Sustainable development is defined in many ways, the most common of which is from Bruntland’s 1987 report, “Our Common Future”, which highlights that development is sustainable when “it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” i The concept was adopted during the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Earth Summit. Sustainable development has since shaped global and national policies, plans, and strategies. In 2000, world leaders adopted and committed to achieving eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including to (1) eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, (2) achieve universal primary education, (3) promote gender equality and empower women, (4) reduce child mortality, (5) improve maternal health, (6) combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, (7) ensure environmental sustainability, and (8) develop a global partnership for development. Fifteen years later, world leaders reviewed progress towards the MDGs and emerging challenges facing the world, and integrated them into a new global effort — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 — which aims to serve as a global blueprint for peace, dignity, and prosperity for the people and the planet. The SDGs 2030 agenda contains seventeen goals: (1) No Poverty, (2) Zero Hunger, (3) Good Health and Well-Being for People, (4) Quality Education, (5) Gender Equality, (6) Clean Water and Sanitation, (7) Affordable and Clean Energy, (8) Decent Work and Economic Growth, (9) Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, (10) Reducing Inequalities, (11) Sustainable Cities and Communities, (12) Responsible Consumption and Production, (13) Climate Action, (14) Life Below Water, (15) Life on Land, (16) Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, and (17) Partnership for the Goals.
This essay aims to investigate global progress and emerging challenges for the implementation and achievements of SDGs 2030, and to propose areas of intervention that require urgent attention. It will start with a brief review of the existing literature, and then move on to the proposed recommendations.
Three years after adoption, the United Nations conducted a review of the global progress of the implementation and achievements of SDGs 2030. The report highlights improvements in maternal mortality, gender inequality, access to education, access to clean energy, labour productivity, and biodiversity loss, among others, while other areas have worsened.ii Conflict and drought and disasters linked to climate change have resulted in an increase of undernourished people from 777 million to 815 million between 2015 and 2016. The rate of progress in some areas is insufficient to achieve the corresponding SDGs 2030, which is only 11 years away from now. The report stressed the need for continuous conservation and protection of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, land productivity, biodiversity, and species and genetic resources, which are essential for all life. Urgent and accelerated actions towards the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, reducing urban air pollution, providing basic sanitation services, improving access to primary education, ensuring food security, and stopping discrimination against women and girls, are all immediately required to achieve SDGs 2030.
Progress towards SDGs 2030 is hindered by a number of challenges ranging from the impacts of climate change, rising populist policies, social and political conflicts, inadequate national policies for SDGs 2030, uneven promotion of rules of law, cultural barriers, poor infrastructure, lack of funding, ineffective coordination among stakeholders, and a lack of systems for data collection and storage to ensure coherent and timely data sharing, among others.
To overcome these challenges, the 2018 United Nations Report calls for immediate and accelerated action by national governments and stakeholders at all levels. Development partners and businesses need to divert from business-as-usual practices, which requires comprehensive, structural changes, spanning from formal institutional apparatuses to corporate practices, and individual actions. Similarly, Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) stress that “achieving the SDGs will require deep transformations of education systems, healthcare, energy use, land use, urban planning, and deployment of information technologies. These transformations require strong government leadership working in partnership with business and civil society. Integrating the SDGs by 2030 into national strategies, budgets, audits, procurement policies, regulatory and human resource management, and other dimensions of public policy poses major challenges for developed and developing countries alike… Success will require massive innovation, learning, and sharing of best practices within and among countries.”
To contribute to this broad debate, this essay emphasises a few specific points that require urgent attention. First, since international organisations, national governments, and development partners have embraced the integration of SDGs 2030 into national policies, strategies, guidelines, and action plans, close attention should be paid to the inclusion of culture into these guiding documents for national development. This is to maintain cultural and social inclusiveness, in which individuals across the spectrum of society, regardless of their religious, social, economic, and gender status, have equal rights and opportunities to receive equal benefits from public policies that aim to improve livelihoods and the well-being of the population.
Second, evidence-based policy making should be promoted. Trustworthy, scientific, technical, and non- politicised research — collaborative and transparent in the design and data collection process — is essential for building mutual trust in negotiations and collaboration among stakeholders ranging from civil society, international and national environmental non-government organisations (NGOs), the private sector, and national governments, to participate in the research process, policy formulation, and implementation. The conciseness, clarity, and completeness of research reports supports decision- makers by facilitating a more robust discussion and decision-making processes. Global data management systems, which aim to ensure reliable, timely, accessible, cohesive, and coherent data between countries, should be in place.
The next proposed intervention is to change individual actions towards sustainable practices. Sustainable development is about balancing economics, society, and the environment. From the start of the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century, human activities, i.e. fossil fuel burning, deforestation, agriculture, and industrial production, have led to an exponential increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has given rise to global warming and climate change. Since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1993, world leaders have committed to keeping this century’s global temperature rise well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Progress made by all countries is slow, and the set target may not be achieved. Similar to greenhouse gas emissions, over the last 40 years the world has lost half of its wildlife across land, river, and seas because of human activities, whether for meat consumption or from destructions of their habitats. Threats and challenges from climate change, air and water pollution, biodiversity loss, and land degradation are real, and they can jeopardise our paths towards sustainable development, or even human civilisation and existence. It is time, if not too late, for all national governments and individual persons to be more proactive towards adopting and applying measures that contribute to sustainable consumption and production. This definitely requires strong political will, commitment, and leadership.
The fourth intervention is the role of gender in sustainable development, where local culture and universal principles intersect. Putting rural development in context, women are knowledgeable about their environment, resources, land use, and events taking places in their localities. Natural resource use and extraction, home gardening, household management, and other livelihood activities are the day-to- day responsibilities of many women. Most often, their roles and responsibilities are overlooked, because those activities cannot be converted to monetary values. Gender mainstreaming has been promoted for over a decade and the situation of women has improved in many places. However, discrimination against women and girls continues to deprive them of basic rights and opportunities to receive basic services or participate and engage fully in the planning and decision-making processes of activities that affect them, their livelihoods, families, and communities. Social innovation and entrepreneurial programmes, cultural exchanges, and local leadership, among others should be promoted to engage more women to participate and decide what they know best and matters most for their families and communities. Again, promotion of this universal value should be adaptive to local culture, rather than creating conflict through unnuanced and inflexible transpositions to local realities.
The last, but not least important point, is the promotion of culture-based and grassroots-driven development. Local participation has been frequently used as buzzword in many development projects. In these projects, local people participate by only following expert advice, rather than exercising agency in planning and making decisions on matters most significant for their localities. The suggestion here is that since local people have better understandings of their specific villages than the experts, they should be given opportunities to design and implement development projects, as well as monitor and evaluate progress for further development. Communities should receive support for comprehensive data collection in their villages, from water availability, to soil quality, agricultural productivities, resource stocks, and potentials for social, cultural, and economic development. Cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary experts should stand by to provide technical knowledge, expertise, coordination with stakeholders, and other areas of support beyond the capacity of local people. Whilst acknowledging local cultural values and knowledge, technological transfers may occur when necessary. This new and innovative approach for development, focusing on local needs, local ownership, and resource availability, will make development projects more effective, efficient, and sustainable. This approach will not only help local capacity building and development, but also contribute to the achievement of numerous SDGs 2030.