12.01.2015 | Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office

Confronting Development: A Critical Assessment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals


In the year 2000, the world’s leaders assembled at the Millennium Summit to affirm their commitment to an ambitious development agenda, later distilled into eight “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs). The summit famously called, among other demands, for concrete and time-bound action to eradicate extreme poverty. Criticized from the outset for being crafted without broad consultation, for an excessive focus on “measurable,” quantitative goals, and for lack of accountability—especially for rich countries—the MDGs’ accomplishments have been dubious and uneven. As the MDGs’ expiration approaches in September 2015, their failure is unavoidable.

With this deadline approaching, the United Nations are presently considering what the world’s development agenda should be post-2015. In September, two distinct UN processes—the Open Working Group and the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing—are expected to converge in the 2015 Global Summit. These processes have been the fulcrums so far of efforts to shape the future agenda. They have benefited from wide-ranging substantive contributions and expertise, and have also generated diverse approaches to participation and engagement.

These parallel processes are taking place in a broader context defined by the Millennium Development Agenda, 2012’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, and the Financing for Development conferences. As the MDGs give way to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is necessary to ask, what is it that makes them sustainable? Who are the main actors shaping the goals, and what are their main interests? What role do business interests play, and what opportunities exist for member states, civil society, social movements, and others to shape these goals?

In this study, Barbara Adams and Kathryn Tobin give her take on the post-2015 process and suggest how various actors can intervene to shape these goals. Trained as an economist, Adams has spent decades working in (and writing about) international politics both in and out of the UN, including at the Quaker United Nations Office in New York, the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Tobin is an independent consultant for several UN-based organizations. She has previously worked for UN-NGLS as well as for NGOs and educational institutions in New York and Uganda.

The Sustainable Development Goals will help shape the global development agenda for years to come. They will affect not only the UN’s Secretariat, funds, and programmes but each member state as well as non-governmental organizations and the private sector around the world. If these processes converge to create an agenda that is universal and effective and which holds governments and others to account—that is to say if the UN lives up to its founding values—then it will reassert itself as the unique multilateral forum for addressing the many conflicts and crises that cannot be resolved by individual nations. Such an accomplishment would have implications not only for development work but across a whole spectrum of issues, and it is not too late for the United Nations—that is the organization, member states, and international civil society—to make it happen.