The Sustainable Development Goals: What Are They? Why Do They Matter?

What Are They?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in 2012. The aim of the conference was to produce a set of universal goals that would meet the urgent environmental, political, and socio-economic challenges facing our communities (UNDP, 2015). The Conference included 193 member states of the United Nations, all of whom agreed to the 17 goals established within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable DevelopmentThe goals cover 3 dimensions of sustainable development; economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental protection.

Background on the Goals

The SDGs replaced a previously established set of goals called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which started the global effort to tackle the widespread issues of poverty. In 2000, world leaders came together at the UN headquarters in New York to adopt the UN Millennium Declaration (UNDP, 2015). This declaration committed participating nations to a new global partnership aimed at the reduction of extreme poverty, and set out 8 time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015. The established goals included:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty & hunger;
  2. Achieve universal primary education;
  3. Promote gender equality & empower women;
  4. Reduce child mortality;
  5. Improve maternal health;
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases;
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability; and
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development.

For over a decade, the MDGs allowed for progress in several important areas, reducing income poverty, providing access to water and sanitation, decreasing child mortality, and drastically improving maternal health (Fukuda-Parr, 2013). Additionally, a global movement was kick-started for free primary education, inspiring countries to invest in their future generations. Out of all the progress made, the most significant was the strides made in combatting HIV/AIDS and other treatable diseases (i.e., malaria, tuberculosis).

Figure 1 — Key MDG Achievements

While the MDGs were a great start to this global movement for sustainable change, they were lacking in many ways as well. It has now been acknowledged widely that the MDGs were too narrow and left out many priorities, such as employment and decent work, sustainability and climate action, and reducing inequality and discrimination — all of which were among the top contemporary challenges facing virtually every country — whether developed or third-world (Fukuda-Parr, 2013). Overall, the over-simplification of these objectives displaced concerns of choice, dignity, and complex social challenges.

The Switch from the MDGs to the SDGs

World leaders agreed that the MDGs were lacking in many ways, and met to create a new framework — the SDGs, in 2012, years before the original 2015 deadline (UNDP, 2015). The SDGs were an ambitious commitment to finish what was started with the implementation of the MDGs — and tackle more of the challenges facing our modern world, by dealing with the threats of climate change, management of natural resources, achieving gender equality, or better health, helps eradicate poverty, and fostering peace and inclusive communities will help reduce inequalities and help foster economies. One of the most crucial changes with the implementation of the SDGs was the recognition of climate change as an urgent issue that is essential to successful sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. Specifically, SDG #13 — Climate Action aims to promote immediate action to combat climate change and its present and expected impacts. Essentially, meeting these goals is our greatest chance to improve life for the next generation.

Global Progress on the Goals

The successful implementation of the 17 SDGs demand nothing short of a transformation of the socio-economic, political, and justice systems that govern us today, to guarantee the well-being and human rights of all persons. They require considerable political and corporate participation and ambitious action to be taken by all stakeholders. Before the outbreak of COVID-19 at the beginning of 2020, there had been significant progress on a number of the SDGs by a number of participating countries. However, not nearly enough progress was being made to meet the 2030 deadline.

Figure 2— SDG Index & Dashboards Report 2018

Figure 2 illustrates the SDG Index for 2018, where a country’s performance on the SDGs is ranked, from a score of 0 (worst outcome) to 100 (best outcome). As the 2018 Index shows, more developed countries have higher scores, while many of the less developed countries seen to have lower ones — in addition to a number of countries that do not have the capacity or willingness to make the relevant information available. In 2019, Denmark scored the highest at 85.2, suggesting the country is 85.2% of the way to the best possible outcome across all of the SDGs. Alternatively, the Central African Republic has a score of only 39.1 (SDG Global Index, 2019).

Figure 3 — Key Progress Summary

While the map in Figure 2 makes it look as if participating countries are largely succeeding, when analyzing the data for each country, the data shows several things; for example, SDG #1 — No Poverty has been met by the largest number of countries, with 36 of 193 countries meeting their targets successfully in 2019. However, SDG #2 — Zero Hunger, managed to be met by zero countries in 2019. As well, there are major inconsistencies in the data; for instance, the share of the world population living in extreme poverty declined to 10% in 2015, down from 16% in 2010, and 36% in 1990 (SDG Global Index, 2019). However, while the pace of poverty reduction is slowing down, with baseline projections suggesting that 6% of the world population would still be living in extreme poverty by 2030, missing the target of ending poverty (see Figure 4).

Figure 4— World Progress on Ending Poverty

The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 was recently released, and provides data that illustrates how, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, progress remained uneven and on the whole, the world was found to be off track for meeting the SDGs by the 2030 deadline. Some gains were visible, including (SDG Report, 2020):

  • A fall in the number of children and youth out of school;
  • The incidence of many communicable diseases was in decline;
  • Improved access to safe drinking water; and
  • Female representation in leadership roles and government was increasing.

However, at the same time, the number of people suffering from food insecurity was increasing, the natural environment continued to be adversely and irreversibly impacted, and alarming levels of inequality persisted in allregions. Health systems in many countries are on the brink of collapse, the livelihoods of half the global workforce has been significantly affected, and more than 1.6 billion students are out of school (SDG Report, 2020). The change required to successfully meet these goals, was still not occurring at the rate or scale necessary at the beginning of the year.

Now, due to COVID-19, an unprecedented health and socio-economic crisis is threatening both lives and livelihoods, making the achievement of the goals even more challenging, and even more unlikely.

Updates on the impacts of COVID-19 on the progress of the SDGs, and more specifically, our national and global well-being, will be coming soon to The Sustainable Switch.


Fukuda-Parr, S. (2015). MDG Strengths as Weaknesses. Retrieved from

Kahkonen, N. (2015). 17 Goals to Rule Them All: How the SDGs Can Benefit Organizations. Retrieved from

Sustainable Development Report.(2019). Rankings. Retrieved from

United Nations Development Programme. (2015). Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from

4 responses to “The Sustainable Development Goals: What Are They? Why Do They Matter?”

  1. A comprehensive description of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thank you for the post…


    1. No problem! We’re very glad that you enjoyed the piece. Keep your eye out for more pieces on The Sustainable Switch regarding the SDGs!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Just what I was looking for. Do you have anymore resources for the #13 Climate Action? I’m looking at the developments of the zero emissions and carbon neutral, plus how to describe this to young folks. They probably know more than I do! I’m new to WordPress, so I have a lot of exploring to do.


      2. Sounds amazing!
        At the moment we do not, but now that we know it’s something the community would be interested in, we will work on creating more resources pertaining to SDG 13!


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