The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals Fall Flat

COMMENTARY Global Politics

The United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals Fall Flat

Jan 31, 2023 17 min read
Brett D. Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Brett is the Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in Heritage’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.
An infographic depicting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the U.N.'s 2030 Agenda. ys / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The U.N.'s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in the words of development economist William Easterly, “senseless, dreamy, and garbled.”

The scope of the SDGs is the antithesis of a focused development strategy.

There is a role for governments—and the U.N.—but the drive and ambition of people in a free environment are the crux of development.

Encouraging development has been on the agenda of the United Nations for decades. Pointing to the United Nations Charter, which expresses the determination to “promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,” the General Assembly has adopted numerous resolutions focused on development and instructing the organization to promote higher standards of living and other development related objectives highlighted in Article 55 of the Charter.

This has resulted in a profusion of organizations, funds, programs, offices, and other entities in the U.N. system that include development within their mandates and activities. The U.N. Sustainable Development Group, which includes 37 separate entities, “guides, supports, tracks and oversees the coordination of development operations in 162 countries and territories.” Funding for U.N. development activities in these countries and territories totaled over $38 billion in 2019.

With all these entities and resources, you would think that the U.N. system would have great impact on development. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. A 2011 study assessing the best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked U.N. development entities among the worst and least effective performers. In fact, the study concluded, “We rate donor agencies from best to worst on aid practices… The biggest difference is between the UN agencies, who mostly rank in the bottom half of donors, and everyone else.”

One reason for this inefficiency is that a large portion of funding is consumed internally for salaries and associated staff costs and operational expenses. According to the assessment cited above, “Bilaterals have lower overhead costs than multilaterals, who in turn have lower cost ratios than UN agencies. The most extreme among the latter are UNDP and UNFPA, who actually spend more on administrative costs than aid disbursements (129% and 125%, respectively).”

The U.N. propensity for high overhead costs has continued since that paper was published. For instance, the U.N. Regional Economic Commission in Africa allocated nearly the entirety of its regular budget to staff costs, travel, operating expenses, furniture, and similar expenditures in 2021, while dedicating less than 1 percent to “grants and other contributions.” The four other regional economic commissions for Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Western Asia have similar cost structures.

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Other U.N. entities likewise dedicate large portions of their budgets to staff and overhead. For instance, UNESCO programs accounted for only slightly more than 50 percent of its integrated budget. However, even the small portion of the budget dedicated to programs, projects and activities is subject to mismanagement in U.N. organizations, as demonstrated by the recent revelation of financial mismanagement at U.N. Office for Project Services.

U.N. development efforts may also be characterized, charitably, as disorderly. A less charitable characterization is that they are unfocused, ineffective, and often at odds. Over the years, this dissatisfactory reality has led to frequent attempts to impose order and a strategic vision on the U.N. system.

Most recently, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres acknowledged, “[W]e all know that the system is not functioning at its full potential. We are held back by insufficient coordination and accountability on system-wide activities. … We need to change in order to secure the promise of sustainable development, human rights and peace for our grandchildren.” He proposed changes to make the “UN development system to be fit for the purpose, opportunities and challenges presented by the 2030 Agenda.” Key among these efforts was strengthening the authority of U.N. Resident Coordinators over U.N. country teams to coordinate their development work. That recommendation has appeared in various U.N. resolutions and documents for decades, and always it has faced resistance within the system:

Problems persist, such as larger UN entities’ resistance to coordination. The fragmented UN system of specialized agencies and semi-independent programs gives considerable autonomy to heads of organizations and limits decision-making by the Secretary-General. This favored institutional resistance. It also prohibited the streamlining of the over 1,500 regional and national representative offices of the UN development system—a Herculean task at best. Although it might be early to conclude, the observation by the German Development Institute that the reform has not resulted so far in a big push on delivering better for the 2030 Agenda is a cause for concern.

While poor coordination and bloated overhead are indeed concerns, there is a more fundamental problem with the U.N. development agenda—namely that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is, in the words of development economist William Easterly, “senseless, dreamy, and garbled.” Better coordination and increased efficiency cannot overcome a flawed approach.

The MDG Success?

With much fanfare, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 as the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were set to expire. The MDGs were the detailed roadmap to fulfill the U.N. Millennium Declaration, adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000, that reaffirmed the principles outlined in the U.N. Charter and expressed the intent to ensure that economic development and globalization were widely beneficial. The resulting eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 indicators of the MDGs were primarily aligned with pre-existing development objectives like improving primary school completion rates and access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The U.N. was and remains quite proud of the MDGs. In 2013, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon boasted, “The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history.”

This is vastly overstated. The 15 years from 2000-2015 did indeed seen a sharp decline in extreme poverty. However, most of the gains made in reducing extreme poverty are attributable to economic growth in China and India, not to any effort by the U.N. or exclusive impact of the MDGs. As noted by The Economist:

China (which has never shown any interest in MDGs) is responsible for three quarters of the achievement. Its economy has been growing so fast that, even though inequality is rising fast, extreme poverty is disappearing. China pulled 680m people out of misery in 1981–2010, and reduced its extreme-poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to 10% now.

Indeed, progress toward the MDGs was not uniform. A 2015 analysis by the World Bank found that “progress in reducing poverty has been uneven across regions and 20 percent of countries are seriously off track… Progress is most sluggish among countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 45 percent of countries are seriously off track.” Regional disparities were apparent for other indicators as well, including malnutrition and gender equality.

There is also the question of whether the progress measured would have happened regardless. Specifically, how much improvement would have been realized based on already established economic and social policies, assistance, private investment, trade, and other factors that influence the targets measured under the MDGs? Proving cause and effect is very difficult, and attempts to assess the impact of the MDGs draw mixed conclusions.

Measurement is made even more challenging by disparate data quality. As observed by a Brookings Institution study of the impact of the MDGs:

In attempting to assess trends during the MDG era, we found that many key observations are missing, many are likely subject to measurement error, and many will likely be revised in coming years. All of this motivates a considerable degree of caution not to interpret any of our results with false precision. They are presented only as best estimates given the information available.

In addition to problems with data quality, there were large data gaps. According to analysis by the World Bank, in 2015 (the final year of the MDGs) countries, on average, reported data on only 68 percent of the MDG indicators.

SDG Confusion

All these issues apply in spades to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs are the MDGs on steroids. As the Preamble of Agenda 2030 states:

We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets which we are announcing today demonstrate the scale and ambition of this new universal Agenda. They seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve. They seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.

This sweeping rhetoric was the epitome of hubris. It is, sadly, no surprise that: the development initiatives have left millions of people behind; human rights remain denied to many in authoritarian states like China; and women lack empowerment in countries like Afghanistan.

Indications of underperformance appeared early. In 2019, Secretary-General Guterres warned that “there is no escaping the fact that the global landscape for Sustainable Development Goal implementation has generally deteriorated since 2015” and that goals to reduce extreme poverty, hunger, protect biodiversity, gender equality, and other targets would be missed according to projections. In fact, an independent assessment that same year reported that, four years after the adoption of the SDGs, no country was on track to meet all the goals and that many indicators showed backsliding.

The situation has deteriorated since, leading Secretary-General Guterres to raise calls earlier this year to “rescue” the Sustainable Development Goals. In February, he noted:

Some 100 million more people have been pushed into extreme poverty. Over 160 million people have been added to those facing hunger. We are experiencing the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression, with hundreds of millions of people out of work or underemployed, especially in the developing world. With a global financial system that is failing the Global South, the growing divergence between developed and developing countries is becoming systemic. The overwhelming message from our consultations was that it is time to change course; and that Our Common Agenda offers a way to address this crisis head on and turbocharge the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Secretary-General Guterres blames the pandemic and other crises for the backsliding, but it was clear long before COVID and recent conflicts that the SDGs were failing. The problem is less about outside events—crises occur with depressing regularity, albeit rarely so clumped together and severe as those of the past two years—than it is with the fact that the SDGs lack focus, misread their utility and how development is achieved, are based on questionable data, and demand unreasonable financial commitments.

Lack of focus. The scope of the SDGs is the antithesis of a focused development strategy. When deliberations began on a successor to the MDGs, activists lined up to ensure that the number and character of the goals and indicators would substantially broaden. They succeeded. As observed by The Economist, “The SDGs are supposed to set out how to improve the lives of the poor in emerging countries, and how to steer money and government policy toward areas where they can do the most good. But the efforts of the SDG drafting committees are so sprawling and misconceived that the entire enterprise is being set up to fail.”

As every lobby and interest group added their priority, the SDGs grew ever more unwieldy. Looking back, the eight goals, 21 targets, and 60 indicators of the MDGs are a model of modesty and focus compared to the 17 goals, 169 targets, and 231 indicators of the SDGs. In addition to the expanded number, the nature of the goals also expanded. It was no longer acceptable to focus on traditional development goals like increasing employment, per capita income, literacy, life expectancy, access to water and sanitation, etc. To address the “complex nature” of poverty, the SDGs needed to include urbanization, substance abuse, climate change, mental health, tobacco use, sustainable tourism, and much more.

In some instances, the targets and indicators make sense. Mostly, these more sensible indicators follow on the MDGs in that they measure traditional development outcomes, such as reducing extreme poverty or improving health and education. Other goals are related to development, such as energy access, employment, and industrialization. But some, such as halving the number of deaths from road traffic accidents globally, are unrelated to development.

In some cases, the targets are hopelessly ambitious. For instance, is not enough to improve situations, the SDGs aim grandly to “end poverty everywhere,” “end hunger,” “end child labor in all its forms,” “eliminate gender disparities,” “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spaces,” and “eliminate slums.” These are not realistic goals; they are wishful aspirations.

The result is a hodgepodge that, to be inclusive, makes everything an equal priority… which means, of course, that nothing is a priority. As observed by economist William Easterly, “The MDGs were so appealing because they were so precise and measurable. ... As a later U.N. document in 2005 made clear, the MDGs held everyone accountable for actually meeting these ‘quantified and time-bound’ targets. In the SDGs, it is hard to imagine what the time-bound and quantified target is for harmony with nature.”

Misreading development. Immodestly, the aim of the SDGs is “transforming our world.” This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the SDGs are and how development advances.

SDGs don’t drive development; they are not a development strategy. At best, the SDG indicators are measures of progress toward development. For the U.N. to claim that the SDGs are driving development or transforming the world is akin to saying the speedometer is making the car move. Except it’s worse: at least the speedometer is an accurate and objective measure; the SDGs measure so many things that they defy application as a development strategy. As one economic analysis observed, “The theoretical foundation of SDGs is weak and a comprehensive sustainable development theory does not exist. Instead, there are different contested theoretical approaches and definitions. The SDGs provide a list of targets, with no clear priorities and no theory on how these goals can be attained.”

Even if the SDGs were a development strategy, however, they would be the wrong approach. The record of trying to achieve development through imposition of a generic plan, however well intentioned, is not good. Development is not a top-down process, but an organic one that flourishes when economic freedom and the rule of law are protected. According to data in The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, economic freedom is positively related to many of the goals and targets deemed desirable by the SDGs, including improved health, a cleaner environment, higher per capita incomes, democracy, and poverty reduction.

When governments inject themselves into economic decision-making, their actions, however well-meaning, tend toward coercion, standardization, and the restriction of freedom. They cannot possibly account for the individual circumstances and needs of individuals as effectively as a free marketplace can. And however well-meant they may be, they are nearly certain to impede efficiency and thus promote the waste of resources and effort. The Index of Economic Freedom provides compelling evidence that it is not the policies we fail to implement that hold back economic growth. Rather, it is the counterproductive policies that our governments all too often put in place.

Each country, indeed, each region within countries, faces different development challenges and must apply solutions tailored to their unique circumstances. A global development effort, even one that was implemented with more accuracy and focus than the SDGs, will inevitably be a poor fit for many less-developed communities. By focusing on government intervention and top-down policy efforts, Agenda 2030 hurts its own cause.

Dubious data. Why say that the SDGs are “at best” a measure of progress? Because there are serious issues with the data used for the indicators. This is a concern because data are central to the SDG effort—namely to determine where progress is being made and where more resources and interventions should be applied. Without internationally comparable, vetted, reliable, and regularly updated data, the main purpose of the SDGs is undermined. Unfortunately, there are several reasons to question the data used for measuring progress toward the SDGs.

First, the sheer number of indicators is huge—roughly four times the number under the MDGs. Many of these indicators were introduced with the SDGs. As noted by the World Bank, “When the global indicator framework for the SDGs was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2017, 84 (36%) out of the 231 indicators did not have any internationally established methodology or standards.”

While attempts have been made, with some success, to establish a uniform methodology for these indicators, most governments had no previous experience gathering and verifying this data. Thus, it is unsurprising that “most countries’ statistical systems appear to be struggling to provide data on SDG indicators,” and there are serious data gaps. According to a World Bank assessment, “On average, countries had reported one or more data points on only 55% of the SDG indicators for the years 2015-2019. No country reported data on more than 90% of the SDG indicators, while 22 countries reported on less than 25% of the SDG indicators.” The situation is worse for developing countries that have fewer resources and less ability to gather and report data and often are overwhelmed. But “even highly developed countries are still not able to report more than 40-50% of the SDG indicators… [overall] four years into the implementation period of the 2030 Agenda, only 44% of SDG indicators have sufficient data for proper global and regional monitoring.”

In addition to data gaps, there are discrepancies. Even relatively straight forward data on national accounts can be difficult to compare between databases and countries. For instance, much of the economic data for the SDGs is compiled by the U.N. Statistics Division through questionnaires sent annually to national statistics offices or taken from data compiled by other international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Even assuming that governments are reporting data in good faith—not a guarantee with countries like China whose economic data has long been considered unreliable—differences in data sources (e.g., central banks versus national statistics agencies), methodologies, dates of submission, or poor data quality (e.g., private remittances that often go unreported) can result in data inconsistencies that inhibit apples-to-apples comparisons. In addition, even when there is a single source that applies a consistent methodology to the data, the scope can be an issue because data is not collected for all countries. For instance, high income countries are not included in the World Bank’s International Debt Statistics database.

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Then there is the problem of subjectivity. The SDGs are replete with imprecise goals and targets such as ensuring “significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources… to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions” or to “substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.” What qualifies as significant mobilization or substantial reduction? Even if countries are able and willing to track and report data in a timely and accurate manner, subjective assessments like these undermine objective assessments on when targets are being met.

Unreasonable cost. The SDGs may be a poor strategy for development, but they do provide one valuable service to the U.N. in that they can be used to justify huge financial commitments. As noted by Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus think tank:

The OECD has estimated that meeting all 169 specific development targets would cost USD 3.3-4.5 trillion annually—about the same as the United States' 2016 federal budget, and much, much more than the nearly USD 132 billion spent globally on overseas development aid last year.

That sounds like a huge amount, but the cost estimates continue to climb. According to a 2020 World Bank analysis, “The UN estimates that $5 trillion to $7 trillion per year between 2015 and 2030 is needed to achieve a set of SDGs globally, with the estimates being $3.3 trillion to $4.5 trillion per year in developing countries, mainly for basic infrastructure, food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, health and education.” Additional hundreds of billions in funds are needed to address hunger, health, and other SGD goals. Currently, the U.N. notes that “there is a sizable SDG financing gap” that totals more than $1 trillion per year.

Even before the COVID pandemic there was little indication that developed countries were willing to provide the financing to meet these estimates. The notion that the world will dedicate over 8 percent of global gross national income to the SDGs is simply not reasonable—especially since the SDGs have not delivered as promised.

Don’t Confuse Money and Goals for Development

As acknowledged by Secretary-General Guterres, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are “moving in the wrong direction.” This should not be surprising. Even a well-designed and well-executed development strategy is unlikely to transform the world. The SDGs are neither, and the disappointment is par for the course at the U.N. where overpromising and underdelivering are a way of life. Secretary-General Guterres calls for a rescue, but the U.N. plan to turbocharge Agenda 2030 simply doubles down on a confused and failing effort.

As Milton Friedman observed, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” The SDGs are not a map to development, and we should not let the desire to help blind us to the problems of the SDGs. The SDGs are too broad and vague—a fact that the U.N. implicitly acknowledges in its Sustainable Development Report 2022 that identifies a subset of SDG goals that need special focus. But this again misses the target and reveals the mindset behind the SDGs—namely that, despite decades of failed and underwhelming development agendas, the experts know what people and countries need better than the people themselves. As William Easterly noted:

The "what should we do?" industry does not show any signs of going out of business soon. It gives us public intellectuals something to do and it gives politicians something to recommend. ... But the SDGs may be the best demonstration yet that action plans don't necessarily lead to action, that "we" are not necessarily the right ones to act, and that there are alternative routes to progress. Global progress has a lot more to do with the advocacy of the ideal of human freedom than with action plans.

While many individual SDG targets may be useful and worth tracking, asserting a top-down development strategy based on metric achievement merely repeats past failures. Development has blossomed where policy impediments are removed and people are able to seize the opportunities before them. There is a role for governments—and the U.N.—but the drive and ambition of people in a free environment are the crux of development.

This piece is an essay from “2030 Agenda: A Critical Reflection,” a forthcoming book to be published by Spain’s Fundacion Disenso