World leaders unanimously approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that lie at the heart of that agenda lay out an ambitious plan of action for peace, prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

The SDGs build on the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, and aim to complete what they did not achieve. The MDGs galvanized development, and there was significant progress in a number of the areas they targeted.

The SDGs, however, go further in advocating a paradigm shift in the way we think about and do development. They are broader in scope and more aggressive in ambition than the MDGs were. They are universal and designed to be integrated and indivisible. They are underpinned by a cornerstone pledge that no one will be left behind in development. They offer a blueprint for a world free of the worst effects of climate change, where extreme poverty is a thing of the past and the future is more secure and more hopeful for everyone.

The bar therefore has clearly been raised. But proclaiming lofty ambition—however noble and well-intentioned—is one thing. Turning aspiration into reality is another.

We must therefore seize on the historic opportunity the agenda offers and ensure that its legacy is more than just mere words on paper. A decade and a half from now, it must be seen to have made a difference to the planet and its people. But how?

Strong National Ownership and Leadership. National ownership is a prerequisite for achieving the SDGs by 2030. Governments have committed to set their own national targets, guided by the agenda’s global level of ambition and reflecting their particular context and priorities. National parliaments can back SDG implementation by passing relevant legislation, authorizing funding, and scrutinizing government action.

Around the world, we see governments already mainstreaming the SDGs into national plans and policies. Colombia, for example, has aligned its national development plan with the SDGs and developed its own SDG indicators. Germany has revised its national sustainable development strategy in response to the 2030 agenda’s ambition, and to link with the SDG “goal” structure. The revised strategy provides a framework for implementing all 17 SDGs in Germany and it also pays attention to the impacts of national actions beyond the country’s borders. Switzerland’s sustainable development strategy for 2016 to 2019 has a concrete action plan, structured around nine thematic areas lined up with the SDGs.

Some of the most inspiring early actions on SDG implementation are coming from countries where development challenges are huge. Somalia, for example, has been preparing its first national development plan in 34 years—and has aligned it with the SDGs. Sierra Leone mainstreamed all the SDGs into its national budget and integrated lessons learned from recent shocks, including the Ebola crisis.

Implementing the SDGs needs to be a society-wide endeavor, embracing not only central governments and parliaments but also local government, civil society, and the private sector. Overall successful implementation will require transforming the way we live, work, produce, and consume—and each of us as individuals can make a contribution to that.

Addressing Inequalities and Exclusion. How can we ensure that no one is left behind? A wide range of exclusion will need to be tackled. Gender inequality, for example, is widespread around our world. Women are more likely to be poor, unemployed, and doing unpaid work. In some regions, the unemployment rate of women is more than double that of men. In sub-Saharan Africa, UNDP estimates that gender gaps in the labor market cost as much as $95 billion per year between 2010 and 2014. Investing in women and girls is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do.

Exclusion is also faced by many others, including youth, people with disabilities, indigenous people, and members of minorities of all kinds. Their voices must be heard in decisionmaking, and they should enjoy equal access to opportunities and services.

Changes in economies have also left communities, regions, and whole nations behind. Globalization and technological change have not resulted in a balanced distribution of progress. This is true within many developed and developing countries. Achieving the SDGs, therefore, will require inclusive growth. Strategies to address inequalities can include proactive labor market policies and equitable access to natural and productive resources.

Growing numbers of people are also left behind by conflict, disasters, and other shocks that send development into reverse. Around 1.4 billion people currently live in fragile contexts—either in, or at risk of, conflict or political instability. That number is projected to grow to 1.9 billion by 2030. Fragility creates fertile breeding grounds for illicit trade and organized crime. Radicalization and violent extremism flourish in conflict settings. And extreme poverty is hard to eradicate.

More than 65 million people are now estimated to be forcibly displaced (a higher number than at the end of World War II), either as refugees, internally displaced people, or asylum seekers.

It is critical to address the root causes of conflict and fragility and not just the symptoms. As the 2030 agenda makes clear, “There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.” We need big-picture thinking here—peace is built and sustained through long-term developmental processes that simultaneously seek to eradicate poverty and build inclusive and just societies. 

Tackling Climate Change. Climate change will result in more frequent and extreme weather events than those causing severe stress now. Eastern and Southern Africa have been experiencing their worst drought in 35 years, putting millions of people at risk of hunger, disease, and water shortages.

To realize the ambition of the 2030 agenda, a much greater resilience to climate-related events will need to be built. Support for adaptation in vulnerable countries will be vital. It will help to have broad buy-in to advancing low-carbon, climate-resilient, and green economies that can foster green growth, jobs, and innovation.

Working Across Sectors. The challenges that the SDGs target cannot be addressed in silos—“whole of society” approaches are needed. The success of one SDG depends on the success of others.

For example, a country’s ability to combat hunger is directly linked to the state of its infrastructure, land tenure, public health system, income levels, and capacity to manage natural resources and mitigate disasters. What presents as a health crisis, like maternal mortality, may well have its roots in forced early marriage and girls being withdrawn from school, lack of transport to healthcare facilities, and/or an inability to pay for care.

Prioritization. Given these interconnections, designing policy “accelerators” that can drive progress across multiple objectives is crucial for SDG achievement. For instance, a country prone to drought may decide to prioritize strategies for sustainable water resource management that nurture local ecosystems and are positive for poverty reduction, food security, and livelihoods.

Such SDG “accelerators” can be identified early on and then prioritized in relevant national strategies and sectoral plans.

Building Broad Coalitions Around the SDGs. The 2030 agenda recognizes that while each country has primary responsibility for its own development, their efforts are assisted by enabling international economic environments across trade, monetary, and financial systems, and global economic governance.

Collective action is also needed to address shared challenges, including climate change, the root causes of violent conflicts and the security and refugee crises they generate, an unsettled global economy, and the threat of disease outbreaks.

Within and across countries, broad groups of policymakers and stakeholders need to come together to find and implement solutions. Multi-stakeholder partnerships, including among civil society, parliamentarians, academia, and the private sector, will be important for SDG achievement.

In short, successfully implementing the SDGs is not somebody else’s challenge—it is a shared challenge that we must tackle together.

Mobilizing Finance. Delivering on the 2030 agenda requires the mobilization of unprecedented levels of finance. The Addis Ababa Action Agenda adopted at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July 2015 sets out a realistic approach to development financing. This agenda recognizes that drawing on all sources of finance—public and private, domestic and international—will be essential.

Official Development Assistance (ODA) will remain crucial, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable countries. But ODA must now be used in more catalytic ways—to build capacities and leverage much greater volumes of financing. While donor commitments should be met, ODA alone will come nowhere near providing the trillions of dollars needed for the SDGs.

More domestic resource mobilization will be essential. Progress on this varies significantly, with only half of all developing countries having tax-to-GDP ratios higher than 15 percent. Domestic resources in many countries have also been fluctuating with changes in commodity prices, especially in those places that depend on a narrow range of commodity exports.

The challenge is to catalyze additional resources into sustainable development, while enhancing the impact of available resources. At the same time, addressing problems, such as international tax evasion and avoidance and illicit financial flows, is also critical and requires enhanced global cooperation.

How business does business will have a major bearing on whether sustainable development can be achieved. Interest in the private sector in linking investments to sustainability objectives has been growing, along with the adoption of inclusive business approaches, philanthropic giving, corporate social responsibility practices, and impact investing. By putting in place sound institutional, legal, and regulatory frameworks and policies, governments can encourage greater private investment in sustainable development.

Financing strategies also need to take into account a diverse range of risks. Investments in sustainable and resilient infrastructure are needed. It is also important to ensure that gearing up to invest for the SDGs does not exacerbate other types of risks, such as debt distress.

UNDP’s Support to SDG Implementation

UNDP has a presence in some 170 countries and territories. Its work is aligned with the 2030 agenda—across poverty eradication, reducing inequalities, supporting democratic governance, improving environmental sustainability, reducing disaster risk, prioritizing gender equality and women’s empowerment, addressing the social determinants of health, and supporting emergency development in communities caught up in conflicts or coping with the aftermath of disasters.

Working within the agreed UN Development Group approach to the SDGs, UNDP is supporting countries to mainstream the SDGs into their national plans, policies, and budgets, and to identify options for accessing finance. Countries are also asking for support to build their capacity for data collection and analysis and for raising awareness of the SDGs across their societies.

The scale of the challenges our world faces call for bold approaches to building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has shown us the path. Now it’s up to us all to follow it and build a more peaceful, just, and sustainable future for all.


Helen Clark is the administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Follow on Twitter @HelenClarkUNDP.