21/09/2015 07:30 BST | Updated 14/09/2016 06:12 BST

Will the Sustainable Development Goals Make a Difference?

Lessons show that sustained transformations to sustainability require political coalitions across groups through mobilisation across sites and scales. If the SDGs are to have meaning, it is this new politics that will make the difference - not getting hung up on the many goals or targets.

This week, heads of state assemble in New York to launch the Sustainable Development Goals. The agreed text lays out 17 goals and 169 targets. It is an ambitious agenda for all of humanity.

But will the new goals make any difference? We have had the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were launched with similar fanfare in 2000. These focused on 'development' and 'poverty', but were similarly high-sounding. Promoted heavily by Jeffrey Sachs, bed nets, vaccines and agricultural technologies were going to save the world. Big money from international donors and philanthropists backed them, but did they make a difference?

I must confess that I was a deep cynic in 2000. The 'aid' frame of the MDGs meant that implementation was subject to the usual top-down impositions, and there were many limitations, with the added burden of the target-oriented audit culture, and all the distortions this creates.

Was aid going to be a saviour or just a sticking plaster, unable to address the real structural causes of poverty and inequality? Did the MDGs actually just reinforce a world order where underdevelopment was the consequence of capitalist power and control in some parts of the world? Maybe.

So what has happened since 2000? There have been major changes in the world economy, and along with this, geopolitics. The old 'aid' frame, with western nations and rich philanthropists from the US setting the agenda, has gone (or at least partially).

In fact, the declines in aggregate poverty achieved since then have largely not been the result of MDG interventions at all, but are down to the growth of China (and also India, parts of Latin America and, more recently, some countries in Africa). These changes were not driven by goals and targets, or village pilot projects such as Sachs' much criticised Millennium Villages, but by economic aspiration, capitalist expansion and growth.

But I must admit that my cynicism for the MDGs has waned over 15 years, and this gives me hope for the SDGs. There are a number of reasons.

Investment linked to MDG targets has, in some places, resulted in significant gains. Ethiopia was one country that took the MDGs seriously. The statistics are impressive. Child mortality is down by two-thirds from 1990, and various other targets - on women's empowerment, nutrition and food insecurity - have been met. Yes, there have been distortions - sometimes a blind focus on a target, forgetting the wider picture - but the effect has been galvanising.

A commitment to a new state-led developmentalism is especially apparent in Ethiopia (inherited from the last Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi), but it's evident elsewhere too. In a period when the neoliberal mantra has been economic discipline, the retreat of the state and reliance on the private sector and voluntarism, the efforts of states like Ethiopia, committed in partnership with international donors to United Nations ambitions, is impressive.

Opening up political space

Perhaps most importantly, the MDGs opened up a political space for a debate about development. The United Nations Development Programme's MDG 'campaign' was important in keeping a development agenda on the radar of governments around the world, and the Indian human rights activist Salil Shetty was a great initial champion. These commitments were amplified, extended and supported of course by the major efforts of Non-Governmental Organisations and civil society groups, around Make Poverty History and other campaigns.

Without such collective action and political pressure, the temptation to cut aid budgets in the face of the late 2000s financial crisis would have been even greater. The summits and grand UN meetings may have been performative circuses, but they have also provided a focus for advocacy and challenge. The politics of global summitry can be one where new ideas emerge, creating spaces for more radical alternatives.

Moving beyond the target culture and shifting towards generating globally-agreed norms for policy and action - as has happened around human rights, women's rights and the environment - is perhaps a more appropriate focus for advocacy, rather than getting hung up on all the goals and targets, while still holding governments to account around key themes.

In a period of financial crisis, austerity, inward-facing nationalist politics and a geopolitics overtaken by the 'war on terror' post 9/11, the MDGs were in some ways an important counter, offering a more internationalist vision of development, and a confirmation of the UN ideals. Fifteen years on, I have emerged with a somewhat less cynical view.

But what of the SDGs? Might these offer the same? Just maybe.

If you read the document you will probably despair. It's full of high-flown rhetoric and grandiose statements - most of which are rather meaningless hot air and grand gestures. Great fodder for the cynic.

But I think if we (largely) forget the goals and targets (except as politically useful tools), and focus on the wider politics of the SDGs, we can see (perhaps) some radical potential. There are five things that might help assuage the cynic in me.

5 reasons to be optimistic about the new goals

First, again, the launch this week, and the continued presence of the goals, agreed by all nations, opens up a political space, as the MDGs did in 2000. Like then, it will have to be followed up by an energetic campaign, and radical voices will need to enter the debates to keep governments on their toes. Today, the broader conditions for a new argument for development are even less promising than in 2000, so we need to catch the moment, and make the case.

Second, and this is emphasised repeatedly in the agreement document, the SDGs are universal. They apply to all nations. This is not a 'development' document, with the unequal relations between 'donor' and 'recipient' inscribed. Instead, it's as relevant to the UK as it is to Zimbabwe, and accountabilities and commitments must work in all directions. This is an important departure from the MDGs that had the old (post-colonial) aid framework at the core. Last week the SDGs were discussed in the UK Parliament, but in the wrong committee. The SDGs are not just the concern of the International Development Committee but of all government. SDGs should be discussed under Home Affairs as well as development.

Third, the explicit linking of sustainability and so environmental concerns, especially climate change, is vital. Long-term, sustainable development cannot forget this. The MDGs pigeon-holed environmental issues, and did not see them integral to all development. Bringing sustainability centre stage is crucial, as the world negotiates a future in the context of climate change. In terms of UN efforts, it also brings development (UNDP) closer to environment (UNEP), and so makes the connections that have been attempted repeatedly in summits in Stockholm, Rio, Johannesburg and Rio again.

Fourth, what is needed here, along with the wider 'campaign' for sustainable development is what emerged from the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development - a local-level movement for sustainable development, based on practical change on the ground. Back then it was called Agenda 21. Remember that? Agenda 21 petered out and sustainable development became increasingly the domain of global summitry and COP events associated with climate change. But without practical enactments of sustainability, and a radical realisation of what it means in different places, the big ambitions will fall flat.

Fifth, a new developmentalism, linked to a universal commitment to an internationalised solution amongst the community of nations, gives the UN a pivotal role. As a new Secretary General is sought, I hope that whoever is appointed will keep these visions central and push member states to match their signing up to the SDGs with consistent financing and concerted action in line with the goals. This will not just mean carping at the failures of so-called developing nations, but will mean keeping developed nations to their word. As the UK imposes yet more austerity measures that affect poor people and ethnic minorities most harshly, at the same time as cutting support for transitions to green energy, will David Cameron, a great supporter of the SDGs, take note?

How green transformations happen

Green transformations involve politics, and require both high level goals, but most crucially organised collective action. As we discussed in the book The Politics of Green Transformations these may occur through a variety of processes, being led by technology and innovation, state intervention, market reforms or citizen actions.

Lessons show that sustained transformations to sustainability require political coalitions across groups through mobilisation across sites and scales.

If the SDGs are to have meaning, it is this new politics that will make the difference - not getting hung up on the many goals or targets.

Main Photo: Climate March 21/09/14 by Garry Knight on Flickr. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

Photo 2: Health extension worker Elsebeth Aklilu weighs a child in a sling scale outside the health post in the village of Maderia, in Gemechis, a woreda (district) of Oromia Region. Source: UNICEF Ethiopia on Flickr. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.

Photo 3: Protest against proposed programs like REDD+ by Ian MacKenzie on Flickr. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic licence.