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Sustaining Perfectionism: Analyzing the Presentation of the Sustainable Development Goals at the School of Diplomacy’s 2019 United Nations Intensive Seminar

Andrew Wilson
Managing Editor

The first two of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals present daunting, likely insurmountable tasks: achieve “no poverty” and “zero hunger.” To up the ante, the UN gave itself a 15-year deadline to achieve these goals.

Although there are tangible steps underpinning such lofty outcomes, the decision to present the SDGs in such an idealistic manner begs the questions: Why not have realistic goals? Why not set the standards lower and build yourself up to achieve them? More critically, does the idealism presented in the language of the first two SDGs make them unsustainable?

According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Webpage, the SDGs are a “call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet.” Understanding the incredible scale of this undertaking, the 17 goals’ 169 targets acknowledge that defeating poverty must be paired with technical strategies to construct economic growth and address social needs like education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while also dealing with environmental protection… all in 15 years?

In other words, “zero hunger” means more than giving half your sandwich to the homeless man on the street corner. It means creating a budget for your local community’s food bank as much as it means lobbying the United States Congress to appropriate taxpayer money for the World Food Programme through advocacy organizations like the United Nations Foundation. But enough talk… is it even possible to attain “zero hunger?”

Helary Yakub, a PhD candidate at Washington State University, commented on the optimistic language of the SDGs: “The language can appear too idealist to the point where some people don’t take it seriously,” she said. “People could see it as too all-encompassing… however it can still be positive because of how inclusive [the language] is. Everyone feels like they can contribute something.”

When the SDGs’ resolution passed in 2015, many skeptics had similar ideas. Foreign Policy criticized the 35-page SDG Manifesto for having too many items and too little substance for each one. For instance, target #8 of goal 12 aims to “ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

Beyond such unquantifiable targets, there are more unattainable ones beyond the first two: “end all… preventable deaths [related to newborn, child, and maternal mortality] before 2030,” and “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men.” In the United States alone, the current Labor Force Participation Rate has floundered around 63 percent through the first five months of 2019. Maybe the SDGs should have been put forth as “ideals” rather than “targets” for 2030.

Commenting on the optimism of the SDGs, a source from the United Nations Foundation (UNF) referenced the success of Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7.C: to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Interestingly, this goal was achieved five years ahead of its 2015 deadline, with some 2.6 billion people gaining access to improved drinking water since 1990. The UNF representative used this success to explain how some SDGs that appear unattainable may actually be within reach.

Unfortunately, the consequences for SDG failure in 2030 are more serious than the MDGs were in 2015. The Brookings Institute found that around 44 million lives are at risk if countries fail to make serious advancement on issues like hunger and global health over the remaining 11 years. Nonetheless, spurred by the success of MDG #7, global trends are tracking to complete more than half the distance towards the SDG targets for four indicators in addition to “extreme” poverty: access to electricity, child mortality, hepatitis B, and malaria.

As the most pressing of all the goals, the SDG’s 2015 General Assembly Resolution establishes extreme poverty as someone living on less than $1.25 a day. On the global level, approximately 10 percent of the Earth’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day.

While extreme poverty has diminished substantially since 1990, pockets still persist throughout the globe, with regions like sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia possessing the most. Nonetheless, the numbers imply that surmounting the peak of “no poverty” would require nearly one more dollar be given to 783 million of the world’s poorest people… every day. Even still, barely crossing the $1.25 threshold would not make a great headline on the UN News webpage.

The United Nations’ gleaming system of multilateral diplomacy presents a key pathway for global sustainable development, however, it must be acknowledged that each country, more specifically each community, or even each individual, has primary responsibility for their own economic and social development. Throughout the School of Diplomacy’s seminar, representatives from the UNF, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN Office of Legal Affairs, and the UN Office of Partnerships all stressed the importance of engaging the SDGs at the sub-national level.

Why are we putting our needs in the hands of the world’s largest intergovernmental organization, when the local community level is where measureable steps and tangible gains behind a goal like “no poverty” come into play?

Tracking the SDGs at the national level, there is some evidence of success. Forbes reported that in 2016, Costa Rica successfully powered its entire electrical grid using renewable energy for 113 straight days, while India began a campaign to construct the world’s first smart sanitation city. However, many global leaders have staggered out of the gates. At the federal level, the U.S. is yet to submit its voluntary national review, which tracks a country’s progress on the SDGs. Recently, New York City resorted to report its own progress through Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office for International Affairs.

Rustam Baratov, a UN Seminar participant with professional experience in artificial intelligence and technology startups, commented on the language of the SDGs, stating, “having a good balance is necessary for the idealism of the SDGs.” Jiaxuan Liu, an undergraduate student at Shanghai International Studies University, expanded on Baratov’s perspective, saying, “sometimes the optimistic words are more like slogans which can stimulate people to do something for the SDGs.”

Ultimately, just because the SDGs are optimistic does not mean they are not worth pursuing. Interestingly, the architecture of the UN’s Economic and Social Council chamber may contain a message for skeptics of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The chamber contains a deliberate flaw: part of the ceiling was left unfinished, with pipes and ducts above the public gallery still exposed.

After the room’s refurbishment was completed in April 2013, then Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon commented on the intentional design. “This is a reminder that the work of ECOSOC will never be finished and development may never be finished.”

While the ideals of “no poverty” and “zero hunger” may never be complete, the United Nations’ expanded multilateral journey towards them represents a success that the Millennium Development Goals cannot claim. When considering the Sustainable Development Goals, it is necessary to overcome the language of perfectionism presented at face value. In reality, the work of the 2030 SDGs will never be complete, but the process by which the Economic and Social Council and UN as a whole improve global sustainability represents a success in itself.

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