Sustainable Development Goals: A revolution begins

OECD Observer

Charlotte Moreau/OECD Observer

As negotiations near conclusion on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), countries are honing in on what it will take to implement them. There are currently 17 goals on the table, and by the time the UN summit to launch the goals takes place in September, the much-emphasised “transformative” nature of the goals could gain traction, as could the “revitalised global partnership” called for under Goal 17.

What might prove to be the single most effective instrument for implementing the SDGs is also in the call for “multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilise and share knowledge”. Countries need knowledge to inform their policy choices. The SDGs make the co-creation of new knowledge among countries, state institutions and non-state actors a must, and indeed for most countries, achieving the goals may well depend on it.

The proposed universality of the SDGs underscores the reality that most countries acknowledge, and this marks something of a departure from the year when the now expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched in 2000.

If the Millennium Development Goals were, as one of their architects, Mark Malloch Brown, puts it, about identifying “the pocketbook” issues–health, education, water–which people want money spent on, then perhaps the SDGs could be characterised as putting that money into the pocketbook in the first place. Economics has returned to share the centre stage in the SDG debate.

However, debates over growth have led to broad agreement that what matters is the quality of that growth. Growth needs to take care of people and of the future. Most would admit this is work in progress.

Equity is a key issue. As a consequence of the changing distribution of global economic weight–the so-called “shifting wealth” phenomenon–faster growth among developing countries in the 2000s fostered better livelihoods, a burgeoning middle class and greater optimism among people in middle and low income countries compared with their counterparts in the developed world. While inequality among countries remains a concern, who benefits domestically from growth is increasingly important for policymakers.

This applies not only to developing countries. Many developed economies are also witnessing rising inequality, in incomes and  opportunities, particularly for young people. At the outset of the MDGs, this discussion might have been predominantly about what is fair. Today, it is about both what is fair and what is good for the economy. Compelling evidence shows that countries that promote equal opportunity for all are those that grow and prosper. Addressing high and growing inequality within countries is critical to strong, sustained–and sustainable–growth.

This debate spills over into discussions on education. Literacy received a significant boost due to the laudable progress under the MDGs to get more children, particularly girls, into school. The quality of educational outcomes and their relevance for the economy are now moving to centre stage: are today’s children developing the skills that tomorrow’s workforce will need?

Companies as much as governments have a stake in many of these issues–for their own countries and the foreign markets they wish to enter. In Latin America, companies are 13 times more likely than firms in Asia and the Pacific to cite insufficient workforce skills as a major constraint on their business. Addressing such mismatches is essential for narrowing gaps in living standards, and in the ability of countries to participate in an ever-denser global economy.

Improving evidence on new trade and production trends can help governments and the private sector identify concrete actions to promote development through greater integration into global value chains.

Many suggest that fully empowering women can be the single greatest accelerator for achieving the SDGs. The mixed results of the MDGs serve to push the debate beyond measuring outcomes to examining root causes in institutions and social practices that perpetuate discrimination against women in the public, economic and private spheres of their lives. Few countries, if any, can say “we got it right”.

All this underscores the power of the holistic and universal agenda represented by the SDGs. Countries need to work together to build the practical tools that enable them to embrace a multidimensional approach to their challenges and opportunities. This means targeting multiple policy objectives (sustainability, equity, growth and well-being as a whole, for instance); taking a crosscutting rather than sector-based lens to analyse competing challenges and their drivers; and considering compatibilities and complementarities between different policy options.

Scanning and leveraging existing global experience will help. However, countries also need to co-create a common knowledge base, and forge a new collective wisdom and shared understanding for the road ahead. This would not only improve awareness and dialogue, but draw more international attention to the critical issues where more attention is needed.

Therein may lie a key to Goal 17’s revitalised partnership for sustainable development.



©OECD Observer July 2015

Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q4 2017 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.3% Dec 2017 annual
Trade: +4.3% exp, +4.3% imp, Q3 2017
Unemployment: 5.5% Dec 2017
Last update: 23 Feb 2018


Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly

Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • Ambassador Aleksander Surdej, Permanent Representative of Poland to the OECD, was a guest on France 24’s English-language show “The Debate”, where he discussed French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Papers show “past coming back to haunt us”: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria tells Sky News that the so-called "Paradise Papers" show a past coming back to haunt us, but one which is now being dismantled. Please watch the video.
  • When someone asks me to describe an ideal girl, in my head, she is a person who is physically and mentally independent, brave to speak her mind, treated with respect just like she treats others, and inspiring to herself and others. But I know that the reality is still so much different. By Alda, 18, on International Day of the Girl. Read more.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Read some of the insightful remarks made at OECD Forum 2017, held on 6-7 June. OECD Forum kick-started events with a focus on inclusive growth, digitalisation, and trust, under the overall theme of Bridging Divides.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018