The World We Want: A Conversation with Amina J. Mohammed on the Sustainable Development Goals

This weekend, world leaders met at the United Nations in New York City to define a sustainable development agenda through 2030, a process built on the successes, failures, and lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched in 2000 and expiring at the end of this year. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a global framework of 17 goals designed to address humanity’s most pressing problems, from poverty and hunger to health, education, gender equality, energy, climate change, and environmental sustainability.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Amina J Mohammed, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning, about defining these goals and turning words into action.
The premise is simple: what kind of world do we want? Considering the world’s seven billion people, this simple premise turns into a thorny nest of complexity. But we can agree on what kind of world leads to basic human dignity and a healthy environment. Without a set of mutually agreed upon goals describing a world where we can all live and thrive, we hobble our efforts in ever achieving it.

The Aspirations of a New Century

At the Rio+20 UN summit on sustainable development in 2010, member states drafted the Future We Want Outcome Document, setting the process for post-2015 sustainable development in motion, building on the MDGs and extending back to the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
“Quite clearly we never would have embarked on this process if we hadn’t had some success from the first goal-setting that we did in 2000,” says Ms. Mohammed.
“I think what we’ve learned from that is 193 countries could come together and agree in principle on a set of goals that would move forward on things that really were important to people.”
At the turn of the century, efforts on issues like poverty, education, water and sanitation, gender equality, and building partnerships were scattered, lacking focus and a straightforward means of implementation, explains Ms. Mohammed. “We didn’t see much of the different UN platform over the past decades.”
The Millennium Development Goals were a “brave attempt to try to be much more hopeful and fulfill people’s aspirations,” says Ms. Mohammed. “A review and  prescription of what we ought to do in the next 15 years to bring everyone together and get some movement.”
“Some things that happened on the MDGs we take stock of. Things that didn’t happen, the unfinished business of the MDGs  you see in the first six SDGs,” Ms. Mohammed says. “So we don’t leave anyone or anything behind. We take it forward and we face the more complex and difficult challenges that are emerging today.”
Building on the Millennium Development Goals
The first six sustainable development goals build on the work remaining from the millennium development goals: 1) No Poverty 2) Zero Hunger 3) Good Health and Well-Being 4) Quality Education 5) Gender Equality 6) Clean Water and Sanitation.

Beyond a Band-Aid, the Big Picture of Sustainable Development

Sustenance is the foundation of sustainability. As long as people are hopelessly bound to hunger and poverty, global sustainable development remains out of reach. As with the MDGs, goal number one for post-2015 development is “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Easier said than done, but the MDGs proved the concept by meeting the goal of cutting extreme poverty in half. Poverty can be significantly reduced.

“We set out a goal to reduce poverty by half,” Ms. Mohammed says, “and we got that as a global goal. That’s a lot of people taken out of poverty.” But, as critics quickly point out, it leaves much work to do. “I’d say the glass is half full in terms of what we achieved in reducing poverty. That did happen, largely because of China,”

The demographics and definition of poverty have much to do with getting the glass half full. The lesson is that poverty relief is not spread evenly and must start from the bottom up by defining extreme poverty as surviving on the equivalent of no more than $1 per day.

“We do know that the underlying causes of many more remaining in poverty are the inequalities,” says Ms. Mohammed. “…within countries, across countries, it is a big issue. You have a whole goal to represent that in the SDG.”

So it is with other MDG goals like education. “We got kids into classrooms, but we question the quality,” says Ms. Mohammed. By accepting responsibility for both the success and shortfall of the goal, the new goal encompasses and expands the original development goals of the MDGs.

As Peter Hazlewood writes in the World Resources Institute blog, “…despite some impressive areas of progress along the way, nearly a quarter of humanity continues to live on less than $2 per day, inequalities have worsened dramatically, and unsustainable resource use, environmental degradation, and climate change march steadily on.”

Reviewing progress at the 2017 Rio+20 summit was critical to building on the MDGs and forging an iterative path forward. “Member states agree that we need to change the paradigm because we need to do development beyond just a band-aid,” Ms. Mohammed says. “We want to look at new courses. We want to integrate a social, economic, and environmental perspective to get sustainability.”

“One of the first things we sat down to do was to be very clear on the state of the world,” says Ms. Mohammed. “What is the fabric that we want to stitch on the remedies in the shape of goals? We should agree on what existing challenges there are and what the emerging ones are. Conceptually, the sustainable development discourse came of its time in 2012, and that’s because we’ve been discussing it for over two decades. This is where it comes to fruition.

The two main takeaways for member states from Rio+20 are the need for integration and ownership of efforts and goals built on a common, shared belief that partnership and trust will lead to a better world.

Universal, Transparent

The new SDG framework is built on transparency and universality. All sectors of society must be involved in the process of sustainable development, including institutions, government, the private sector, and civil society. Beyond this integrated approach is transparency. “It’s something that hasn’t happened before,” Ms. Mohammed says. Adopting the Sustainable Development Goals marks the culmination of two years of negotiations involving 193 member states and, perhaps more importantly, an exceptional degree of public participation from civil society, the private sector, and all stakeholders.

“Two-and-a-half years is a long time to address a single issue and keep the momentum going,” says Ms. Mohammed, but the result is widespread ownership from all sectors in laying the shared groundwork for the success of the SDGs.

Achieving sustainable development is not possible without inclusion, transparency, and partnership.

The Role of Business

“Business has a role to play in every one of the goals we set,” Ms. Mohammed says. “Any agenda that looks to have transformation in their economy that needs to be inclusive, business will be an integral part in how their core business model is taken to task. They are much more aware that their business must not be detrimental to people and certainly not the environment.”

“There’s no cookie cutter for this,” she says. Still, one essential element Ms. Mohammed mentions for inclusive business is the financial sector, allowing more avenues for women and young people to access credit for entrepreneurship. All have a role,  from community and national banks to multinational and development banks.

“I think we’re going to take a two year transition where we reflect on how best to partner with business. The issues that business needs to address as they become fit for purpose on the sustainable development agenda.”

No Peace Without Development, No Development Without Peace

The new development agenda succeeds, says Ms. Mohammed, to the degree that development, human rights, and peace are understood as three pillars of human progress.

“I think it’s a difficult discussion because the mandates are so clearly delineated,” says Ms. Mohammed. Over the years, we’ve managed to speak to them in silos. The fact that we’re discussing an integration of issues brings us to how the three pillars are inextricably linked.”

“We’re cognizant of the fact that the UN itself is held up by two other pillars. The human rights pillar and the peace and security pillar,” she explains.

The human and financial resources are available to move toward a shared vision of peace, equality, human rights, and sustainable development, Ms. Mohammed says. She does not imply that the task will be easy or that flaws, suspicion, and doubt remain in the process. We’re only human.

But the process of the past two years, the past two decades, and indeed back half a century and more of building the world we want takes a big step forward with the Sustainable Development Goals. We each have a part in seeing these ambitious goals come to fruition.

The 17 newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals

This article first appeared in TriplePundit.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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