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  • CORRESPONDENCE

Speaking truth to power about the SDGs

A Masai man dressed in traditional clothes looks at a mobile phone while watching over a herd of cows

Maasai teacher Isaac Mkalia consults his mobile phone in Kenya.Credit: Sven Torfinn/Panos

Your call to scale back the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs; see Nature 583, 331–332; 2020) conflates two issues. The first is whether the goals are technically and financially feasible. The second is whether they are likely to be accomplished under current policies.

The SDGs are, in principle, still affordable and achievable. But they are being undermined by the chronic failure of the United States and other rich nations to honour the goal of international partnership (SDG 17), as well as by failures in international cooperation and domestic governance of many countries.

Criticisms have not demonstrated any technological or operational obstacles to achieving the SDGs. Academic studies, commission reports and policy analyses suggest that there are pathways to success in areas such as energy decarbonization, sustainable land use and food systems, education for all, disease control and public health. They rely on a combination of policies, including transfers of public funds to poor people, public financing of health care and education, and increased public and private investment in infrastructure.

The goals are affordable. Assessments by the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and others confirm that the SDGs can be financed at a cost of about 2% of global gross domestic product, with around 0.4% in development aid to fill the gaps in lower-income countries. Ambitious goals unleash innovations to accelerate progress and bring down costs, particularly through the use of new technologies.

In this way, ambitious goals have helped to achieve tremendous advances in the control of infectious diseases that many experts had considered impossible (J. D. Sachs and G. Schmidt-Traub Science 356, 32–33; 2017). However, most rich nations do not spend the minimum target of 0.7% of their gross national income on ‘official development assistance’.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious setback for sustainable development. Had the SDGs been heeded sooner, control today would be faster and more effective. SDG 3.d calls for “early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks”, which many countries, including wealthy ones, have overlooked. The SDGs provide an inclusive framework for post-COVID-19 economic recovery, and for development decoupled from negative environmental impacts (http://sdgindex.org/).

Rather than abandoning goals that reflect basic human rights and ignoring the need to respect Earth’s planetary boundaries, experts should uphold the SDGs and speak truth to power about what is needed to achieve them.

Nature 584, 344 (2020)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02373-7

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