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What Are the SDGs and Why Should You Care?

Its easy to be a little skeptical but hard not to be inspired by the ambition and potential of these unprecedented goals. Personally I think this represents a great leap forward and makes me hopeful about what we can achieve collectively in the next fifteen years. Remember, these are your Goals. Every single one of you.

On the eve of a new millennium I celebrated my 21st birthday, partying like it was 1999, along with the rest of the world, and wondered if the Y2K bug would really cause the havoc foretold. At the same time, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were being introduced in an attempt to galvanize efforts to, among other things, halve extreme poverty rates and halt the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015. Fifteen years later it seems a lifetime has passed since my carefree university days where a nascent interest in international development first emerged. I am now the mother of three and have dedicated my working life thus far to promoting gender equality and ending violence against women and girls. In this time, the MDGs have produced some successes but new global challenges have emerged - climate change, rising inequalities, global health threats, spiraling conflict, violent extremism and related humanitarian crises. In this new era, the international development agenda must also undergo major transformation.

This past weekend in New York, the United Nations General Assembly (through its 193 member states) adopted a new set of 17 universal goals called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty, promote prosperity, protect the planet, and foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies by 2030. The Goals will come into effect on 1st January 2016 and replace the MDGs which expire this year. The fact that the opening of the SDG Summit involved the Pope, Shakira and Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai perhaps best illustrates the diversity and inclusiveness of the new development agenda. Unlike the MDGs which applied primarily to developing countries, the SDGs are universal and apply equally to the UK as they do to Uganda, to Australia as they do to Afghanistan, and to Sweden as much as South Africa. Further, while the MDGs were developed by a set of external experts and virtually imposed on low and middle income countries, these new goals were developed by member states, through nearly three years of extensive public consultation and engagement with civil society and other stakeholders around the world. They are are much more far-reaching, holistic, and people-centred than the MDGs, but do they have any chance of success?

The new goals have been described as supremely ambitious with their 169 targets, and there is understandable skepticism as to how countries will really move forward with such a broad agenda. In truth, most of the goals are aspirational rather than achievable - for example, 'End poverty in all its forms everywhere'; and 'Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.' Clearly, as much as we would like to, these will not be accomplished in the next 15 years. In addition, the agenda is not legally binding, and the process of implementation and monitoring of the goals and targets remains somewhat unclear. Indicators to guide monitoring of progress towards the Goals are being developed, but the current lengthy list must be whittled down to no more than 100 indicators by March 2016 to make reporting by member states feasible. However, 100 indicators alone will never be sufficient to accurately measure progress towards the 169 expansive targets.

Each government will be responsible for setting its own national plans and targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. That will hopefully make the agenda more tangible and realistic, and ensure that governments, civil society, activists and others feel a sense of ownership. But with so many targets and no mandatory reporting, there is a fear that governments will pick and chose what they report on. Others suggest that countries will be overwhelmed and spend years discussing and developing national plans without achieving anything.

Despite these challenges, I think most of the development community is extremely excited by the these goals and what they represent; never before have world leaders pledged common action across such a broad and universal policy agenda. I know that for those working on the elimination of violence against women and girls, the SDGs are a major breakthrough stemming from years of hard work and advocacy.

Fifteen years ago, the MDGs did not include a single target on any form of violence. Now the SDGs include four explicit targets addressing violence against women, violence against children, and harmful practices, as well as a number of other inter-related targets. Further, the agenda explicitly recognizes that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. It states, "The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels."

The fact that all 193 member states agreed to this statement - even if the current realities in many countries reflects a different story - is a huge achievement. It reflects an agreement that violence against women and girls and gender inequality is an issue of the highest order. Governments will report on these targets and that means they will have to collect data to better understand women's and girls' experiences of violence in their countries. This will hopefully, in turn, open up a dialogue and lead to greater action. Those dedicated to this issue will be able to use the relevant goals and targets as an advocacy tool to galvanize and coordinate action. I hope we will make connections between different goals and targets to build a more integrated and collective movement. And this applies not just to the violence prevention movement but the many other important issues covered under the plan of action.

Its easy to be a little skeptical but hard not to be inspired by the ambition and potential of these unprecedented goals. Personally I think this represents a great leap forward and makes me hopeful about what we can achieve collectively in the next fifteen years. Remember, these are your Goals. Every single one of you. What Goal are you most passionate about? What Goal do you think is the highest priority for your country or community? We all have a role to play. Let's make the most of this moment in history to create a more equitable, safe and sustainable world.

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