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17 Goals to Transform Our World

In 2015 the United Nations (U.N.) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious plan to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Since that time, the New York Academy of Sciences — with the support of the U.N. — has convened two Summits on Science and Technology Enablement for the Sustainable Development Goals.

In this issue of the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine, we learn about research being conducted by Academy Members and others in the scientific community that will help these goals guide the transformation our world.

Amina Mohammed

Amina Mohammed

Finding Common Solutions in a Disparate Global Society

By Dan Zenowich, NYAS Contributor

The 17 transformative Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are universal and inclusive and were designed with the intent that they would help all countries  —  from the richest and most advanced, to the poorest and least developed.

The SDGs were not plucked out of thin air. They were three years in development, coinciding with the 2015 conclusion of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and built upon their accomplishments and lessons. They are a plan of collective action by the international community to transform our world in ways that harmonize economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection.

Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General of the U.N., who  —  before joining the U.N. — also served as Special Advisor on the MDGs, provides a valuable perspective. “The MDGs were a huge success which mobilized the international community as never before. Progress has been remarkable but there is still considerable work to do,” she said. “The MDGs have helped to end poverty for some, but not for all. The SDGs must finish the job and leave no one behind.”

From MDGs to SDGs

Whereas the MDGs focused on a limited number of goals to address the most pressing needs in some of the world’s least developed countries, the SDGs have expanded their scope to encompass the entire world and the needs of everyone — no small task!

With such an ambition, it was essential that the SDGs be formulated in a participatory way. To that end, the development process embraced society in all its complexity, ensured that all 193 U.N. member states participated, surveyed some 5 million-plus individuals about their wants and needs, and made sure that 1,000-plus civil society groups and NGOs also participated. In the words of Thomas Gass, Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA): “Basically the doors of the U.N. and these diplomatic negotiations were opened [to the world] — and maybe we can say that the emotional intelligence of this organization was released.”

And while the goals are given individual distinctions (No Poverty, Quality Education, etc.) there are myriad ways in which they overlap, so it’s worth taking a look at how 17 goals emerged.

First came a stocktaking phase in which experts briefed lead negotiators from the Member States. Dedicated teams listened to recognized experts explain where the world stood on issues such as the fight against malaria, clean water and sanitation, industrialization, trade-offs between promoting a reduction of inequalities and promoting wealth and economic growth, as well as the importance of good governance to achieve progress in health systems.

The lead negotiators then progressed to a structure-goals-targets phase assisted by an international team of facilitators. They listened, assembled and shaped a new text. The summer of 2014 saw tough negotiations because these targets would form a real social contract between the leaders and their people. In the final phase, those targets were negotiated in fine detail. Countries have the responsibility for the follow-up and review of the progress made in implementing the goals.

The result: a strategic plan consisting of 17 goals with a combined 169 targets to address the most pressing issues of the planet and a shared vision for humanity, recognizing all of its diversity and complexity.

The program is not simply philosophical, it is technical, practical and precise. The U.N. statistics commission agreed on 232 indicators by which to monitor on an annual basis the 169 targets that underpin the goals in all countries. All 193 Member States came together to unanimously approve the plan.

The 17 transformative Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The 17 transformative Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Multifaceted Role of the Targets

The targets were designed to focus efforts to fulfill the SDGs, but they also reveal the interdependency, conflicts, trade-offs, synergies and opportunities that can exist between the different goals.

For example, the target of providing electricity for households is related to the goals for Health, Education and Affordable Energy. Initiatives for sustainable biofuels could compete with allocation of land and water resources for food crops to alleviate Hunger. And energy-intensive fossil fueled desalination plants,  while meeting a goal of the need for Clean Water, conflict with goals for Clean Energy and Climate Action, and potentially Life below Water.

But structured this way, the targets foster an integrated and more holistic approach that encourages implementers to think and act outside the constraints of insular “silo” approaches to resources.

Thomas Gass

Thomas Gass

Reports from the  SDGs’ Second Year

Governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 goals, drawing on additional needed support from international agencies, NGOs and the private sector. Thomas Gass, is encouraged with the steps countries are taking to implement the SDGs. “It’s very meaningful when you have a country like Colombia — that is really in the midst of a peace process — who actually says, ‘We are going to address the root causes of this 52-year-old conflict, and the way we are going to do that is by taking a holistic approach, looking at economic growth, but also reducing inequalities, making sure that no one is left behind, and making sure there is better governance, a better service to the people.’”

It’s also meaningful to Gass when a highly developed country like Germany states goal-by-goal not only what it will do for developing countries, but also what it needs to do domestically to implement the SDGs. Germany recognizes as well what it must do to improve the coherence of its policies. It’s easy to say you want to promote poverty eradication, but are you also waiving tariffs and duties on imports from those countries? You say you don’t want anyone left behind, but how does that apply to your immigration policy? You say that you want to reduce the negative effects of climate change, but are you prepared to decarbonize your economy?

“We are at a crucial moment in our collective effort to build sustainable, equitable and inclusive societies,” said Gass. “Billions of people continue to live in poverty and are denied a life of dignity. There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power, and an alarming number of people who suffer in ways that others do not.”

Interconnectedness of goals and accountability for actions drive successful approaches to sustainable development. As does the awareness that no one will be left behind when we treat others the way we expect others to treat us. Call it the golden rule, or a categorical imperative — or, simply, sustainable development.

For more information on the Academy’s SDG initiative, go to