The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Dynamics of Well-being

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UN Photo / Mark Garten
Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor for the UN Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, speaks at the UN Sustainable Development Summit 2015, at which world leaders adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are an unprecedented step forward.1 Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which they replace, they apply to all countries and represent universal goals and targets that articulate the need and opportunity for the global community to build a sustainable and desirable future in an increasingly interconnected world. How can we best seize this opportunity to put human and ecosystem well-being at the core of global policy?

The 17 SDGs and 169 targets represent an amazing global consensus, years in the making. However, they provide no guidance on how to achieve the goals or how they are interconnected, including their synergies and trade-offs in contributing to overall human and ecosystem well-being. There is no clear means–ends continuum, no ‘narrative of change,’ no description of societal changes and policy reforms necessary to achieve the SDGs, and no elaboration of how this change could happen within existing socioeconomic and geopolitical circumstances.2,3 For example, progress on food security under SDG2, macroeconomic policies under SDG8, reduction of inequality under SDG10, and resilience against climate change under SDG13 are all required to achieve SDG1 of ending poverty, which then contributes to the achievement of SDG 3 on health and well-being.4 There are also trade-offs among goals and targets in the SDGs. For instance, an increase in agricultural land use to end hunger (SDG2) may cause biodiversity loss (SDG15), overuse and pollution of water resources (SDG6), and adverse effects on marine resources (SDG14), and thus lead to food security concerns (SDG2). Since the SDG framework does not consider these interactions among goals and targets, it may be internally inconsistent and potentially unsustainable. Therefore, to mitigate the trade-offs and to emphasize the synergies, it is necessary to develop a framework in which targets and indicators of each goal are linked to other goals and to the overarching goal of sustainable and equitable human and ecosystem well-being. For these kinds of interconnected well-being aspirations to influence policy making, we need aggregated metrics that are integrated with dynamic models of the system of the economy in society and in nature, to supplement broadly shared visions of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Overall Metrics of Well-Being

To guide real global development (and replace the misuse of growth in gross domestic product (GDP) as the primary national policy goal) the SDGs need an overarching goal, with aggregate metrics of progress toward that objective. One could argue that such an aggregate indicator is not necessary (or possible) and that the pursuit of the individual goals will be sufficient to achieve sustainable development. For example, Knoll produced rankings for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries of their achievement of the SDGs using two indicators per goal and overall rankings by averaging country’s ranks over all the indicators.5 This might work if the goals were independent of each other and they all contributed to the overarching objective equally. In reality, however, there are clear trade-offs and synergies across and within the goals, especially in how the environmental, social, and economic targets interact with one another. For example, in the recent past, a single-minded focus on the growth in GDP has exacerbated inequality and environmental damage in many countries. If one takes these elements into account, as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) does, there has been no real progress globally for decades.6 Increasing income inequality, environmental damage, and other costs cancel out positive gains from GDP growth. The new metrics should therefore incorporate current knowledge of how natural, social, human, and built capital assets interact to contribute to sustainable well-being, based on the idea that the best system is one that achieves the overarching goal of a system which is simultaneously prosperous, equitably shared, and sustainable.

There have been a large number of alternative approaches to aggregate indicators of societal well-being and progress developed over the years.7 These include (1) modifications to GDP, like the GPI; (2) aggregate indicators based on unit-less indicators, like the OECD Better Life Index; and (3) indicators based on subjective life-satisfaction surveys, like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. What we need going forward are aggregate indicators that are hybrids of these three approaches, that tie in to the SDG’s, and that are based on the best current models and data on how the integrated system of humans and nature functions over time and space.

How can this be accomplished?

Integrated Dynamic Models

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Freya Morales / UNDP
Goodwill Ambassadors are appointed by the United Nations Development Program for SDG 2, progress on food security, on 18 January 2016. The ambassadors will advocate for enhanced food security and promote job creation and environmentally sustainable practices within the food industry.

The GDP has been successful in part because it is linked to the overall System of National Accounts (SNA), which are based on a static, linear, input–output model of the market economy. Although this approach was the best available when the SNA and GDP were being developed in the 1930s and 40s, we now know much more about how complex, dynamic systems involving interacting human and natural systems function. The static, linear model needs to be replaced by integrated natural and human system models that incorporate the dynamics of stocks, flows, trade-offs, and synergies among the full range of variables that affect the SDGs and overall human and ecosystem well-being. In addition, new methods of data collection and analysis that can support these models need to be incorporated. For example, the UN Data Revolution Expert Group points to the need to rethink the SNA’s conventional data collection processes to harness the integrative capacity of new “big data” and crowd-sourcing technologies.8 These can provide real-time information on a wide range of environmental, social, and economic variables, and their changes in time and space.

Positive Visions of the Future

We also need a detailed vision of the kind of world that would result if all the SDGs were achieved. This can be done through the integration of scenario-building exercises with the metrics, modelling, and data collection mentioned above. Consensus building, envisioning, and scenario planning can also be extended through stakeholder workshops and public opinion research.9 We need to explore and develop innovative methods to build broad consensus around the characteristics of desirable futures—both individually and collectively—and the important differences between the two. We also need better methods to communicate the complex trade-offs that each future scenario entails, going well beyond narrative descriptions to include videos, movies, virtual realities, and other methods to fully engage people in understanding alternative futures and building consensus on the future we want by 2030.

Building consensus also demands that we recognize the likely sources of opposition and the reasons why we have continued so long on a path that damages the planet while failing to serve human well-being adequately. Although the SDGs call for a reduction in poverty and inequality, there have been long periods of economic growth when both have increased.

Crucial to reducing emissions, resource use, and world poverty are major increases in aid efforts and financial transfers from the developed countries to finance sustainable technologies in less developed countries. Development policies of this kind are also an essential part of the longer-term solution to the growing problems of economic migration and flows of refugees, which will become even more serious as the effects of climate change lead to conflict and loss of livelihoods.

For example, reducing inequality both within and between countries (SDG10) will require additional policies against tax avoidance in order to enforce and support the agreements that OECD countries have reached with tax havens to share information on accounts with national tax authorities.

The aim of increasing sustainable human well-being is an essentially democratic one (SDG16 and 17), which may be jeopardized both by a lack of democracy and by the influence of special interests in politics.

The SDGs represent a major potential tipping point in the future of humanity. For the first time in human history we have a set of goals and targets agreed to by all countries that include the full range of factors that contribute to equitable and sustainable well-being. We must not squander this opportunity to change the trajectory of humanity toward a sustainable and desirable future.