What Are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
Backgrounder

What Are the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

The United Nation’s ambitious development agenda aims to protect people and the planet via seventeen goals. But experts say governments aren’t doing enough to implement them.
Students attend a lesson at a school in the Tillabéri region of Niger.
Students attend a lesson at a school in the Tillabéri region of Niger. Olympia De Maismont/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious roadmap to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet against climate change by 2030.
  • Halfway to the deadline, only 15 percent of SDGs are on track. In recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening climate crisis, and war in Ukraine have further impeded progress.
  • At the UN SDG Summit in 2023, governments committed to redoubling their efforts, including by pledging more ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but this will require an estimated $4 trillion in financing.

Introduction

In 2015, the seventieth UN General Assembly adopted an ambitious set of development goals for improving economic, environmental, and social conditions worldwide by 2030. The seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the United Nation’s chief initiative for advancing basic living standards and addressing a range of global issues, including gender inequality, climate change, and a lack of universal, quality education.

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Accelerating climate change, major global conflicts, and the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have jeopardized SDG progress in recent years. At the midway point to the 2030 deadline, only 15 percent of the goals are on track, while more than three-quarters are stagnating or regressing. During the UN SDG Summit in 2023, dozens of governments pledged to accelerate action toward achieving the goals. But experts say more work—including mobilizing trillions of dollars more in public and private financing for sustainable development—is needed.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

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Also known as the 2030 Agenda, the SDGs are a set of seventeen overarching goals comprising 169 specific targets for reducing poverty and improving environmental sustainability. Conceived of at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, the SDGs received the unanimous commitment of all 193 members of the United Nations and an array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Today, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Division for Sustainable Development Goals acts as the secretariat for the SDGs.

Then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the SDGs are organized around six essential elements: dignity, people, prosperity, the planet, justice, and partnerships. Many development experts have noted the ambitious sweep of the goals, which include:

  • ending poverty in all forms everywhere;
  • ending hunger;
  • achieving gender equality;
  • ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages; and
  • ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.
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The SDGs build on the progress of the eight MDGs that launched in 2000 and expired in 2015. While the MDGs focused primarily on directing wealthy countries’ resources toward eradicating poverty and improving global health in poor countries, the SDGs are meant to apply equally to all countries and thus cover a broader swath of issues. Additionally, while the MDGs were drafted by a small team of technical experts at the UN headquarters, the SDGs were created over three years by an intergovernmental open working group that comprised representatives from seventy countries.

“The SDGs are a shift in the paradigm for international development,” said Sarah Hearn, an adjunct professor and fellow at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, after the goals were announced. “The MDGs were about resource transfer from rich countries. The SDGs are universal—they’re supposed to apply to all countries and try to overcome the ‘West lecturing the rest’ dynamic.”

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How are they financed?

Funding for the SDGs comes from a vast array of public and private sources. These include national governments, the private sector, and international development banks, as well as the gains from international trade. In 2015, countries established a framework [PDF] for global financial practices aimed at generating more private investment in sustainable development.

Most SDG funding is mobilized through the Joint SDG Fund, the United Nations’ flagship global fund that issues grants for sustainable development projects. These include initiatives on vaccination, student scholarships, and expanded social protections. The fund’s capital comes from UN member states; international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund; the private sector; and philanthropic contributions. It has so far allocated $258 million [PDF] to 119 UN country teams and multicountry offices, and catalyzed more than $2 billion in additional outside investment. Country teams are overseen by UN-appointed “resident coordinators,” of whom twenty-seven are currently active globally. The coordinators also direct country-level funds. 

How are the SDGs measured and monitored?

Progress on the SDGs is monitored using a set of 231 indicators under the purview of the UN Statistical Commission. The UN Statistics Division (UNSD), in partnership with individual UN agencies, collects information provided by member countries and organizes it thematically in its database. This database includes basic demographics such as age, ethnicity, income, and race, as well as guidelines for tracking progress [PDF] on each specific target. Some examples include the percentage of children whose height and weight are below average (to measure for child malnutrition) and the existence of legal frameworks protecting against sex discrimination (to gauge gender equality). Some countries also adopt specific national or regional indicators that measure SDG progress relevant to their unique concerns.

Ultimately, data collection is voluntary and countries are responsible for their own progress toward meeting the SDGs. The UNSD produces the annual progress reports that make cross-country comparisons, but countries are additionally encouraged to submit voluntary national reviews. These reviews are “country-led and country-driven”—with the United Nations providing some guidelines for conduct—and are meant to share successes, challenges, and next steps. Since the process began in 2016, only five countries—the United States, Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen—have yet to conduct and present a voluntary national review. 

What progress has been made toward meeting them?

At the midway point to the 2030 deadline, UN officials say the SDGs are “woefully off-track,” with only 15 percent of the goals expected to be achieved. (Other estimates suggest a slightly higher figure.) According to a UN review [PDF] of thirty-six targets with sufficient data for analysis, only two were on track to be completed by 2030: increased access to mobile networks and increased internet usage. Fourteen targets showed “fair” progress, meaning they are attainable if global efforts ramp up. Twelve showed limited or no progress, including those on ending poverty and conserving ecosystems, and eight were evaluated as still deteriorating, including the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Finland ranks first on the SDG Index—which compares countries on their overall progress toward achieving all seventeen goals—followed by Sweden and Denmark. These three countries have all achieved or are on track to achieve the following SDG goals: ending poverty, promoting gender equality, building affordable and clean energy, ensuring quality education, and reducing inequality. France and Germany, meanwhile, rank sixth and fourth on the index, respectively, with none of the goals completed or on track to completion. The United States and China—the world’s two largest economies—rank thirty-ninth and sixty-third, respectively, though the United States has not fully achieved any goals, while China is on track to eliminate poverty and provide universal quality education. 

But the index does not tell the whole story, some experts say, because there is so much variation among the targets. Wealthier countries, many of which can easily achieve or have already achieved social development goals, score high on SDG rankings even if they are consuming natural resources at an unsustainable pace. This is because there are more goals addressing development than there are on ecological sustainability. Sweden, for example, ranks second on the index but has one of the largest consumption footprints in the world, at almost triple the global average. It also scores poorly (139th) on “spillovers,” or areas that negatively affect other countries’ abilities to achieve the SDGs. 

In comparison, Cambodia ranks 103rd on the SDG Index but only 57th for spillovers. The country has made rapid progress [PDF] on eliminating extreme poverty over the past two decades, including by tripling funding for education. But Cambodia and other developing countries face major funding shortfalls in their efforts to further reduce disease-related mortality rates, improve clean water and sanitation, and find solutions to climate change.

What are the main critiques of the SDGs?

Development experts have raised several criticisms of the SDGs, calling them too broad, too numerous, and overly ambitious. “It is hard to imagine what the time-bound and quantified target is for harmony with nature,” New York University’s William Easterly wrote for Foreign Policy in 2015. “Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are so encyclopedic that everything is top priority, which means nothing is a priority.” Some experts have instead called for a more focused approach, such as identifying and investing in a smaller selection of the most cost-effective targets. Proponents of the far-reaching global goals counter that they help to mobilize support and resources and that they galvanize leaders to act by creating peer pressure.

Other critics point out the lack of accountability inherent in voluntary programs such as the SDGs. Because the goals are not legally binding, there is little that the United Nations can do if a country chooses not to apply them. The United Nations itself notes the difficulties of this arrangement [PDF], calling it a “basic failure” of the program and highlighting a dearth of coordination between national and local governments and a global financial system that is not geared toward sustainability.

Financing is another major challenge. According to a 2023 UN report [PDF], there is currently an estimated $4.2 trillion gap between current development financing and SDG needs. Some experts claim that blended financing, which combines private sources with grants or public funding, could help close the gap. Others say that result would be unlikely, especially as overall global investment has fallen sharply amid rising debt and increased food and energy prices.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected SDG implementation?

Though progress toward the SDGs was already slow prior to 2020, the onset of the pandemic challenged decades of global development efforts, the United Nations reported [PDF]. Lockdowns, border closures, and trade disruptions upended basic services even as the pandemic unveiled the very disparities that the SDGs aim to tackle. “The pandemic put full focus on the SDGs because it brought home the need to care for the basic needs of people,” says Alice C. Hill, CFR’s senior fellow for energy and the environment.

The ensuing global recession meant that developing economies lost an estimated $220 billion in economic output, reducing their ability to invest in the SDGs. It also ballooned the financing gap in developing countries, which in 2020 increased by more than $2 trillion, while their debt burden hit a record $860 billion, a 12 percent rise compared to 2019. However, while the concurrent crises of the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine have reversed some SDG progress, UN members have since reaffirmed their commitments to the SDGs.

What does the future hold?

Not achieving the SDGs could have significant consequences, experts warn. Already, the number of people living in extreme poverty is higher than it was four years ago, while global hunger has returned to levels not seen since 2005. And at current rates of change, gender equality is some three hundred years away.

Global leaders have put most of their focus on climate. Speaking at the quadrennial UN SDG Summit in September 2023—the second of its kind since the goals were adopted—UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that humanity has “opened the gates of hell” by failing to take strong action against climate change. Earth’s average temperature has now risen 1.1°C (1.98°F) above preindustrial levels, according to a 2023 assessment [PDF] by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ leading scientific body. The global temperature increase is contributing to more frequent weather extremes, including historic heat, wildfires, and storms.

Still, efforts continue. The UN member states in attendance at September’s SDG Summit adopted a declaration [PDF] committing to accelerating action so they can achieve the SDGs by the end of the decade. (The United States, China, and India, the world’s three biggest polluters, were not invited to speak.) The declaration also urged countries to scale up action to deliver on a UN initiative [PDF] that calls for an increase of at least $500 billion in sustainable development financing each year. Meanwhile, some conference participants, such as Brazil and Thailand, unveiled more ambitious emissions-reduction targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement, while others, such as Nepal, called for more climate adaptation financing for developing countries.

Recommended Resources

The Sustainable Development Report tracks countries’ progress toward achieving the SDGs.

This UN report [PDF] examines global implementation of the SDGs as of 2023.

At this CFR meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield discusses the SDGs and how to avoid the cynicism trap.

CFR’s World101 library explains everything to know about climate change.

In this In Brief, CFR expert Linda Robinson unpacks the lack of global progress toward SDG 5, achieving gender equality.

This Backgrounder by Lindsay Maizland discusses the successes and failures of global climate agreements.

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Danielle Renwick contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphics.

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