“We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a column in collaboration with Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen network, a premier group of next generation foreign policy leaders committed to principled American engagement in the world. This column elevates the voices of diverse young leaders as they establish themselves as authorities in their areas of expertise and expose readers to new ideas and priorities. Here you can read about emergent perspectives, policies, risks, and opportunities that will shape the future of US foreign policy.
On Sept. 25, 2015, 193 members of the UN General Assembly passed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda created the Sustainable Development Goals (commonly known as the SDGs or Global Goals), and all stakeholders agreed to meet the 17 goals by 2030. Global Goals Week will take place this September in New York City to mark the midway point of the agenda.
The Global Goals Week deliberately coincides with the UN General Assembly meeting and is both a celebration and a sobering reminder for all stakeholders about the progress made and steps needed to reach the goals by the deadline. The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda stakeholders include civil society organizations, businesses, multilateral institutions, and public agencies with the intention to collaborate and coordinate to put the world on a sustainable path. After all, sustainability cannot be achieved by states alone.
It is clear that within the United States, the youth are the most impacted by the decline.
Only the UN, however, is holding governments accountable to these goals — and the process is problematic. Signatories of the resolution have agreed to submit reviews of their progress voluntarily (called Voluntary National Reviews), and the United States is one of five countries that has not yet conducted its review. The others are Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, and Yemen. Considering that these four countries are conflict zones, it is not surprising that their capacity for conducting such a review is limited. But what is limiting the United States?
Furthermore, states will be measured most notably by one key performance indicator this year: the number of Targets on track to be achieved by 2030. Targets are defined as the specific objectives that need to be met to achieve the SDGs, and there are 169 in total. Currently, conditions aren’t looking good for the United States due to widening gaps in health outcomes, education, and inequality, particularly affecting youth populations. This makes revisiting the SDGs all the more necessary.
WHERE THE US STANDS RIGHT NOW
Secretary-General António Guterres speaks of “rescuing the SDGs” — and for good reason. Based on current data, the world is 43 years behind schedule. According to the 2022 UN Economic Commission for Europe Region report, only 26 out of 169 Targets are on track to be achieved by 2030. Some of these Targets include eradicating extreme poverty of people living on less than $1.25 a day, ending preventable infant deaths and of children under 5 years old, and achieving universal and equitable access to potable drinking water, which should be celebrated. It is also important to note that the impact of COVID-19 is not reflected in the report. Similarly, the Social Progress Imperative, a global nonprofit organization, follows the progress of 149 countries in order to determine the world’s ability to achieve the SDGs.
Based on the 2022 Social Progress Index, the United States has been stagnating in social progress since 2011 and actively sliding backward on Targets since 2017. Personal rights are also declining in the United States, along with the United Kingdom and Canada. Regression within the United States is primarily related to the SDGs of good health and well-being, quality education, and peace, justice, and strong institutions.
When the 2022 UN Economic Commission for Europe Region and Social Progress Index is considered together, it is clear that within the United States, the youth are the most impacted by the decline. For example, American youth is facing a mental health crisis as youth suicides have risen since 2020, among other indicators, which severely hampers achieving good health and well-being for young people and their families. Reading and math test scores have also declined considerably since COVID-19, which hampered accessibility to quality education. And safety troubles such as increased firearm-related mortality show a deterioration of peace, justice, and strong institutions as violent deaths continue to rise.
FIRST STEPS TO MEETING THE GOALS
There are several actions that the Biden administration can take to effectively deal with these interconnected challenges, and, ultimately, get the United States back on track toward achieving these goals for the people.
The American Leadership on the SDGs partnership between the UN Foundation and the Brookings Institution’s Center for Sustainable Development educates, engages, and expands US leadership to implement the SDGs at the local, regional, and national levels to improve the quality of American life. The joint initiative lays out a number of important recommendations that US officials should consider, but three stand out: establishing a cabinet-level SDG Council, submitting a Voluntary National Review at the UN’s high-level political forum, and hosting a US SDG Summit.
While these three recommendations do not directly reverse the alarming deterioration of good health and well-being, quality education, and institutions focused on peace and justice directly, it is important that the United States approach the SDGs as a united front. In other words, meeting the Sustainable Development Agenda requires bipartisan support across all levels of federal and state governments. In instituting a cabinet-level SDG Council, internal synchronization between domestic and foreign policy leadership will be fortified because, as the report states, uniting such expertise will “ensure regular assessment of progress, enable identification of medium-term priorities, and concretize the commitment between local progress and global leadership.”
Many national and multinational businesses, civil society organizations, and state and municipal governments have already begun benchmarking and measuring their progress to help achieve the SDGs. The infrastructure is also nearly there, with many institutions funding their own dashboards, plans, and programming paired with the collective respect for the work that notable SDG advocates such as Jeffrey Sachs, John McArthur, Elizabeth Cousens, and Rachel Bowen Pittman spearhead. These ingredients are also conducive for submitting a Voluntary National Review, especially as members of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network already create reports on state-level benchmarking of meeting the SDGs. Only six countries have never presented a Voluntary National Review, including the United States, and this absence is increasingly becoming a signal for skepticism across the world stage on the country’s pledge to deliver.
The Biden administration should also seriously consider hosting a US SDG Summit. The summit would serve as the global, public kick-off for US leadership action, especially in the lead-up to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is planned for 2023. The summit would also allow for a momentous occasion to accelerate the mobilization of commitments and alliances to showcase the reinforcement of the bold actions already taken by leaders throughout the nation and across sectors.
The timing could not be better for the Biden administration to catalyze commitment to the SDGs as Americans struggle with inflation in the post-COVID economy. President Joe Biden campaigned on creating a foreign policy for the American middle class. This, of course, includes young people who are feeling the impacts of inaction the most. American youth feel left out of agendas but believe that they can and do make a difference because there is no other option. For all its issues, perhaps the old cliché “think of the children” had some merit, because these crises have come as a result when no one does. It’s time for the president, his cabinet, and US policymakers to recommit to the American youth and deliver on the SDGs.