The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: A Paradigm Shift in International Development

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: A Paradigm Shift in International Development

“With the 2030 Agenda the UN served its purpose as an international multilateral diplomatic forum, building consensus that resulted in a paradigm shift in international development, successfully legitimizing the synergetic relation of sustainability and development. This new framework brands development as sustainable, universal, and interdependent in economic, social and environmental dimensions and will likely spread through all layers of the UN system.”

by Eugenia Isabel Padilla

The official recognition and consolidation of sustainability into international cooperation and development  was unanimously adopted in September 2015 in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 70/1 titled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  Within the UN system 2019 has been a significant year for the integration of the 2030 Agenda as it approaches its fourth anniversary. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that as of January 2019 the UN would embark on a set of systemic reforms aiming to position sustainable development “at the heart” of the organization1. During the 74th session of the UNGA in September 2019, the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) will celebrate its first high-level summit with Heads of State and Government since 2015 to discuss and negotiate a political declaration highlighting advances and shortcomings in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda2.

Unlike its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 2030 Agenda doubles its scope comprising 17 goals that span 169 targets cutting across economic, social and environmental dimensions that include six essential elements: dignity, people, prosperity, our planet, justice, and partnership3. The 2030 Agenda embodies a new paradigm for international development, labelling it as universal and  transversal, recognising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a common but differentiated responsibility of all states. This represents a normative transformation concerning international development; the top layer of this reformulation being the attachment of the concept sustainability. Solely by ascribing this concept, the SDGs integrate the conservation of the environment with the procurement of social and economic capital4. In this regard, the 2030 Agenda is a milestone in developmental progress, specifically dedicating seven goals to environmental degradation concerns, in addition to goals 16 and 17 addressing rule of law and global partnerships.

The 2030 Agenda recognizes that achieving success requires intersectionality: “…eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, combating inequality within and among countries, preserving the planet, creating sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth and fostering social inclusion are linked to each other and are interdependent”5. The term ‘interdependent’ is key since the scope of the SDGs acknowledge in a single, consolidated agenda the unavoidable nexus between peace, gender equality, environmental degradation, social progress, and economic growth. The 2016 UNGA Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy exemplifies these interlinkages, demonstrating how the SDGs have permeated the global agenda given their inclusive nature. This forum adjusted the international community’s efforts to combat the world drug problem by aligning international drug policy with human rights, public health, and development. Specifically, the International Expert Group on Drug Policy Metrics delineated how integrating the SDGs to drug policy will mutually reinforce results combating nine different Agenda goals, including job creation, sustainable agriculture, management of forests, and reduction of violence and corruption6. Hence, The 2030 Agenda sets a precedent for UN goal-setting initiatives to consider intersectionality between distinct issues7.

 From the 1960s to the 1990s the UN envisioned development as economic growth in developing countries supported by the financial aid of donor countries8. This automatically divided member states’ roles, with developing countries given the burden of development while developed countries supplied the financial means to undertake the challenge. The 2030 Agenda is a departure from this division, making the 17 goals universal, which invalidates  the notion of development exclusively centering around poverty reduction in the Global South. Resolution 70/1 specifically states that the SDGs ‘…are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike.’9

Underpinning the universality of the SDGs is the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), endorsed in the Rio Declaration in 1992. This principle acknowledges that development is a common responsibility of all countries, yet each has a distinct set of capabilities that define the extent of its contribution to international development. Reaffirming diverse national realities can allow for a more balanced approach to development that combines different efforts in different contexts with a potential collateral effect, strengthening other countries’ implementation of the agenda. The CBDR principle goes hand in hand with the global goal-setting approach of the 2030 Agenda. Governance through goals, in this case by equalizing the playing field, allows for the ‘naming and shaming’ strategy to pressure actors that do not comply. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, former special advisor on the MDG’s to the UN Secretary General, claims that goal-setting and common responsibility facilitates the mobilization of support and resources, fosters peer pressure within political spheres, and creates epistemic communities that spread  knowledge and advise on best practices10.

The 2030 Agenda is not without flaws and ambiguities. Even though the SDGs represent a new paradigm for international development, they contain contradictions inherent to their multidimensional and universal character. Scholars regard the complexity of quantifying the SDGs as one of their most critical shortcomings11. Moreover, politicization shines through in the language of the SDGs. For example, African and Arabic countries resisted the integration of LGBT rights, and indigenous peoples are mentioned once throughout the resolution12. Since 2015, the optimism surrounding the SDGs has dwindled. The United States for instance, has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and is against the inclusion of climate action language in UN documents13. Clashes with the state-centric politics of the UN will continue to deter progress. 

In theory, the SDGs attempt to be as intersectional as possible—but international politics are not static, which calls for their constant evaluation and adaptation. Government regimes constantly change alongside cultural and social movements and the SDGs must do so as well. Nonetheless, with the 2030 Agenda the UN served its purpose as an international multilateral diplomatic forum, building consensus that resulted in a paradigm shift in international development, successfully legitimizing the synergetic relation of sustainability and development. This new framework brands development as sustainable, universal, and interdependent in economic, social and environmental dimensions and will likely spread through all layers of the UN system. Yet, if it will create a lasting impact within the system and beyond remains undetermined.

 1.    Lebada, A. M. (2019). ‘’New Year New United Nations”: Structural Reforms Begin.”’ International Institute for Sustainable Development. Available at: http://sdg.iisd.org/commentary/policy-briefs/new-year-new-united-nations-structural-reforms-begin/ 2.       United Nations. (2019). “High Level Political Forum”  Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/hlpf
3.     Renwick, D. (2015). “Sustainable Development Goals.” Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/sustainable-development-goals
4.     Stafford-Smith, M., Griggs, D., Gaffney, O., Ullah, F., Reyers, B., Kanie, N., Stigson, B., Shrivastaba, P., Leach., M. and O’Connell, D. (2017). “Integration: the Key to Implementating the Sustainable Development Goals.” Sustainability Science, 12, pp. 912.
5.     United Nations. (2015). “A/RES/70/1 Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf
6.     International Expert Group on Drug Policy Metrics. (2018). “Aligning Agendas: Drugs, Sustainable Development, and the Drive for Policy Coherence.” New York: International Peace Institute, pp. 8. https://www.ipinst.org/2018/02/drugs-sustainable-development-and-the-drive-for-policy-coherence
7.     Donaires Sacilotto, O., Cezarino Oranges, L., Ferreira Caldana, A. C. and Liboni, L. (2019). “Sustainable Development Goals-An Analysis of Outcomes.” Kybernetes, 48(1), pp. 186.
8.     Fukuda-Parr, S. (2018). “Sustainable Development Goals.” Oxford Handbook on the United Nations: Oxford University Press, pp. 3.
9.     United Nations. (2015). “A/RES/70/1 Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” 
10.  Renwick, “Sustainable Development Goals.”
11.   Fukuda-Parr, “Sustainable Development Goals,” pp. 10.
12.   Fukuda-Parr, S. (2016). “From the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals: shifts in purpose, concept, and politics of global goal setting for development.” Gender & Development, 24(1), pp. 48.
13.   Nakamura, D., and Fears, D. (2018). “Trump Administration Resist Global Climate Efforts at Home and Abroad.” The Guardian. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-administration-resists-global-climate-efforts-at home-overseas/2018/12/09/b94a9ef0-fa41-11e8-863c9e2f864d47e7_story.html?utm_term=.da78740ccee6 

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