Africa – UN Sustainable Development Goals


UN sets ambitious new global targets, with specific reference to Africa, although issues of funding and wider socio-economic and political barriers remain.

On September 25th the United Nations (UN) officially adopted the new ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) originally launched in 2000. Many of the new SDGs have a specific relevance to the challenges being faced on the African continent; Global Goals website provides information on the goals and targets and the UN Economic Commission provides an African Regional Report.

The SDGs will set the global development agenda for the next fifteen years, comprising a total of 17 goals with 169 targets, the product of discussions started at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012 and approved at the Sustainable Development Conference (September 25-27th 2015), which saw more than 150 heads of state and representatives unanimously approve the ‘Transforming our World: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development“.


Global Goals website

There are a number of ambitious targets, including zero poverty, zero hunger and universal higher education before 2030. Christophe Bellmann of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) told Radio France Internationale“we now have 15 years to completely eradicate hunger, that’s of course much more ambitious. That also means it will require more investments, more resources to implement those goals.”

Another major element is climate change; “Africa has the weakest institutions and infrastructures in order to cope with the impact of climate change,” Sarah Hearn, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation explained. “What the goals do is set out a vision for mutual responsibilities for one another. But it’s true that the targets that are based on zero hunger [&] zero poverty, are going to be extremely difficult to achieve in the very poorest countries.”

According to New York-based Time, the new goals place a specific focus on the role of the private sector in fostering “sustainable and inclusive growth” to enhance job creation, food security, health care, and combat endemic poverty. According to the UN the cost of achieving the SDGs, over the next 15 years, will be close to US$170 trillion, more than the total global GDP in 2014 of $78 trillion. Time comment that this will require”collaboration with the international donor community, philanthropists, and local non-governmental organizations through shared purpose. It is only by working together that we can achieve the new goals and build a world that is worthy of us and our children”.



Other media has been more critical; the independent New Internationalist praised the SDGs in representing the multi-dimensional nature of poverty but also stated that they come “with no historical background of how we got here, and no political strategy for how we get out”,  missing crucial elements of global inequality such as transnational corporations, colonial history, trade imbalances and structural adjustment policies; “in short, power doesn’t exist in the SDGs”.

Similarly, the Financial Times (FT) noted that many of the MDGs were never realised. Economist Howard Friedman, in an analysis of the MDGs in 2013, concluded that little global progress had been made after 2000, with most of the work towards them occurring in the 1990s in processes unrelated to the UN; although he did point out the role of the MDGs in cementing “development beliefs and practices”.

Similarly FT quoted William Easterly, Professor of Economics at New York University, who commented that ““the MDGs communicated a very wrong idea about how development happens: technocratic, patronising and magically free of politics”. Additionally, amongst the backdrop of global slow economic growth and conflicting national interests, many governments have been slow to signal a desire to fund the new SDGs.

While the SDGs represent an important global precedent which will  contribute hugely towards alleviating global poverty, improving equality and combating climate change, it is important to recognise their limits, and the multitude of other global political, social and economic processes which are working towards the ideals, but also hindering them.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

FINANCING FOR DEVELOPMENT: Third International Conference
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.52, Issue.7, Pp.20907A–20909C

AFRICA – UN: Landmark Deal
Economic, Financial & Technical Series
Vol.51, Issue.7, Pp.20477A–20477C

UNITED NATIONS: Millennium Development Goals Summit
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.47, Issue.9, Pp.18533A–18536A

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