It has been eight years since the unveiling of the SDGs. What is the progress made and how far are we with the realisation of the SDGs?
We are now at the midpoint of our journey towards 2030, the deadline set for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Unfortunately, as recently pointed out by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, more than half of the world’s population is currently being left behind despite our pursuit of these ambitious targets. In fact, the recent SDG Progress Report indicates that only a mere 12% of the SDG targets are on track, and progress is slow or insufficient for 50% of them. Over 30% of the SDGs have either stagnated or regressed.
It was not always like this. During the initial years following the adoption of the SDGs, we certainly saw some positive trends. Extreme poverty and child mortality rates were in retreat. Progress was being made in combating diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Some gender equality targets also saw positive results. Meanwhile, access to electricity in the poorest countries was on the increase, along with an uptick in the share of renewables present in the energy mix.
However, a significant portion of this progress proved to be fragile, and much of it was too slow. Compounding crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical events like the war in Ukraine, and climate-related disasters have since worsened those wavering gains. So it is clear that the SDGs are in trouble. But all is not lost. And this year is an opportunity for world leaders, innovators, creatives, individuals, and humanity as a whole, to come together and renew the charge towards achieving Agenda 2030.
Can countries attain SDGs by 2030, and if not, what are the challenges and pitfalls of SDGs?
While we have made strides in certain areas regarding the SDGs, we are still far from reaching the Goals by 2030. There are several factors contributing to this. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant setback, disrupting economies, healthcare systems, and education, while exacerbating existing inequalities. The ongoing effects of climate change, wars, and other conflicts are further obstacles to the achievement of the SDGs. Additionally, there are systemic issues related to international financial systems and the distribution of resources that disadvantage the most vulnerable countries and populations.
That’s why we need to significantly ramp up our efforts, commitments, and global cooperation if we are to fulfil the promise of Agenda 2030. The challenges we face are not insurmountable, but addressing them requires a radical shift in our approach.
We will all be better off in a world that works for people and the planet. And we largely know how to achieve it, guided by the SDGs and evidence that progress is possible. We can see this in countries once burdened by mass famine and disease that now have thriving industries. Globally, most children go to school; people live longer, healthier lives. Some of the least developed countries have moved fast and far enough that they are graduating from that category.
Such examples, more common than not, should inspire us to do more, to act with ambition even when choices are difficult. Our generation has a striking responsibility. We could be the first in history to end poverty and the last with a chance to avoid irreversible climate consequences. But only if we stand together and unite to act for a better future for all.
Already, people around the world are rethinking how to live and what to value. A critical mass understands that to heal division, reduce inequalities, and save the planet, we must come together to solve common challenges. The power of that unity depends on our willingness to trust—in each other and in the possibility of a better, more sustainable world.
The Secretary-General’s call for an SDG Stimulus and deep reforms to the international financial architecture also underscores the need for transformation. If we are to realise the SDGs, we must ensure that the global economy is organised to deliver justice, equality, inclusive and sustainable development, and uphold human rights and dignity for all.
What is the UN SDG Action Campaign team doing to help in the attainment of the SDGs?
As a special initiative of the UN Secretary-General, our role is to mobilise, inspire, and connect people and organisations worldwide to take action for the SDGs. We believe in turning challenges into opportunities. For example, in the wake of the pandemic, we led global initiatives such as the #TurnItAround and #FlipTheScript campaigns, which have since mobilised over 350 million SDG actions in 190 countries.
The UN SDG Action Campaign calls for a journey of united advocacy and action to change our world. By united advocacy, we mean rethinking, recalibrating, and reimagining our societies and economies to achieve the SDGs. And coming up with persuasive arguments for applying SDG principles in every part of life. The SDGs are not just far-off goals for starry-eyed optimists. They are the only pragmatic way out of current crises and challenges. They are choices that we can and should make, from the local to the global level.
By united action, we mean moving the SDGs into real life for everyone. Real progress depends on transformative action. It must happen across people, issues, places and political perspectives, local and global, in war and peace. Actions must disrupt disparities and end practices destroying nature and the climate. They must stand up to systems of power that will otherwise keep us mired in conflict and mistrust and trapped in old models—with the same unjust and unsustainable results.
Today’s challenges transcend any one person or government, or organisation. That does not mean we are powerless as individuals—only that we are more powerful together. Sometimes powerful action calls for formal organisation. It also draws momentum from informal networks and actions when people unite behind a common purpose. Climate action, for instance, starts in corporate boardrooms and regulatory agencies—and in personal choices about how to consume. Peace begins at negotiating tables—and in homes and communities. Justice is found in courtrooms, in protests to end discrimination and in small business that practices fair hiring. At the UN SDG Action Campaign, UN SDG Action Campaign we have a profound belief in the ability of humanity to transcend division and the global challenges we face and unite to act for a sustainable future for all.
In a similar vein, our UN SDG Action Awards celebrate transformative SDG initiatives that scale up climate and social justice efforts around the world. The 2023 edition received over 5,000 high-quality applications from 150 countries, covering the full breadth of Agenda 2030. The 2023 Ceremony will take place in Rome, Italy, on 24 July on the first day of the UN Food Systems Summit + 2, hosted by the Government of Italy and FAO in partnership with the Rome-based UN agencies—the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub and the wider UN system.
The UN SDG Action Campaign will also be convening the annual Global Week to #Act4SDGsGlobal Week to #Act4SDGs, which will take place during the High-Level Week of the UN General Assembly and the upcoming SDG Summit. The aim of the mobilisation is to show world leaders that the time to unite for change is now because the window for a breakthrough to a world that works is still open—but closing fast. We can only keep it open only by rapidly accelerating progress on the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.
And, finally, we are launching our new Unite to Act campaign, calling on individuals and partners around the world to mobilise around an SDG action and register that action on our Global Map. We are committed to mobilising 1 billion actions by 2030 as a way of drawing attention to the SDGs and driving action towards our Agenda 2030 goals.
Our greatest learning has been the recognition of our collective power. When we unite in action, we can overcome even the greatest of challenges. We’ve seen this through the multi-stakeholder coalitions we’ve built, which have not only helped generate immediate responses but also enabled long-term partnerships dedicated to sustainable development. We’ve also learned the immense value of creativity in fostering positive change, a core belief that guides our work and the initiatives we support.
As we often say: “What we can imagine, we can achieve, as there is nothing human creativity cannot achieve when there is a clear vision and a sense of urgency”.
What are some of the innovative approaches you have come across being used to address development challenges?
One of our core responsibilities is to identify and celebrate innovative approaches to achieving the SDGs, as demonstrated by our UN SDG Action Awards. We’ve seen remarkably innovative approaches that inspire us, from the use of technology to drive social change, to grassroots initiatives that empower local communities. For example, initiatives like ImpactHer which addresses the gap in entrepreneurship in Africa, World Cleeanup Day that began in Estonia or Buenos Aires Climate Action which engages and empowers citizens in climate action.
Other Awards finalists have also continued to leave their mark on local and global communities as they have scaled their SDG initiatives, including Green Obsession which uses transformative urban forestry strategies, the Youth Parliament in Brazil that is embracing the potential of every young person, and The International Rescue Committee’s Signpost initiative turns divisions into unity by connecting information providers with communities impacted by crises. These solutions demonstrate how, with innovation and creativity, we can generate sustainable solutions that can be scaled to achieve significant impact.
What must we do if we want to leave no one behind?
The lack of SDG progress is universal, but it disproportionately affects developing countries and the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. They bear the brunt of our collective failure due to longstanding global injustices that continue to this day.
The UN SDG Action Campaign calls on everyone to unite for civic spaces where diverse people are heard and jointly create solutions. The most marginalised people have the faintest voice, as the civic space has shrunk in many places. It’s time to convene a global debate on active listening and how it can foster a culture of peace and inclusion, where people with diverse perspectives co-create solutions that reflect the full scope of the problems they face.
Furthermore, the UN Secretary-General calls on governments to give meaning to the commitment to leave no one behind and advance concrete, integrated, and targeted policies and actions to eradicate poverty, reduce inequality, and end the war on nature, with a particular focus on advancing the rights of women and girls and empowering the most vulnerable.
As we stand at this critical juncture in our shared human journey, the call to action is clear – we must unite for change. The Sustainable Development Goals offer a compelling vision of a world that is inclusive, equitable, and sustainable. The path towards this vision is challenging, yet achievable. It requires an unprecedented level of collective effort, commitment, and solidarity.
We must rise above the divisions that have long defined our world – divisions between countries, peoples, and issues. Instead, we must weave these lines into a ribbon of unity that binds us together. The SDGs call on us to transform our world, to reset the course from division to unity, from exclusion to inclusion, from crisis to sustainability.
We are called to think big, act boldly, and engage in transformative action. The SDGs are universal and interconnected, and demand boldness from all of us. No goal can be achieved in isolation – gender equality, quality education, decent jobs, environmental protection – these are priorities for everyone, everywhere. The time to act is now, and we must unite to act.
Raphael Obonyo is a public policy analyst. He’s served as a consultant with the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). An alumnus of Duke University, he has authored and co-authored numerous books, including Conversations about the Youth in Kenya (2015). He is a TEDx fellow and has won various awards.