Sustainable Development Goals Dominate 70th General Assembly: Civil Society praises and critiques new agenda

SDG graphic GOOD

The 70th meeting of the UN General Assembly brought an extra level of frenetic buzz to New York City in the final week of September. An unprecedented number of heads of state gathered at UN Headquarters for a week of debate, discussion, and negotiation surrounding the international body’s principle objectives: peace, democracy, realization of human rights.

To this end, the crown jewel of this year’s assembly was undoubtedly the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or what are more commonly referred to as the Sustainable Development Goals.

The agenda is divided into 17 broad objectives:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development


These goals represent the pillars of a stronger, better world as defined by the shared vision of its political leaders. While the list may appear laughably vague and ambitious at first glance, each goal is supported by agreed upon “targets” and “indicators” (still under negotiation) that will be used to direct development efforts and measure concretely each nation’s progress toward these shared goals.

The Loretto Community should feel particularly pleased and proud that its representatives were part of the major civil society push that successfully named water and sanitation as “fundamental human rights” within the text of the 2030 agenda. Maintaining the status of water and sanitation as human rights has tremendous implications within the context of the UN’s human rights framework, which holds nations legally responsible for ensuring their citizens’ enjoyment of all aspects of life that have been designated “human rights.”

In addition to the breadth of issues it addresses, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the 2030 agenda is its universal adoption. While belief in the innate “good” nature of humanity may lead us to expect any UN human-rights-based agenda would draw unanimous endorsement, in fact a handful of nations typically abstain from ratifying even the most unobjectionable UN declarations and conventions. (The U.S. in particular has a long history of “failure to ratify” that includes such UN documents as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons. The U.S. is joined in this circle of abstainers by the likes of Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan, except in the case of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which it holds the dubious distinction of lone objector.)

One reason this year’s agenda achieved universal adoption was that it was created via a three-year open negotiation process that called for the input of all nations, as well as civil society including Loretto at the UN. This process is a major departure from the Millennium Development Goals, also known as the 2000-2015 UN development agenda, which were cooked up by a few nations and experts behind closed doors. The sustainable development goals themselves also address several major issues that were not addressed in the MDGs, such as patterns of production and consumption, inequality, and peace. A third critical improvement made over the MDGs in the development of the SDGs was the intended audience and stages of implementation. While the MDGs were penned by the world’s wealthiest nations as a plan for how they might “fix” low-income nations, the SDGs were authored with the understanding that they should be implemented in all nations.

Of course, we would be entirely remiss to leave you with the impression that the SDG negotiation process, or resulting agenda, was entirely just, rights-based, people-centered, inclusive, and sustainable. On the whole, the agenda is overly dependent on economic growth as a means for achieving the realization of human rights. Such blind reliance on wealth creation via industrialization, innovation, and commercialization as the keystones of a just world is tantamount to placing the fate of future generations on the back of the trickle-down economics.

Pope Francis, whose presence and comments on the first day of the General Assembly provided a refreshing change of tone at UN Headquarters, has expressed on numerous occasions that wealth and technology are not inherently good. In today’s world, they are major sources of power, which can clearly be used for good or evil and involve a level of responsibility and influence too great to be handed to any small group of individuals.

Another major critique of the 2030 Agenda by civil society pertains to the Member States’ strategic plan for implementation of the SDGs. We believe the terms of the Agenda and subsequent development financing proposals have set the stage for a continuation of traditional top-down development strategies rather than helping to build the capacity of citizens to scale up their own solutions from the grassroots. Particularly suspect in this regard is the growing favor being shown to the notion of public-private partnerships by world governments and UN agencies.

Loretto representatives and our colleagues at the UN will continue to raise these points of concern at every opportunity, keep a watchful eye on the movements of the powerful, and fight for the rights of the marginalized.


Teresa Blumenstein

Teresa is a second-year volunteer with the Loretto Volunteer Program. She serves as an assistant representative of the Loretto Community at the United Nations.