The SDGs are in peril. Here’s how we can revive them.

This September, 193 world leaders will huddle in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly.

At the top of their agenda will be bringing into fruition the most ambitious development project in human history: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, carefully crafted by nations two years ago through extensive stakeholder forums, surveys and working groups.

The good news? The entire world had agreed on 169 priorities that ranged from urgent tasks like expanding safe drinking water to longer-term challenges like climate change. The bad? There are simply too many priorities. One expert said of the targets: “They look more like an encyclopedia of development than a useful tool for action.”

Given that the world is bootstrapped for the $45 trillion required to fund this initiative, which one of these 169 priorities should we focus on?

To answer that question, Bretton Woods II is releasing preliminary results from our year-long SDGs In Order project, the first sequencing of the UN SDGs in the world

The project – led by Bretton Woods II Fellow Jeff Leitner, in partnership with the OECD - surveyed 85 experts across different fields and organizations, including the World Bank, OECD, universities and civil society. These experts were asked to select their top 20 out of 169 SDG targets, and to sequence them in order.  

The findings are fascinating: 

Of the 17 SDGs, experts believe that the top goal should be to reduce inequality, with the second to end poverty.

The experts’ Top 5 SDG options are almost evenly split between institutional and individual welfare issues:

  • Promote rule of law and access to justice
  • Eliminate the most extreme poverty
  • Ensure access to safe, effective and affordable health care, medicine and vaccines
  • Ensure women’s rights to economic opportunity, property ownership and inheritance
  • Ensure government accountability and transparency

When asked about what they value in the targets, 47 percent of experts said they valued targets that addressed individuals while 29 percent valued those that focused on institutions; 35 percent valued urgency over 29 percent for long-term processes. 

This is the first project of its kind. There have been previous efforts to rank the SDGs, but these projects pursue ranking through a narrow scope of cost-benefit or issue focus (see here for more on the Copenhagen Consensus). A main reason for the lack of research in this area is that the politics around ranking the SDGs are fraught. Private funders have their own causes and governments want to retain the inclusive nature of the SDGs. But it is clear that the SDGs will be in peril without a directed intervention of this kind. 

We’re still at the beginning of digesting our results. But these initial findings indicate that there is a consensus around a hierarchy of investments, a groundbreaking development that may imbue a new sense of purpose into the world’s most important project for the next 13 years.

For more, please see our complete findings at sdgsinorder.org or contact Jeff Leitner at leitner@newamerica.org.

Author:

Jeff Leitner is a fellow with Bretton Woods II. He is Innovator in Residence at the University of Southern California School of Social Work, a founder and managing director of GreenHouse, and a founder and director of UX for Good.