An Overarching Goal for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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United Nations Information Centre
The UN Sustainable Development Goals will further extend the mission of the organization's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015.

Communities, countries, and the planet as a whole need to articulate shared goals, and create ways to track progress in meeting them. This is the essence of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) process currently underway at the UN. The SDGs are the follow-up to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), due to expire in 2015. They represent a substantial commitment on the part of UN member states to achieve truly sustainable development over the next 15 years.

The SDG process is building consensus on what these shared goals are and how to measure progress towards meeting them. While discussion continues on a list of SDGs due to be announced in 2015 (currently 17 – see Table 1), there is a critical missing element in the process: articulation and measurement of the overarching goal or “ultimate end” of the SDGs and how the list of sub-goals and targets contribute to achieving that larger goal. The goals are being discussed as separate elements in isolation from each other and from any overarching goal to which they might contribute.

In fact, there is broad emerging agreement about this overarching goal. There are many ways of expressing it, but the essence is “a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustainable.”1

There are three elements to this goal that cover the usual three components of sustainable development: economy (a high quality of life or well-being), society (equitably shared), and the environment (sustainable, staying within planetary boundaries). There is also the understanding that all three of these elements are interdependent and must be satisfied jointly. It is no good to have a high quality of life for an elite few that is not equitably shared or sustainable, or a sustainable but low quality of life where everyone suffers equally, or a high quality of life for everyone that will collapse in the future. We want all three together in an integrated and balanced way and any one or two without the others is not sufficient.

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Figure 1. A hierarchy of goals along the Ends-Means spectrum.9

It is also important to recognize that the economy is embedded in society, which is embedded in the rest of nature.2,3 These three elements are nested in a way that means that they are extremely interdependent. We can no longer treat the economy separately, without considering its strong interdependence with society and the rest of nature.

This goal as stated above can be seen as the ‘ultimate end’ in the spectrum of means and ends shown in Figure 1. The SDGs are ‘intermediate means’ or ‘ultimate means’ on the diagram that contribute to achieving the ultimate end or overarching goal. The SDGs can therefore best be considered as ‘sub-goals’ contributing in different ways, in different times and places to the overarching goal or ultimate end.

For simplicity we will refer to this overarching goal as ‘sustainable well-being’, recognizing that this well-being or quality of life must be equitably shared, both within and among nations, and that it is interdependent with the well-being of the rest of nature.

Another way of describing the three elements of sustainable well-being4,5,6 is as the integrated provision of:

  1. Efficient Allocation: Building a Living Economy
  2. Fair Distribution: Ensuring Capabilities for Flourishing
  3. Sustainable Scale: Staying Within Planetary Boundaries

Table 1 shows how the current draft list of 17 SDGs cluster under these three headings as sub-goals.

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Table 1. The three elements of Sustainable Well-Being and the current list of 17 SDG sub-goals that most directly contribute to them as a way of organizing the SDGs.

Major challenges in achieving the sustainable well-being include improved understanding of: (1) all the aspects of sustainable well-being; (2) how the intermediate and ultimate means contribute to it; and (3) how to measure progress toward a world in which all people can achieve it.

There are several alternative measures of progress toward sustainable well-being currently being developed and tested7 (see also www.wikiprogress.org). They can be divided into three broad groups: 1) those that adjust economic measures to reflect social and environmental factors; 2) those that depend on subjective measures of well-being drawn from surveys; and 3) those that use weighted composite indicators of well-being including factors such as housing, life expectancy, leisure time, and democratic engagement.8

None of these measures are perfect, but collectively, they offer the building blocks for the integrated measures of sustainable well-being that we sorely need. Creating a viable and broadly accepted measure of sustainable well-being will require a sustained, transdisciplinary effort to integrate metrics and build a broad consensus. This process of developing measures is underway, but can be accelerated by connecting it with the ongoing SDG process, either as an integral part of the process or as a follow-on.

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UN staff in Bonn bring awareness to the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, marking the same year that the list of Sustainable Development Goals will be announced in the next step toward global equity and sustainability.

The SDG process represents a huge global opportunity to recalibrate our shared goals and commit ourselves to the path toward a sustainable and desirable future. Some will argue that building this kind of consensus is unnecessary or impossible, but the history of the MDGs shows that broad consensus around shared goals is possible and it can drive significant positive change. This needs to be accelerated and integrated into the SDG process. The overarching goal of sustainable well-being should be clearly articulated as the integrating element. Time is clearly running out and missing this opportunity would be a global disaster.

It is often said that you get what you measure. To build a sustainable and desirable future we need to measure what we want—sustainable well-being—remembering that it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.