‘SDGs need to be reworked to tackle hunger, poverty’

Report released ahead of UN meet says world will miss targets set under sustainable development goals unless these are implemented in an integrated way with measurable and quantitative outcomes

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Thursday 19 February 2015


As the world readies to usher in the sustainable development goals (SDGs) later this year, doubts have been raised whether the targets under the development agenda would be achieved. A scientific critique of the SDGs, which will replace the millennium development goals expiring this year, states that countries will struggle with the agenda without clearer, more quantifiable targets.  The report critiquing the SDGs was released by the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council ahead of the four-day UN meeting on SDGs, which is currently on in New York.

The report has rigorously analysed the 169 targets intended to operationalise the 17 goals that will be approved by governments later this year. It provides a unique tool that nations can refer to for reviewing and adopting the goals and targets at the national level.

What the report says

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer major improvements over the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 

  • Four goals—climate, water, ecosytems and oceans—show balance between social, economic and environmental aspects, essential for sustainable development 

  • MDGs covered developing countries only but the SDGs deal with all countries 

  • The targets must be quantifiable and measurable. Most of the environmental targets are very vague 

  • The ‘ultimate end’ of the SDGs in combination is not clear; it is also not clear how the proposed goals and targets would contribute to achieving that ultimate end. Scientific approach to refinement of the SDG framework is the solution 

  • Is a government-driven and aid agencies driven process. Must engage other key stakeholders, like private sector, and incentivise their participation in delivery of SDGs 

  • The goals are addressed without reference to possible links with other goals 

  • Hence, it is possible that the SDGs framework as a whole might not be internally consistent – and as a result not be sustainable. A new process across sectoral domains at both national and UN levels may be the answer 

  • Data poverty is a key challenge to SDGs monitoring and needs to be tackled 

  • Overarching goal binding together the 17 goals could be formulated for an overall outcome

How SDGs compare with MDGs 
SDGs are widely regarded as the most tangible result of the 2012 UN Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. The Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs has proposed a set of 17 goals and 169 targets. These goals and targets are the basis for the formal negotiations that would result in the adoption of the SDGs by the UN General Assembly in September 2015.

Overall, SDGs offer a “major improvement” over MDGs as these have been formulated with a greater understanding of the relationships between social, economic and environmental dimensions, says the report. See table below on why the review favours SDGS over MDGs.

Advantage SDGs

Areas SDGs MDGs
Origin Outcome of the Rio+20 Conference in 2012

See: SDGs for beginners
Millennium Declaration, signed by 189 countries, including 147 heads of State and Government, in September 2000
2005 World Summit (Resolution adopted by the General Assembly
No of goals and targets 17 goals and 169 targets 8 goals and 18  targets
Geographical scope Applicable to all countries in the world Dealt with developing countries only
Multi-dimensional approach Addresses inequality, unsustainable consumption patterns, weak institutional capacities and environmental degradation. Offers a better coverage of, and balance between, the three dimensions of sustainable development-social, economic and environmental – and the institutional/ governance aspects Neglected these issues. Only to a limited degree captured all three dimensions of sustainability
Outcomes Articulates broader outcomes for people and the planet Lacked articulation for a broader outcome


The challenges
The sustainable targets suffer because they have not been integrated and rely too much on vague, qualitative language rather than hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative targets, says the report.

Of 169 targets under the 17 draft goals, just 29 per cent are well defined and based on the latest scientific evidence, while 54 per cent need more work and 17 per cent are weak or non-essential.

The goals address challenges such as climate, food security and health in isolation from one another. Without interlinking these there is a danger of conflict between different goals, most notably trade-offs between overcoming poverty and moving towards sustainability. Action to meet one target could have unintended consequences on others if they are pursued separately. Hence, the report calls for tackling targets in an integrated way.

Why goals need integration

Ending poverty v 10 other goals: Progress on ending poverty (SDG 1) cannot be achieved without progress on the food security target (SDG 2), targets on full and productive employment and decent work (SDG 8), reduction of inequality (SDG 10), and without enhancing resilience to climate change (SDG 13). Success in these will lead to better health and wellbeing, thus contributing to the achievement of SDG 3.

Need to avoid trade-offs between poverty and sustainability: Referring to SDG1 on poverty, the report recommends that words should be added in all other SDGs to avoid trade-offs between poverty and sustainability.

Hunger targets are not comprehensive: Ending hunger is an important and a complex goal, but this report warns that the targets here are not comprehensive, with only two directly addressing hunger and malnutrition, “and even for those the formulation is confusing and potentially contradictory”.  They also mention that ending hunger means more than just sustainable agriculture. Inequality is a major factor that is “not explicitly included”.

Malnutrition needs better definition: Malnutrition is not simply under-nutrition, but also obesity and the presence of micronutrient deficiencies, explains the report and expects the negotiators to simultaneously plan for defeating hunger and increasing agricultural productivity by avoiding the adverse impacts on the natural resource base.

Ending hunger v access to clean drinking water: Providing another interesting linkage between the global goal to end hunger (SDG2) and the goal for access to safe drinking water and sanitation (SDG 6), the report says that defeating hunger cannot be addressed without ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Ending hunger v biodiversity loss, water pollution: An increase in agricultural land-use to help end hunger can lead to biodiversity loss, as well as overuse and/or pollution of water resources and downstream impacts on marine resources, which in turn could exacerbate food security concerns.

Emerging infections neglected
While connecting the dots between various goals and targets, the report also expresses disappointment over goal for a healthy world and says that the target which focuses on HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis and water-borne diseases “sounds like a catch-all for infectious disease”, but neglects emerging infections such as Ebola and new strains of the flu.

The report also points to several targets not being quantified. Data availability and strengthening the knowledge infrastructure is critical for effective monitoring of the sustainable development goals, the report says.

The researchers have proposed minimum levels of ambition to facilitate accountability.

Report suggests reframing targets
• By 2030, halve the point and non-point pollution, and untreated waste water discharges into water sources, and double the recycling and safe reuse of waste water.
• By 2030, halve the number of people affected by water scarcity through protection of water sources including ecosystems, more efficient water use and better governance through integrated water resources management.


While recommending an ambitious framework for monitoring and review of implementation, the report highlights the challenge posed by lack of qualitative data and, therefore, the capacity to measure targets. The report advocates for new ways of obtaining data through participatory and transparent systems such as those proposed by The World We Want 2015

The report thus reminds global institutions that transparency and open data is an integral component of the post-2015 development agenda. It must be considered as a reminder for regular and sustainable institutional systems, essential for data collection, management and monitoring. Donor institutions, philanthropists and government institutions, therefore, have an important role to ensure successful monitoring of SDGs and must invest in strengthening knowledge infrastructure, especially in the global South.

It is imperative that the report be brought to the notice of the Independent Expert Advisory Group on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, established and announced by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 Aug, 2014

Multi-sectoral approach needed

As stated in OWG agenda meeting, the SDG targets will be driven by national governments and aid agencies.  But with limited capacities of the national governments to effect change and deliver the goals, the involvement on the private sector is essential.

Another paper published in December 2014 too stated that the SDGs to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 risk falling short of expectations. Raising doubts on the ability of national governments, the paper suggested active involvement and engagement of the businesses, cities and the civil society.

As the governments come together to negotiate the global declaration 2030 for a sustainable world to draw a big picture vision of the SDGs framework, this review reminds them of few major global agreements critical for success of this framework.

It says that success of the SDGs would be partly dependent on aligning targets and goals with key international agreements and political processes. 2015 will witness a few such important global agreements and will be critical to ensure that international development targets set for 2030 get the right direction.

Global agreements expected this year, which need to be aligned with SDGs, are:

  • Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, Sendai, March 2015

  • New climate agreement expected in COP 21, Paris, December 2015 and The Process on Financing for Development

  • Aichi Biodiversity targets

  • International Labour Organization social protection floors 

Meta-goal: high quality life for all 

The scientific review says that the “ultimate end” of SDGs in combination is not clear. It, therefore, strongly calls for defining and drawing up a Meta-Sustainable Development Goal – a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustained.

The overarching goal should also be reflected in the new metrics for measuring progress towards it, and this could stimulate progress towards moving beyond using GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as a proxy for the overarching goal, says the report.

With the draft report being presented by the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on December 4, 2014, the inter-governmental negotiation processes on the SDGs had entered the final round.

On Jan 15, 2015 over 1,000 civil society organisations in over 120 countries launched a global campaign –to mobilize world leaders to commit to delivering ambitious sustainable development goals in the post-2015 era and to take action in tackling climate change.

And now, this rigorous review of SDGs by the scientific community with a “loud and clear message” for a “meta-goal” towards a sustainable world should prompt action in the most significant UN meeting on SDGs scheduled to end on February 20.


Rio+20 Outcome Document, The Future We Want

The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Plane (Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General On the Post-2015 Agenda)

On target for people and planet: setting and achieving water-related sustainable development goals

Embedding the environment in sustainable development goals

Least Developed Countries report 2014: growth with structural transformation- a post-2015 development agenda

A Post-2015 world fit for children

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