How can we get the SDGs back on track?

Published on 20 September 2023

Melissa Leach

Emeritus Fellow

The 2030 Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), provides a vision of an aspirational, equitable and just future for all, thriving on a safe and resilient planet. Together with other key multilateral agreements, it provides a compass for reorienting development in a fundamentally new direction for the benefit of human and non-human natures. However, progress towards the 2030 Agenda was already off track prior to 2019 and now, as the 2023 Sustainable Development Report shows, has deteriorated further and halted in many areas.

A photo of the United Nations building lit up with the colours and logos of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Image: United Nations/Cia Pak

Intersecting crises

The challenges facing the SDGs have multiplied and intensified in our era of intersecting crises – what some term polycrisis. These intense disruptions and destabilisations, from the Covid-19 pandemic and its long tail impacts, to environmental damage, including climate change, heat, pollution and biodiversity loss; the unsustainability of dominant economic, energy and food systems. In addition the challenges of conflict, migration and forced displacement are growing, and the spirals of economic crisis, inflation and debt afflicting households and nations, are underpinned and connected to rising geo-political tensions.

This current situation highlights three, linked paradoxes:

 1. Universality vs. global political-economic division.

The universality of the SDG agenda, signaling global development and requiring global solidarities to meet shared global challenges, is more important than ever. Yet it’s also clear that global solidarities co-exist with and are challenged by sharp, structural political-economic divisions between regions and nations. We have seen this so clearly with global vaccine inequities, climate injustices, and with protectionist food, trade and debt policies, and the huge challenges they create for financing the SDGs. At the same time, global governance is more frayed than ever and the multilateralism of the UN system fragmented by corporate multi-‘stakeholderism’ and the reinforcement of alternative power blocs such as the expanded BRICS.

2. Inclusion vs. intersecting inequalities.

‘Leave no-one behind’, that critical SDG principle, is more important than ever – yet worsening. The effects of polycrisis are being felt worst by those already marginalised and living in poverty, feeding off and exacerbating structural violence and the kinds of intersecting inequalities across gender, class, ethnicity and place.  Our World Social Science Report, even back in 2016, highlighted all of these, which are now intensified by factors such as the heavy-handed Covid-19 responses that exacerbated intersecting precarities as evidenced by our Pandemic Preparedness Project in Africa and the Covid Collective , and the effects of cost of living crises on women’s poverty and care work.

3. Structures vs. uncertainties.

All of the aforementioned challenges are characterised not just by calculable risks, but by wider forms of uncertainties, ambiguities and areas of ignorance in systems that are themselves complex and emergent. Creating uncertainty and then profiting from it is also a useful strategy for those in power – as we’ve seen in global financial systems, energy and in food systems where the four companies controlling 90 percent of the global grain trade have benefited from speculation in fluctuating grain markets.

Ways to recast development

Is the answer to return to a simpler, narrower, less ambitious agenda? One that might focus on just a few goals and targets – back to the siloes, to prioritise? No. Firstly because this is infeasible amidst the realities of the world, and second because it would fail both people and planet.

Thus, in line with the recasting development agenda we’ve been discussing at IDS, and with the debates we’ve been having in the International Science Council as presented in a report to the High-level Political Forum in July, it is vital to recapture integration not fragmentation. An urgent shift is needed, for a new approach to development that recaptures the transformative, systemic approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.  An approach that recognises the interdependencies of the SDGs and other global policy frameworks and is supported by coherent roadmaps, narratives and actions.

These could usefully draw on the classification of the six SDG transformations articulated in numerous scientific assessments, such as the The World in 2050 (2018, 2019, 2020) and the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR, 2019):

(1) Human capacity, well-being and health.
(2) Consumption and production toward sustainable and just economies.
(3) Decarbonization and universal energy access.
(4) Food and nutrition, biosphere and water.
(5) Urban and peri-urban areas and mobility.
(6) Global environmental and human commons including the digital revolution, and explore the potential to consolidate composite targets and indicators.

We must move the central promise of “Leaving no-one behind” beyond rhetoric, forging a social contract for everyone and sharing positive narratives around decisions and practices that work for all, but crucially, also challenging the power relations – including in capitalist systems – that work against these. 

The role of science, technology and innovation

There are refreshed opportunities for science, technology and innovation to be at the heart of the integration, transformation and action needed for the SDGs. But not just technical science. We also need the social and political science that helps identify transformative pathways, and the attention to diverse, decolonised knowledges that make sure local perspectives and priorities are included. We also need the strengthening of the science-policy-society interface, accounting for local realities and needs, and ensuring that decision-making at all levels – global, regional, national and local – is rigorously evidence-informed.

Fostering hope requires uniting efforts at all levels and nurture a genuine understanding of the multifaceted challenges we face. This will unlock multiple shared benefits, build resilience to risks and facilitate collaboration. It requires a concerted, collective effort, from rethinking funding conditions to integrated monitoring and evaluation systems, but also a clear-sighted and deliberative approach to the politics in which all of this is embedded.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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