Just over a week ago at the United Nations (UN), one hundred ninety-three countries adopted a new sustainable development agenda to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including inequality, climate change, poor health, and poverty. The agreement comes a few months after the Third International Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and following a year-long negotiation over the new development framework. The seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) adopted at the UN include 169 targets, to be achieved by the year 2030.
The Global Goals are a landmark achievement in the international movement to advance women’s rights through development. The new framework makes it clear that addressing gender inequality is critical to global progress. Gender equality is integrated throughout the seventeen SDGs, and one of the goals is specifically focused on this issue (Goal Five). Notably, the goal on gender equality was the first to which governments and civil society agreed during the initial stages of drafting the now-finalized agenda. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the importance of Goal Five, emphasizing that “[w]e cannot achieve our 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development without full and equal rights for half of the world’s population, in law and in practice.”
The SDG framework is important because it elevates the global ambition to advance the status of women and girls through development. Unlike the Millennium Development Goal framework that preceded it, the new sustainable development agenda addresses several critical issues—such as child marriage and violence against women—that previously were overlooked. The SDGs also include a commitment to women’s economic participation, calling for equality in property ownership, inheritance, financial services, and natural resources, which the World Bank and others have linked to poverty reduction and economic growth. Other targets under Goal Five include ending discrimination against women and girls; eliminating female genital mutilation; recognizing unpaid care and domestic work; promoting equal participation in leadership and decision-making; supporting access to sexual and reproductive health services; and improving women’s access to technology.
Though the new sustainable development agenda has been heralded across sectors, significant challenges remain that are likely to impede its realization. The United Nations has estimated that the SDGs will cost approximately $172.5 trillion over the next fifteen years, or between $3.3 trillion and $4.5 trillion a year. The dearth of financial commitments at the Addis conference and the subsequent SDG summit leaves a serious funding vacuum that could hamper the achievement of the Global Goals. Nowhere is this threat more real than with respect to targets related to gender equality, which historically have been gravely underfunded.
Another challenge for the new sustainable development agenda will be ensuring accountability. With 304 proposed indicators to evaluate success against each goal, measuring progress could be a significant hurdle, particularly for national governments and regional statistical bodies. The launch of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, which aims to fill data gaps and improve measurement of the SDGs, is one promising approach to this problem. Led by governments such as the United States, Colombia, Kenya, and the Philippines, international organizations like the World Bank and UN Global Pulse, private sector companies including Facebook, and several foundations, the Partnership seeks to improve effective use of data in development, which should help to ensure nations are held accountable for their commitments.
The Global Goals offer a critical opportunity to advance gender equality by providing a more ambitious development roadmap than ever before. This opportunity will only be realized, however, if governments, international organizations, the private sector, and civil society come together to enhance financing and ensure accountability for the agenda the world has now taken on.