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How the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Have been Received

Continuing on from Sustainable Development – Part Two, this article looks at how the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been received and how they have been faring since they were let loose on the world…


As pointed out in part one of this series, the SDGs are the evolution and ultimate successor to development targets that governments around the world signed up to in 2000 with the aim of trying to meet those targets by 2015.

As such, those targets have had to evolve into something else since they categorically failed, and the world has needed to take another run at such lofty and idealistic concepts. The 17 SDGs are the follow-up objectives to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which fell into abeyance, were surpassed, or made redundant, by the time 2015 came round. The current format of the SDGs was created and revised during what has been called the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Advocates of the SDGs see them as being synergistic; it is impossible to focus on just one of the goals since by doing so, there are positive impacts on other related goals. The 13th goal, for example, is to engage in Climate Action.

If stakeholders were to concentrate their efforts uniquely on that objective, there would still need to be progress made on other SDGs such as 3 Health, 7 Clean Energy, 11 Cities and Communities, 12 Responsible Production and Consumption, and 14 Life Below Water, and 15 Life on Land, in order to try to make any progress (and outlined by the IPCC in their reporting).


Figure one is a table showing the percentage of expert respondents who answered as good or poorly on a questionnaire put to them by Globescan that queried their opinion on how they would rate society’s progress on achieving each of the UN’s sustainability goals (through The SustainAbility Institute and with the survey having been taken in 2021).

Almost 500 sustainability professionals from 75 countries were approached. The specific question put to them was How would you rate society’s performance to date in having achieved progress toward each one of the Sustainability Development Goals? Please use the 5-point scale provided (where 1 is “poor” and 5 is “excellent”).

On the whole, it seems the world’s knowledgeable people in sustainability think we (as in society) are failing to implement the goals. Across all of the SDGs, only an average of 8.2% of respondents thought that society was doing a good job.

This is compared with over 60% who thought society was, in fact, doing poorly. Nearly two out of every three respondents of the approximate 500 who were asked think on average, that society is doing a poor job of implementing the goals.

The goals in the table are color-coded where they more readily correspond to a certain category (although it should be understood they significantly overlap). The flesh-colored SDGs correspond to human welfare, the blue to human rights, the green to environmental and climate, and the yellow to society and commerce.

In regard to human welfare, the average percentage of respondents who thought society was doing a good job was a paltry 9.5%. Human rights and environmental and climate have seen largely the same perception with 9.8% and 8.5% respectively. Perception regarding society and commerce is a little better at 15.3%.

It makes some sense perhaps that the sustainability professionals felt that society was doing its poorest when it comes to environmental and climate-based objectives. Specialists in many fields in recent years have been ringing alarm bells for the wider global community rather than just for signatories of the SDGs. As a category of the SDGs, environmental and climate saw 60% of all respondents thinking that society was doing a poor job.

To scrutinize specific SDGs, the one that society appears to be performing best at implementing is Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, where 21% of the respondents felt that society was doing a good job. Still, approximately only one in five of the respondents thought society was doing a good job adhering to this specific goal even though it is the best performer. Partnership for the Goals came in second at 19% and thirdly came Affordable and Clean Energy at 17%. The perceived worst offender by the respondents was Reduced Inequalities, where 84% of that asked thought society was doing a poor job.

Based on current events, politics, and geopolitics, it is no surprise this would be the worst performer. The next two poorly perceived were Life Below Water and Life On Land, with 75% and 72% respectively.

Seven Years

It is no wonder, based on the above, that the UN’s SDGs have not garnered a great reputation. The goals have been in existence for around seven years so it is difficult even to argue that they are in their infancy, especially since the deadline for them is in eight years time.

And, as alluded to previously, the ramping up of the unease at how the rate of damage is occurring to the natural world is placing ever greater pressure on the SDGs to lead the global community forward on a path to success. The longer it takes to deliver, the more damage occurs.

Straight out of the gates, The Economist criticized the goals for being too cumbersome, and that they were set up to fail. Their assessment emerged in 2015 when the ink on the SDGs was still wet. Based on the findings of Globescan last year, it seems the writers of that early article may well have been right.

There, a comparison was made with the MDGs, which, it says, managed to do a reasonable job, having a ‘decent’ record. A stark contrast is made between the relatively bantam-weight MDGs and the heavy-weight SDGs. Further criticism of the SDGs appears in the form of how messy they are, how expensive they are, that they lack consideration for different localities and cultures, that they act as a distraction, and that they contain good intentions only. Seven years on, has that article been proven wrong?


The above survey tracked expert opinions across 2017 and 2019 and these have been incorporated into the key findings of last year. Overall, the proportion of experts who classify progress on the SDGs as being poor has increased in the last two years from 49% to 54%. Asked to rate society’s performance toward each SDG, progress was rated predominantly poor on every single goal.

Further still, the experts agreed wholesale that the most pressing goal in need of attention is number 13: Climate Action, but that it was also the goal being given the most attention within each of the respondents’ respective organizations. Finally, and not at all surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic is anticipated to impede progress in achieving the goals.

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