Sustainable Development Goals failing to have meaningful impact research warns

A recent study - co-authored by Deputy Director (Research) of MSDI, Professor Rob Raven, along with contributing author, Chair of MSDI and Climateworks, Professor John Thwaites AM - has found that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are failing to have meaningful impact.

The international assessment - which was published in the leading scientific journal, Nature Sustainability - looked at over 3000 studies from scientific literature, think tanks and research institutes to try to understand how the goals are influencing global and national debates, laws and policies.

The findings show that despite sustainable development being high on the international agenda, the 17 global goals used by governments, companies, and NGOs worldwide to guide action towards a prosperous and just future - are having limited impact, and may instead be contributing to greenwashing.

Led by Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the research includes a section led by Professor Raven that focuses on the governance impacts of the SDGs on national and sub-national governments, private actors and civil society and how it influences discourse, relations, institutions and resources.

Professor Raven said the review found little evidence that the goal-setting SDG framework has a transformative effect on our social, political and economic systems beyond it being at a discursive level.

“The SDGs are not a transformative force by themselves. They require additional tools and frameworks, and the opportunity to implement them to enable deeper systems change,” he said.

“The complexity of these issues requires a collaborative, solutions-focused approach similar to the systems and integration approach that underpins MSDI’s programs.”

“That does not mean the SDG framework is not useful. It could be that introducing the SDGs in our vocabulary is the first step towards more fundamental changes. However, at this point there is no evidence to suggest that this is happening at a large scale and more remains to be done.”

In 2015, UN member states agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which sit at the heart of the UN’s global ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. Although non-binding, UN member states are expected to use the goals to frame their agendas and political policies up to 2030.

“Ultimately the question remains if goal-setting and the voluntary nature of the SDGs is an effective way of global sustainable development governance. It raises the challenges this framework creates for holding governments accountable.”

“Future research may generate valuable lessons on designing better architectures for global sustainable development governance. ”

Learn more about MSDI’s systems approach and Systems Transformation Toolkit