The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Agenda : Making the Twenty-First Century The Century of Humanity – What Has Been Achieved One Year Down the Road? Part 1


New Yorkers will tell you that for as far as they could remember, one month in each year that does not leave them indifferent is September. This is the month during which the world’s leaders  and their entourages, some quite big, descend on New York, Manhattan to be precise, to attend the UN General Assembly. Their arrivals would have been preceded by those of their technical staff and Ministers from various ministries, notably Ministries of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, Finance and Economic Planning as well as a sprinkling of technical ministries depending on the topics near the top of the agenda. These leaders would also be joined by thousands of other stakeholders in the world’s development process, ranging from NGOs, academics to youth and women activists from all over the world.

Therefore, during the UN General Assembly, one phenomenon that characterizes life in Manhattan, the central borough of New York, is traffic gridlock and stringent security controls, which have been further tightened in the face of increased terrorist threats. But for policy wonks development activists and the UN staff, there is always excitement and anticipation in the air about what outcomes would emerge from the various debates on important global issues that the world leaders and other delegates would be engaged in.

Over the last two decades, the 2015 agenda, at heart of which were the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, have flavoured the General Assembly Meetings in ways not experienced before. Last year’s General Assembly was a particularly exciting one as it witnessed the historic ending of the 2015 agenda and the ushering in of a much more ambitious SDG agenda. The first anniversary of the introduction of SDGs is already upon us. How fast time passes!

The objectives of this two-part article are two-fold: to first remind ourselves about the context and rationale of the SDGs, which are grounded on the unfinished business of the MDGs and the renewed resolve to rise up to the emerging development challenges of our times. It will then look at what progress has been made globally and in Rwanda in particular over the past year towards laying down, and strengthening, the foundations for effective and accelerated implementation of SDGs.

From the MDGs to SDGs – Stepping Up From a Minimalist to Maximalist Approach to Addressing National and Global Development Challenges

Thus, starting with the basics, it would be recalled that in September 2000 a novel approach to a collective global response to the perennial and emerging development challenges facing our planet was ushered in at the unprecedented UN General Assembly Meeting through the adoption on September 8th, 2000 by leaders of 189 countries of the Millennium Declaration. The Millennium Declaration sought to define a common vision of development in the 21st Century and a new architecture of international cooperation for realizing it as well as to bolster global commitment to the ideals of peace, durable stability, justice and equality for all. The latter were seen as key enabling conditions for achieving the set global development goals, objectives and targets for accelerated poverty reduction and sustainable development..

A key element of the Millennium Declaration was a set of eight global development goals, that came to be known as the Millennium Development Goals.  It could be argued that it was very clever on the part of the UN Secretary-General at the time to seize the exciting and historic moment of the onset of  the new millennia (the 21st Century) to  sound  the alarm bells through the Millennium Declaration on the deteriorating trends during the last years of the 20th Century in key human development indicators in most parts of the world, notably in Africa. These were clearly reflected in increasing poverty and widening inequalities of all forms across countries and within them, including income disparities and those between the gender groups, rapidly rising epidemics such as HIV/AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis, worsening environmental problems, the sharp declines in official development assistance, combined with unsustainable indebtedness and marginalization of poor countries in the world economy.

The time was, therefore, ripe for calling for a renewed global compact to reverse these negative development trends. This was one of the promising dimensions of the Millennium Declaration and MDGs for developing regions, especially Africa. The Millennium Declaration sought to place once again Africa at the heart of the international development community’s agenda by calling for special national and international support for the response to the continent’s complex political and development challenges. This came against the backdrop of the well-known  lost development decades for the continent, i.e. the 1980s and 1990s, when Africa experienced significant socio-economic declines following the more promising immediate post –independence decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

As it is well-known by now, 7 of the 8 MDGs, whose focus was principally on human development issues, were quantified and defined through specified  targets, 18 in all, to be attained mostly by 2015 and 48 indicators for measuring the progress towards their achievement. This was another important departure from the broad international development goals that were set in the 1980s and 1990s such as Water for All by 2000, Food for All by 2000, Good Health for All, Education for All etc because no such targets and indicators or clear pathways were defined for reaching the latter broadly stated goals.

The implementation of the MDGs was closely and intensely monitored over the 15 years of their implementation, 2000 to 2015. One fact that invariably emerged from the annual reviews of the MDGs throughout their implementation was that progress continued to be uneven among the regions and countries of the developing world and within them. For Africa in particular, the assessments clearly show that while notable progress was made by the continent as a whole towards a few goals such as access to primary education, reduction of gender inequalities and reversing the upward trend of HIV infections, the overall achievements fell far short of the desired or expected levels. We were pleased to note that Rwanda was among the very few African countries, 5 to be precise, that attained almost all the MDGs.

Nevertheless, there was also the consensus that even if the full potentials of MDGs were not realized, particularly in Africa, they did galvanize the world leaders and people in the collective fight against poverty and the related problems, such as increasing disease burdens and environmental deterioration  at the onset of the 21st Century.  Although the MDGs were a modest set of development objectives (hence our agreement with President Kagame’s famous characterization of them as “floors” and not “ceilings”,) when set against the desired levels and pace of Africa’s transformational agenda, there can be no denying that they have impacted significantly on poverty and human development as well as created a conducive environment for the emergence of a pro-poor global partnership. They have enhanced the usefulness of what the economists term as global and regional public goods whose realization require collective actions by countries at global and regional levels.

Learning from one of the valuable lessons derived from the implementation the MDGs, which was inadequate consultations on the Goals before their introduction in September 2000, the UN Secretary-General launched with effect from late 2012 intense and broad-based consultations on what should succeed the MDGs when their era came to an end. It is also notable that of all the regions in the world, only Africa came up with a Common Position on SDGs. Importantly also, Rwanda was among the countries that distinguished themselves in the post-2015 agenda consultations and formulation processes, including playing a direct role in the formulation of governance – related indicators..

Throughout the SDG formulation process, many observers and sceptics questioned the utility of expending so much time, energy and resources on SDGs, particularly when the MDGs did not exactly yield the expected results. Our answer to them is that right from the onset of the SDG formulation process it became clear that more than ever before in mankind’s history, the global community needed a collective approach to confronting the old and new development problems. There are two main reasons for this imperative: the first is that the international community has become even more interconnected than anytime in the world’s history; the second reason is that whilst much of the work started with the MDGs needed to continue, particularly tackling extreme poverty, new development challenges were also emerging that required a new global vision and compact, notably the intensifying climate change, growing extremism and terrorism, reemergence of old diseases and rapid spread of new viruses as well as accelerating migration etc.

The UN Secretary-General, in his 2013 report entitled “A Life of Dignity for All” succinctly captures these emerging challenges as follows: “…the world has changed radically since the turn of the millennium. New economic powers have emerged, new technologies are reshaping our societies and new patterns of human settlement and activity are heightening the pressures on our planet (aggravating the adverse effects of climate change). Inequality is rising in rich and poor countries alike.” There is increasing consensus that the new global development agenda should seek to address simultaneously the triple needs for more inclusive economic growth patterns, social justice and sound environmental and natural resources management.

The rest is now history: after the unprecedented wide-ranging consultations, which extensively utilized new ICT tools and social media, on what should constitute the Post -2015 development agenda, the world leaders adopted at the September 2015 UN General Assembly the 17 SDGs, underpinned by 169 targets and so far over 300 indicators. Evidently, the SDGs constitute a highly ambitious and global development agenda, fully embracing the principles of universality and inclusiveness, with a fresh determination to banish extreme poverty everywhere (leaving no one behind) and ensuring global stability and security for all. It also integrates a new impetus on the part of the world’s leaders and people to effectively confront new development challenges such as climate change, extremism and emerging dangerous diseases.

The challenges of their implementation quickly became evident: the imperative of sustained high political commitment and national ownership, strong public administration systems overseeing robust planning processes and monitoring mechanisms, full mobilization of populations and all the other stakeholders, notably the private sector, foundations and NGOs as well as huge funding requirements.

The Way Forward for SDG Implementation

Therefore, given that even though they do offer real promises to the majority of people in the world more than in the case of the MDGs, the actual realization of such potentials lies in effective implementation and monitoring of all the goals. Here, there has been consensus that valuable lessons could be learnt from Rwanda’s remarkable progress towards attaining virtually all the MDGs. The last (2015) global and regional Africa MDG reports indicate that Rwanda attained, or was on track to meet all the MDGs, with the exception of MDG1, especially the nutrition component. Even this Goal is being steadily met.

Many of the valuable lessons that could be learnt from Rwanda’s experienced are very well summarized by H.E. President Paul Kagame as follows: “Rwandans have come a long way in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals. The good performance was realized over a period of many challenges emanating from the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. This success shows that the Rwandan people have built the desire, the resilience and the capacity to deliver on their own development ambitions. The achievements realized are underpinned by continued emphasis on good governance, peace and security, which provide a platform for communities and stakeholders to dialogue and find sustainable solutions to development issues. Most importantly, when faced with challenges, Rwandans have not been fazed; instead we moved on, taking stock and learning lessons along the way, and that makes us better equipped to handle the future”( Republic of Rwanda Report on the Implementation of MDGs”, November 2015.)

Again no words summarize better what could be expected from Rwanda in the SDG implementation than those uttered by President Kagame, when he reassured that: “As we take another step forward into a new future of SDGs, we take strength from our experience. We know that we have what it takes to succeed from our experiences. We know that we have what it takes to succeed when we work together ……We hope and work towards a future for Rwanda where we will look back at the end of the SDGs with pride knowing fully well that indeed no Rwandan was left behind”.

In the next sequel to this article, we will examine the actual SDG implementation experience so far, globally and in Rwanda in particular. In the meantime, we would like to stress the important point that comprehensive and effective implementation of the SDGs will contribute significantly to rendering the 21st Century the Century of Humanity.

The Author, Lamin M. Manneh, is the One UN Rwanda Resident Coordinator