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SDGs Are Seriously Off Track - Could A 'Beyond GDP' Mindset Revitalise Them?

Words by May East

The High Line in NY - repurposed trainline turned into a greenway with over 500 species of trees, grasses, shrubs & wildflowers over the hustle & bustle of the city⁩

Recent reports tracking progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, contain sobering conclusions: the SDGs are seriously off track. Indeed, we have even regressed in some SDGs targets. This was the context of the Town Hall meeting between H.E. Csaba Kőrösi, President of the General Assembly, and members of civil society last week at the UN.

This meeting was one of a series of meetings with civil society organisations and the scientific community – as UN critical partners – to discuss what transformative lines of work could emerge in preparation for the SDG Summit in September and beyond. In their opening remarks, they referred to the slowness of SDG implementation and with an acute sense of urgency, the PGA – as referred by UN colleagues – stressed ‘we need not only a change of gear but a change of the game’.

While Member States remain the decision-makers, we were told Major Groups and Other Stakeholders (MGoS) should re-engage and assume their role ‘as decision-shapers’ in the quest of revitalising Agenda 2030, by putting pressure on governments and corporations and overhauling mindsets, reporting and metrics

Major Groups and Other Stakeholders should re-engage and assume their role as ‘decision-shapers’ in the midterm journey of the SDGs

What are the questions that need to be addressed?

Einstein is reported to have said that if he only had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the question and the remaining 5 minutes solving it routinely (IAQC, 1986).

Why are the SDGs off track? Some would say it is due to the intersectionality of the global crisis; while global south countries may argue more precisely that it is due to a lack of financing, and others still highlight the use of inappropriate metrics. PGA reminds us of the geopolitical divide spread across the world with 27 long-lasting wars ongoing, resulting in the deep destruction and loss of lives and often involving foreign actors. Major groups believe the Voluntary Annual Review (presented by countries on progress made in implementing the 2030 Agenda during the High Level Political Forum), looks like a ‘beauty contest’ with glossy reports, lacking visible preparation, scientific verification, substantial debate, and relevant follow-up.

Addressing the biggest challenges in achieving the SDGs, the Town Hall participants – largely from the NGO community – positioned inequalities within and between countries (particularly exacerbated during the pandemic) at the top of the list with inadequate financing and climate change tracking.

What transformative changes are necessary to get the SDGs back on track? In a polling exercise, one third of the responses indicated (a true) political commitment as the leverage point, with multi-stakeholder partnership as second (governments do not have the monopoly of wisdom nor the sole means for SDGs implementations), and SDGs financing stimulus as the third preference.

The debt generated during the pandemic and the cost of servicing that debt, means there is less money available for spending on the public goods that are needed to empower SDG implementation. Thus, a global plan to finance the SDGs is needed– as suggested by Jeffrey Sachs.

"We need an overhaul in worldview, policy making and metrics"

- The discussion between the  President of the UN 77th General Assembly and civil society

Beyond GDP – the renewal of economic thinking

There is an evolving discussion taking place at the UN involving a broad rethinking of GDP as the world’s headline indicator of economic progress. Since 1953, GDP has been how we rank countries and judge their performance in a complex System of National Accounts (SNA) overseen by the United Nations. It has been the denominator of choice reflecting the economic growth worldview that has driven us into the Anthropocene. Mind you, discussions of the limitations of measuring GDP are as old as Robert Kennedy’s historic speech at the University of Kansas in 1968; but in this meeting, it was referred as a ‘revolutionary idea’ to renew the economics of sustainable development, which do not effectively yet exist.

Over the years many attempts have been made to account for the shortcomings of GDP, such as Human Development Index (HDI) emphasising that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. The Genuine Progress Indicator and the Gross National Happiness are other frameworks.

Canada has developed the Canadian Index of Well-Being

The New Economics Foundation offers the Happy Planet Index

OECD has unveiled the Better Life Index

Scotland has developed the Scotland’s National Performance Framework with focus on Wellbeing Economy

The illuminating UN report Valuing What Counts – United Nations System-wide Contribution on Progress Beyond Gross Domestic Product suggests policymakers must transform policies and metrics to stop rewarding pollution, waste, and inequalities. It sheds light in the blind spots of GDP, especially those relating to human wellbeing, unpaid work, inequalities, and planetary regeneration. Instead, participatory governance, strong institutions, innovative and ethical economies are key elements to be pursued at ‘glocal’ levels – global and local scales intertwined – to foster a paradigm of resilience within planetary boundaries, leaving no one behind.

Which SDGs are off track?

Seven years to go and not only is progress lacking, but we are moving backwards in some targets. Here are examples:

The world is off-track on its journey to ensure water and sanitation for all by 2030, according to UN-Water Integrated Monitoring Initiative for SDG 6.

It is also off track in achieving the global education goal, SDG 4. If we do not achieve the education goal, the other global goals are unlikely to be achieved either.

In food, investment in agriculture has stalled, whereas indicators related to food security, fish stock sustainability, forest cover, and the value added by sustainable fisheries, show deterioration.

12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are offtrack on the SDG-15 ambitious goal to protect life on land by 2030, which covers all land-based ecosystems and biodiversity

The SDG Summit

To be held at UN Headquarters in September at the mid-point of the 2030 Agenda deadline, ‘it must mark significant progress'

– UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Lines of Work

Some of the key lines of work emerging from this dialogue between UN-civil society have included: changing the metrics; transforming the economic system that rewards polluters, and destroys environments; challenging those who benefit in the transfer of wealth from the poor to the excessively-rich; and overall reverting the chronic underfinancing of sustainable development. In the quest to re-design our human presence on the planet, working with and not against nature, investing in LDC communities who hold the agroecological knowledge of food sovereignty, and questioning the mindset that divide the world and marginalises communities reinforcing learned incapacity, are essential.

After a week in the city that never sleeps, I feel reinvigorated by New York’s limitless energy, but also bombarded by the advertising industry fuelling non-essential desires and overconsumption. As I strolled through Manhattan streets in the evening negotiating space with mounds of waste, I was reminded of the power of individuals to create a new equilibrium between human desires and necessities and the true reality of consumption levels the planet can sustain.


Seven years ago, I interviewed the then Ambassador Csaba Kőrösi, a major architect and negotiator of the SDGs for The Scotsman. There was hope in the SDG framework being shaped through a true participatory process.

The Townhall discussion between the  President of the UN General Assembly and civil society can be watched here.

To read the original article, click here.

To learn more about the work of May East, click here.

To learn more about the work of the UNHS Climate & Gender Team, click here.

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