact on the physical Earth has reached dangerous levels, which threatens long-term progress against poverty and the well-being of rich and poor countries alike. The world economic system is already “trespassing” on the Earth’s “planetary boundaries,” [see Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet; Big World, Small Planet. Abundance within Planetary Boundaries]. Many natural resources and ecosystems essential for human and societal well-being are being threatened or destroyed, such as loss of biodiversity, air pollution, water shortages and pollution, deforestation and grasslands degradation, and soil contamination. Climate change is no longer a future threat but a stark current reality. We are already seeing the consequences of rising carbon dioxide concentrations and higher global temperatures, such as changes to the intensity and duration of extreme weather events and ocean acidification[1.11]. With the scale of global economic activity doubling roughly every generation we must change how the economy functions or the environmental consequences of growth will become overwhelming and indeed devastating.

The SDGs commit to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable production and consumption and the sustainable management of natural resources (including terrestrial and marine ecosystems), as well as taking urgent action to tackle climate change.


“We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.”[1.12]

The world must shift to sustainable consumption and production patterns that do not deplete natural resources for future generations, and that promote prosperity for all. Unless this shift occurs, continued population and economic growth will further increase planetary pressures and exacerbate social exclusion and inequality. The sustainable development framework places a central emphasis on decoupling economic growth from unsustainable resource use and pollution, and offers unprecedented opportunities for low-income countries to join an international production system. Additionally, rapid technological change and globalization are driving a rise in global incomes but also a rise in inequality among and within countries. Current growth patterns are not providing enough decent work, especially for young people without adequate skills and training, and are leading to widespread unemployment. Women continue to be economically undervalued and excluded in many countries and regions. Rapid population aging can leave the elderly in dire conditions unless appropriate policies are in place. And vulnerable groups such as the disabled and indigenous populations remain marginalized and excluded from full socioeconomic participation[1.13].


“We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies, which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.”[1.14]

In an age of globalization, governance within and among countries is becoming more diffuse and complex. Critical steps for sustainable development include promoting good governance, rule of law, human rights, fundamental freedoms, equal access to fair justice systems, as well as combatting corruption and curbing illicit financial flows. Effective and inclusive institutions are necessary to prevent all forms of abuse, exploitation, trafficking, torture, and violence. Most important, enhanced global cooperation through the UN Security Council and other UN institutions is necessary to prevent the spread of wars and extreme violence as is now afflicting many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia. Collaborative partnerships of all kinds will be essential to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. [1.15]


“We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.”[1.16]

The SDG Agenda calls for a renewed global partnership, indeed many partnerships at all levels, with all countries and stakeholders working in solidarity to achieve the goals. Today’s governments must coordinate with a broad spectrum of actors, such as multinational businesses, local governments, regional and international bodies, and civil society organizations. Accountability and transparency will be increasingly important at all levels of society, with revised regulatory mechanisms needed to ensure human, civil, and environmental rights. [1.17].

Why do we need Sustainable Development Goals? Do global goals matter? The evidence from the MDGs is powerful and encouraging. Global goals such as the MDGs and the SDGs complement international conventions and other tools of international law by providing a globally shared normative framework that fosters collaboration across countries, mobilizes all stakeholders, and inspires action. Well-crafted goals are able to accomplish the following[1.18]:

  • Provide a shared narrative of sustainable development and help guide the public’s understanding of complex challenges. The SDGs will raise awareness and educate governments, businesses, civil society leaders, academics, and ordinary citizens about the complex issues that must be addressed. Children everywhere should learn the SDGs as shorthand for sustainable development.
  • Unite the global community and mobilize stakeholders. Community leaders, politicians, government ministries, academics, nongovernmental organizations, religious groups, international organizations, donor organizations, and foundations will be motivated to come together for a common purpose around each SDG. The shared focus on time-bound quantitative goals will spur greater mobilization, promote innovation, and strengthen collaboration within epistemic communities or networks of expertise and practice. The experience in public health under the MDGs provides a powerful illustration of how communities can mobilize around time-bound goals.
  • Promote integrated thinking and put to rest the futile debates that pit one dimension of sustainable development against another. The challenges addressed by the SDGs are integrated and must be pursued in combination, rather than one at a time. As a result, SDGs cannot be ordered by priority. All are equally important and work in harmony with the others. Each goal should be analyzed and pursued with full regard to the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental).
  • Support long-term approaches towards sustainable development. The goals, targets, and indicators will allow public and private actors to identify what is needed and chart out long-term pathways to achieve sustainable development, including resources, timelines, and allocation of responsibilities. This long-term perspective can help to insulate the planning process from short-term political and business imperatives.
  • Define responsibilities and foster accountability. In particular, the goals can empower civil society to ask governments and businesses how they are working towards every one of the new goals. Timely, accurate data on progress is crucial for effective accountability. The SDGs must drive improvements in data and monitoring systems, which look to capitalize on the “data revolution,” i.e. significant improvements in local, national, and global data collection, processing, and dissemination, using both existing and new tools.
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Box 3: A Brief History of Sustainable Development

The SDGs are part of a history of multilateral efforts to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient pathway. Intergovernmental efforts formally began with the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment. The phrase “sustainable development” was adopted and popularized in 1987, in the report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development, known widely by the name of its chairwoman, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Brundtland Commission provided a definition of sustainable development that was used for the next 25 years: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[] This intergenerational concept of sustainable development was adopted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment & Development in Rio de Janeiro. Over time, the definition of sustainable development has evolved to capture a more holistic approach, linking the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic development, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. This three-part vision of sustainable development was emphasized at the 2012 Rio+20 Conference. The SDGs aim to provide a global framework for cooperation to address the three dimensions of sustainable development within an ethical framework based on: (i) the right to development for every country, (ii) human rights and social inclusion, (iii) convergence of living standards across countries, and (iv) shared responsibilities and opportunities[1.vii].

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As noted, the SDG framework has been designed to address today’s challenges. While some trends, such as human-induced climate change or social exclusion, are moving in the wrong direction, other development trends offer reasons for hope. We live in an “a time of immense opportunity,”[1.19] with the end of extreme poverty in sight. There have been tremendous technological advances that have led to improved development outcomes, particularly in the key fields of health, energy, nanotechnologies, systems design, and especially information and communications technologies (ICTs), which have dramatically improved global interconnectedness and opened vast new opportunities for productivity advances across the world economy. The SDG agenda sets out five key opportunities for development that is (i) inclusive, (ii) universal, (iii) integrated, (iv) locally-focused, and (v) technology-driven.

Inclusive Development

“[A]ll stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan [SDG Agenda].” [1.20] The SDGs will engage multiple stakeholders at all levels of society to actualize the agenda. No one is left behind or left out, as “governments, international organizations, the business sector and other non-state actors and individuals must contribute.”[1.21] Participatory processes will allow stakeholders to give voice to the needs and interests of the people they represent, enabling better-planned and better-informed initiatives.

Universal Development

The MDGs set out goals mainly for developing countries, to which rich countries added assistance through finances and technology. In contrast, the SDGs are “universal goals” that apply to all countries and “involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike” [1.22], “taking into account different national realities.”[1.23] Countries are asked to build on current policy instruments and frameworks to meet the goals and targets, taking into account differences in national contexts and development levels. Achievement of any of the SDGs will require concerted global efforts to achieve all of them. The 2030 Agenda is not about what the rich should do for the poor, but what all countries together should do for the global well-being of this generation and those to come.

Integrated Development

The SDG Agenda moves away from siloed approaches to development and promotes the integration of the economy, environment, and society. The SDGs are “integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development.”[1.24] The success of one leads to the success of all. Included in this is the need for good governance and strong social networks, which translates into a framework focused on “people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnerships [1.25].” For example, a country’s ability to combat hunger is directly connected to its agricultural system, its strategy for rural development, economic and income growth, management of natural resources, level of infrastructure, natural disaster mitigation plans, and the health of its population, requiring that many actors work together across and outside of government.

Locally-Focused Development

Local authorities and communities are responsible for the realization of the goals at local scales, recognizing in particular interdependent relationships between urban, peri-urban, and rural areas. The Rio+20 follow-up document, Key Messages and Process on Localizing the SDG Agenda, notes that many of the critical challenges of implementing the SDG Agenda will depend heavily on local planning and service delivery, community buy in and local leadership, well-coordinated with the work of other levels of governance.”[1.26] A bottom-up approach can be successful in achieving transformational sustainable pathways through direct contact with communities, which informs national-level policy decisions. Cities will be particularly important to this process. By 2050, the world’s urban population is projected to grow by 2.5 billion people, to over 70% of the world living in cities, with approximately 90% of the growth expected to be in the developing regions of Asia and Africa[1.27]. Cities are the locus of worldwide consumption and production. The contribution of cities to global output is expected to rise to three-quarters in 2050[1.28]. Placing attention, investment, and innovation in cities will bring the world closer to the SDGs.

Technology-driven Development

Rapid technological change, particularly in ICT and data, but also in material science, manufacturing (e.g. 3D printing), genomics, and other areas, is deepening the integration of the world economy and enabling breakthroughs in productivity across the economy, with a significant potential to speed the pace of global development and economic convergence. Of great note for the SDGs is the current “data revolution,” characterized by an explosion of available data resources and rapidly evolving technologies for analyzing those data. One key lesson learned from the MDGs is that a lack of reliable data can undermine governments’ ability to set goals, optimize investment decisions, manage development processes, and measure progress. Drawing from this MDG experience, in 2014 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon advocated for the harnessing of the current data revolution in support of sustainable development[1.29]. New technologies also offer tremendous opportunities to deliver public services, including healthcare, education, and basic infrastructure to more people at lower cost. E-government can offer new approaches to manage the complex and dynamic relationships between institutions and stakeholders with diverse objectives and competencies, assess and integrate initiatives at different governance levels, and support synergies to meet different goals.

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Box 4: Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities: A complementary product of the SDSN and German Cooperation

Getting Started with the SDGs in Cities is a joint publication of the SDSN and German Cooperation that addresses the implementation of the SDGs in cities and by local governments. As the level of government closest to the people, local authorities will be at the forefront of ensuring that no one and no place are left behind in the pursuit of sustainable development. The Cities SDG Guide outlines how cities can get started with the process of SDG implementation, by providing a governance framework and practical tools for local SDG implementation. Recognizing the fact that many urban and local governments across the world are constrained by a lack of authority or resources, the Cities SDG Guide also highlights key enabling conditions for impactful local action.

While the primary audidence of the Cities SDG Guide is local authorities and local stakeholders, it complements this Getting Started Guide and is essential reading for national governments that are committed to achieving the SDGs for all people, everywhere. Achieving the SDGs at the country level will depend on achieving them locally, throughout all territories, and it is national policies and programs that in turn, will play a critical role in shaping sustainable local development and empowering local authorities. National, sub-national and local governments will thus need to work in close partnership to ensure that the goals and targets are reached by 2030. Together, these two Guides provide a holistic framework for SDG implementation from the local through regional and national levels.

The following chapters of this guide set out practical guidance on how to get started with implementing the 2030 Agenda. They explore how to take stock of a country’s current performance on sustainable development, how to convene a multi-stakeholder dialogue, prepare a roadmap for the design of SDG strategies, and finally, provide a set of tools to support the design of sector and goal-based strategies.

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