Can the United Nations help make the world a better place to live?

The Cooperative Society Newsletter
March 2019, Issue 14
by E.G. Nadeau and Luc Nadeau

This article gives an emphatic “yes” to the question posed in the title, presents brief reviews of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Program (2000-2015) and the follow-up Sustainable Development Goals Program (2016-2030), and suggests some improvements in the way the latter program is being implemented.

These two sets of goals are world-changers! If they are successfully carried out, we are talking about a world without extreme poverty or hunger, universal access to decent healthcare, education and jobs for all 8 billion of us, solving the most critical problem of our age – the catastrophe of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and achieving a number of other fundamental social, economic, and environmental goals.

As those of you who follow the activities of The Cooperative Society Project know, these goals are in close alignment to ours. So, let’s take a look at progress to date.

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
In 2000, when Kofi Annan was the Secretary-General, the UN’s 191 member countries voted unanimously to achieve 8 social, economic, and environmental goals over the next fifteen years to improve the quality of life around the world, using 1990 as the starting point for calculating improvements.

How did they (we) do?

Very well! Here are some highlights from the 2015 Millennium Development Goals Report:

  • “Extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. That proportion dropped to [projected] 14% in 2015.”
  • “The primary school net enrollment rate in the developing regions has reached 91% in 2015, up from 83% in 2000.”
  • “Despite population growth in the developing regions, the number of deaths of children under five has declined from 12.7 million in 1990 to almost 6 million in 2015 globally.”
  • “Since 1990, the maternal mortality ratio has declined by 45% worldwide.”

millennium development goalsThe report also provides information on environmental and economic change. Despite increased access to clean drinking water, improved sanitation, and other environmental improvements, the primary environmental issue – carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – worsened substantially during this time. According to the report, there were a number of improvements in economic conditions in developing countries from 1990 to 2015, including increased development assistance, an increase in duty-free exports, reduced debt, and access to International telecommunications.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
Based in significant part on the effectiveness of the MDG program, United Nations members, under Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s leadership, unanimously approved another 15-year initiative (2016-2030) to improve the quality of life around the world. This time, UN members voted to address 17 goals, a big increase over the 2000-2015 program.

The 2018 SDG Report provides information on trends related to the eight MDG goals, as well as data on the nine new SDG goals. Following are a few findings contained in the report.

    • Estimates of extreme poverty continued to decline. Revised data indicate that “11% of the world population, or 783 million people, lived below the extreme poverty threshold in 2013.”
    • On the negative side of the ledger, “The proportion of undernourished people worldwide increased from 10.6% in 2015 to 11.0% in 2016. This translates to 815 million people worldwide in 2016, up from 777 million in 2015.”
    • Market-distorting agricultural subsidies continued to decline.
    • Access to primary education increased. However, the report expressed concerns about inadequate teacher training and children’s lack of proficiency in reading and mathematics.
    • The report also observed that, “While some forms of discrimination against women and girls are diminishing, gender inequality continues to hold women back and deprives them of basic rights and opportunities.”
    • Access to clean drinking water and sanitation were both improving, but progress was below the rate required to meet the 2030 program goals.
    • On the energy front, “Those lacking access to electricity have fallen below 1 billion, a doubling in coverage between 2000 and 2016.” But the goal of “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all” by 2030 will be very difficult to achieve.
    • As the report states, “The five-year average global temperature from 2013 to 2017 was . . .  the highest on record. The world continues to experience rising sea levels, extreme weather conditions, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Thus, the program’s and the Paris Agreement’s goals for drastically reducing carbon emissions by 2030 will take an unprecedented amount of cooperation among countries, communities, and corporations to achieve.
    • Earning inequalities were still pervasive: “Men earned 12.5% more than women in 40 out of 45 countries with data. Youth were three times more likely to be unemployed than adults in 2017.”
sustainable development goals
For complete information about each of these 17 goals, click on this link to a UN-provided website

Since the SDG program did not go into effect until 2016, it is too early to do an evaluation of its effectiveness. But there are a number of early-stage comments that can be made about the program.

It is very ambitious
There are more than twice as many SDG goals as MDG goals. There are pluses and minuses to this expansion. On the plus side, the impacts of the SDG program can be more far-reaching. On the problematic side, there is the danger of being less successful because of an attempt to over-reach — possibly accomplishing less by trying to do too much.

It provides continuity with the MDG program
This is a plus, because longer-term trends can be tracked and addressed.

It incorporates the goals of the Paris Agreement and other environmental goals
This interconnection is very important because “climate action,” “life below water,” and “life on land” are inextricably connected with the social and economic goals of the program.

It has a tendency to downplay some problems
It appears to emphasize positive results and focus less on negative ones. The biggest example of this is related to climate change. Much research, including that done by the United Nations, stresses that we are in a crisis mode during the next decade or so. If our actions are not accelerated dramatically, we are highly likely to exceed a 2°C increase in the temperature of the earth’s surface relative to what it was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Such an increase would lead to catastrophic weather changes and related disasters. However, the report does not present the warnings from this research. (In fairness to the UN, much of the research emphasizing the extreme urgency of the climate crisis was published after the 2018 report.)

Inadequate communication of the goals and accomplishments of the program
This is the biggest criticism that we have after doing a review of the information that the United Nations provides about the SDG program on the Internet. Following are a few examples of SDG communication problems:

  • Right off the bat, when one looks up “SDGs,” using Google search, one encounters two separate United Nations websites presenting information on the program. These sites are run by different divisions of the UN: The Development Program and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Since theUN is coordinating a worldwide, cooperative initiative to achieve the SDG goals, it would make sense to have the UN’s internal divisions present a united front to the world in its presentation of the SDGs.
  • Neither of the homepages for these two websites provides a clear introduction to the SDG program, nor do any of the primary topics referenced at the top of the websites.
  • That is not to say that there isn’t plenty of useful information. Altogether, there are hundreds of sites that one can click to from the main websites, but without clear roadmaps, the reader doesn’t know how to make choices among this avalanche of information.
  • The SDG program has put out very informative annual reports in 2016, 2017, and 2018. But one wouldn’t know this by combing through all of the major topics on both of these websites. There is excellent information in these reports related to progress and lack of progress on the 17 goals. (See, for example, the section above summarizing some key findings from the 2018 report.) The trick is finding the reports.

Our major takeaway from this critique of information provided by the UN on the web is:

Communication and education related to the SDG program would benefit enormously by having an easily accessible webpage providing a level 101 “Introduction to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal Program.” This primer should be understandable by someone with a middle school education and should provide clear links to additional information that the reader may want to access in order to learn more about the program – in particular, more detailed information on its predecessor program, the MDG goals and the current 17 SDG goals, and links to the annual reports.

Despite these criticisms of the SDG program’s communications problems, we were pleased with the substantive progress that the program has made since its inception in January 2016. Read the reports, especially the one for 2018, and judge for yourself.


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