Next week, world leaders at the UN will formally adopt 17 new Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs build on the Millennium Development Goals with the aim of eradicating extreme poverty, tackling inequality and taking action on climate change as part of wide-ranging commitments to sustainable development.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis released Laudato Si’, an encyclical on integral human development which adds to the Catholic Church’s body of teaching. Laudato Si’ is unique in its intention to influence international politics and the multilateral agreements they produce. As a major UN outcome, how do the SDGs meet the challenge set by Laudato Si’?
What is the challenge set by Laudato Si’?
Acknowledging the global environmental crises we face, Pope Francis invites everyone to enter into dialogue on our common home. He asks the whole human family to come together to seek sustainable and integral development. The Pope does not see the environment as separate from humanity but conveys an understanding that ‘nothing is indifferent to us’ and that we must examine our relationship to each other, the planet and the economy. It is a profound call for change.
How do the SDGs respond?
- The 17 SDGs mark a step forwards from the MDGs. They were created through a more inclusive process and agreed by consensus, giving them a legitimacy that the MDGs never had. They also reflect a more equitable power balance between nations, as called for by the encyclical.
- The SDGs are applicable to all countries with ‘universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike’. They break down the paradigm where poor countries carry the burden for change while rich countries have little responsibility for action. This brings them more closely into alignment with the Pope’s vision of shared, mutual responsibility.
- The SDGs are indivisible, recognising that our challenges are connected like ‘the mysterious network of relations between things’ the Pope describes, and the dangers of solving ‘one problem only to create others’. The SDGs move away from an approach where environment, economy and society are seen as separate, to one where the three dimensions of sustainable development must be addressed together. This has the potential to prevent short-term trade-offs that prioritise the economy over people and planet.
- The new development agenda recognises ‘the dignity of the human person is fundamental’ and calls for ‘people-centred economies’, echoing Catholic Social Teaching and messages from the encyclical.
- The SDGs recognise and value people’s participation as an agenda ‘of the people, by the people and for the people.’ While the commitment that ‘no goal or target can be met unless met for social and economic groups’ is missing, the call to leave no one behind echoes throughout with an intention to ‘reach the furthest behind first’, paying ‘particular attention to voices of the poorest and most vulnerable.’ These resonate with the encyclical which asks us to hear the cry of the poor, an essential attitude to promote actual human development.
Where the SDGs fall down
There are three areas where the SDGs do not live up to the vision of Laudato Si’: the economy; politics; and implementation.
The SDGs rely on economic growth, without questioning whether growth results in poverty eradication, human dignity or sustainable development. Laudato Si’ criticises the concept of ‘infinite or unlimited growth … based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.’ This is part of a broader critique of the ‘technological paradigm’ where ‘the economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.’ The ‘myth’ of an economic model ‘grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)’, needs to be challenged to achieve sustainable development
The approach to economic growth within the SDGs is conflicted, described each time as ‘sustainable, inclusive and sustained’ (see SDG 8, for example). But is it possible to have sustained economic growth that is both environmentally and socially sustainable? The SDGs do not address this fundamental question. They fail to accept that the current global model of growth causes much of the environmental degradation and social inequality that we see today. Substantial transformation is needed in our approach to the economy, as called for by the Pope.
Throughout Laudato Si’, Pope Francis criticises those in power who have failed to create change that benefits the poorest and most vulnerable people. He calls out political decision-making shaped by business and economic interests, which end up ‘trumping the common good’ in favour of short-term profit. In the post-2015 negotiations, a relatively transparent process became subject to closed-door trade-offs at the last minute. In a scathing indictment, Laudato Si’ attacks those who protect the status quo: ‘Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems.’ Pope Francis asks ‘What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?’
Pope Francis pinpoints weak implementation of previous multilateral agreements, such as the outcome from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: ‘Although the summit was a real step forward, and prophetic for its time, its accords have been poorly implemented, due to the lack of suitable mechanisms for oversight, periodic review and penalties in cases of non-compliance.’ Follow-up summit Rio+20 produced a ‘wide-ranging but ineffectual outcome document,’ indicating decreasing political will for fundamental change
Sadly, the SDGs are also weak on commitments to implementation. At discussions in negotiation sessions in May this year, concepts of monitoring and accountability became toxic and were replaced by more lightweight language around follow-up and review.
Pope Francis critiques countries who block progress: ‘International negotiations cannot make significant progress due to positions taken by countries which place their national interests above the global common good.’ We must all realize that ‘there are no frontiers or barriers, political or social, behind which we can hide, still less is there room for the globalization of indifference.’ Laudato Si’ calls for courageous leaders who can face the essential questions around sustainability and decide accordingly. When questioning ‘what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?’ world leaders cannot avoid deeper concerns with the value of our existence and actions, and our relationship to the earth. Faced with global social and environmental crises, we cannot answer those questions through individualism or vested interests. For true sustainable development, we need global commitments that promote a culture of ‘global solidarity’.
An opportunity for change?
The SDGs could be an opportunity for change. They mark several important steps forward in the struggle for a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable world. But the fundamental misreading of the purpose of the economy means that there are still important arguments to be won before the SDGs will work for the common good. The SDGs do not provide the answer to all problems or tackle major structural issues – they are only a useful tool when used with a clear vision for a better world and as part of a wider strategy for transformational change. As focus shifts from the global policy debate to action at the national level, civil society around the world will need to hold their government’s feet to the fire to make sure that the global agreement results in tangible change for the people who need it most.