"The Sustainable Development Goals are the basis of a new social contract"

Article, 22.01.2016

The 17 goals for sustainable development and 169 targets form the core of the UN's 2030 Agenda. Thomas Gass, speaker at the Annual Swiss Development Cooperation Conference 2016 and UN Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs, explains what the Agenda actually means and why it is necessary.

Headshot of Thomas Gass, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs.
Thomas Gass is convinced that everyone can play a part in ensuring that the aims of sustainable development are achieved.

Mr Gass, how would you explain the 17 goals for sustainable development to someone who is not an expert in development cooperation?

The 17 goals for sustainable development go way beyond the bounds of development cooperation: they are the basis for a whole new social contract which over the course of the next 15 years will shape the development of countries in the North as well as the South.

For the first time representatives have come together from 193 states, from civil society organisations and other interest groups, and have developed a common vision of humanity in the year 2030. Uppermost on the Agenda is the fight against poverty – the most important issue connecting economic, social and environmentally sustainable development. Key to this is the promise to exclude nobody and to make the world's poorest the top priority. 

The 2030 Agenda will enable fundamental problems to be addressed: for example, goal 10 – inequality within and between countries and goal 5 – gender inequality. The most important experiences from development cooperation were fed into the drafting of the Agenda, making it a solid basis for the next 15 years.

Why does the international community need these goals?

Globalisation has led to greater interdependence among states. Some even say that the 17 goals for sustainable development are a declaration of the interdependence of the peoples of the world, reminding us that challenges faced by individual countries must be overcome collectively.

This interdependence can be seen in our behaviour as consumers. In the future the international community will not be able to continue to consume products from distant countries without taking an interest in the local economic, social and environmental conditions. 

The Sustainable Development Goals have replaced the Millennium Development Goals. Is the new Agenda better, and if so, in what way?

Yes, I would say that the Sustainable Development Goals are much better than the Millennium Development Goals. They were developed on the basis of dialogue between states, civil society organisations and interest groups. The goals are more transparent and there is a greater sense of accountability among all those involved.  One might say that the emotional intelligence of the UN has been brought to bear. The Millennium Development Goals were developed mainly by technocrats and were implemented and enforced at the level of development cooperation.

In addition, the 2030 Agenda is more complete than the previous framework. It contains additional goals, for example in the areas of climate, water, energy, access to justice and good governance. At the same time this makes it difficult to prioritise. Which is why it is necessary to give further due consideration to the goals at the national level. The state must enter into dialogue with the people to find out just how the Agenda can be implemented and how the goals can be integrated into national policy.  

To which goal can Switzerland make the greatest contribution?

Switzerland can make a significant contribution to many of the goals and targets, but to three in particular: goal 12, which deals with sustainable consumption and sustainable production; goal 13, the fight against climate change; and, of course, goal 17, which deals with the solidarity of developed countries and their shared responsibility for development in developing countries.

Can we as individuals do anything to help ensure that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are achieved?

Yes I believe we can. In a first step, the 2030 Agenda can be brought to the level of local communities and associations. It goes without saying that at that level not all of the goals can be tackled, but rather one or two of the goals or targets could be singled out and serious consideration given as to how they could be implemented.

At the individual level we might decide, for example, to use less energy, thus conserving resources. Or we might question our behaviour as consumers and buy products that are perhaps a bit more expensive but which have been produced fairly and are environmentally friendly. The people in the countries of the North have to develop an awareness that they, in a fair distribution of resources among the world's population, have already consumed more than their fair share.

You were involved in the drafting of the 17 goals. What were the biggest challenges that had to be overcome?

A major challenge was goal 16, which deals with good governance. Although most countries agreed that this point was essential for sustainable development, no one was willing to put their cards on the table or expose themselves to criticism.

As I mentioned earlier, the new Agenda goes far beyond development cooperation. In the past, even funding for conventional development cooperation was not forthcoming in the amounts initially promised. Some developing countries were therefore left wondering why they should implement goals that are important for the North – environmental protection, for example – when their own economic and social development is still lagging behind.