The Time Has Come to Think about Post-SDGs

AKASAKA Kiyotaka

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become widely known in Japan. According to the Asahi Glass Foundation’s 2022 Environmental Crisis Awareness Survey, awareness of the SDGs was over 80%, a very high level even by global standards. Elementary and junior high school students are also learning about the SDGs, and employees of large companies are said to have an awareness level close to 100%. It is impressive that people have remembered such an alphabetical acronym. In the past, it was difficult to get people to remember acronyms that cannot be easily written in Japanese katakana, such as OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), compared to UNICEF and UNESCO, which are commonly written in katakana. Unlike the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), their precursor, the SDGs deal with many of the problems faced by developed countries as well as developing countries. This fact may also have contributed to the increased interest of Japanese companies and people.

 The year 2030, the target year of the SDGs, is only seven years from now. At present, the focus is on how to achieve SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets, and full-fledged discussions on what to do beyond that have not yet begun. However, recalling that it took more than 20 years of preparation before the SDGs were agreed upon internationally, we may not be able to agree upon new post-SDGs goals if we do not start thinking about what to do beyond the SDGs soon.

 The SDGs are to be achieved in the period from 2015 to 2030, following the agreement reached at the UN conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. They cover every conceivable area, including poverty eradication, health, education, gender equality, clean energy, decent jobs, reducing inequality, climate change, biodiversity, and peace and justice. The idea of “sustainable development” came out of a 1987 report from a UN committee (the so-called Brundtland Commission), and it took 25 years for it to become an international goal. It needed such a long time for a new idea to be recognized globally and to become a common goal for all countries of the world.

 Before the SDGs, there were the MDGs, the UN’s development goals for the period 2000-2015. The MDGs set eight goals, including poverty eradication, universal primary education, reduction of child and maternal mortality, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and provision of clean water and sanitation. They achieved considerable success by the deadline of 2015. In determining these goals, there was lively debate throughout the 1990s. In particular, the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD laid out the groundwork, which was epitomized in its 1996 “New Development Strategy”. The strategy set out the idea of numerical targets and achievement deadlines, which later became the very framework of the MDGs.

 Japan played an essential role in the formulation of the DAC’s new development strategy. In particular, those involved then are well aware that then Ambassador to the UN Owada Hisashi was a key person, in engaging UN ambassadors of various countries stationed in New York. Ambassador Owada invited many of them to Japan for consultations. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that Japan was the mother of the MDGs. Since the SDGs are the successor to the MDGs, Japan may well be regarded as a grandparent of the SDGs. The Japanese people tend to cherish the virtue of modesty and humility and try not to be boastful about all this, but it is an episode that should be better known both inside and outside Japan as an important historical fact.

 In light of these past examples, it is not too early to start talking about the future of the SDGs, which have a deadline of 2030. The year 2023 is the midpoint of the SDGs period and the year that a quadrennial Global SD Report is issued. As the SDG Summit will also be held at the United Nations this year, it is most likely that discussions will begin on what international goals should be after 2030. It will probably be around the time when the 2027 Global SD Report is issued that the discussion will simmer down and concrete proposals may emerge.

 When considering the post-2030 world, the following elements may need to be taken into account:

 (1) an unstable and uncertain world, especially the division between the liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, as well as the rise of other forces known as the Global South;
 (2) widening economic disparities between countries and within countries;
 (3) natural resource depletion;
 (4) technological innovation and development represented by the increased use of AI and advanced biotechnology;
 (5) aging of society

 Even though the SDGs will have achieved considerable success by 2030, there will still be many unmet goals. Therefore, one option would be to postpone the deadline of the SDGs, but this seems too easy a solution in light of the new challenges.

 When you come to think of it, both the MDGs and SDGs are specific action-oriented goals that include numerical targets and deadlines. They are, so to speak, means-related goals, and the larger goals beyond them, such as people’s happiness and well-being, have not been given any place in the whole picture. These eternal goals have been left to the individual, as they have been considered too subjective. Although eliminating poverty and disease does not necessarily make people happy, the very first step has been to create an environment that provides food, clothing, and shelter.

 Recently, however, various discussions on happiness and well-being have been advanced and the annual “World Happiness Report” involving the United Nations has been published. There have also been attempts to create objective indicators for this purpose. These major goals of life are likely to be addressed in the post-SDGs discussions.

 In this respect, Japan has been advocating the lofty idea of “human security” since 1998. When we began advocating “human security” as a major Japanese foreign policy goal, we had in mind the noble goal of rallying the people of the world to live in an ideal society where individual persons are free and at peace. The concept encompasses a range of issues that are addressed by the SDGs. I am convinced that such ideas as human security deserve to be brought to the forefront of the discussion as part of a larger international movement that goes beyond the SDGs.

 We all know well that “Man shall not live by bread alone” (the Bible) and that “health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (the Constitution of the WHO). It is about time that we all started discussing great goals for life as international goals to take the place of the SDGs. There is little time left before 2030.

AKASAKA Kiyotaka was a diplomat in Japan’s Foreign Service serving in several international organizations including the U.N. as Under-Secretary-General. He is currently President of the Nippon Communications Foundation.

Note: This essay originally appeared on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan.