the unA perennial frustration for most of us who are social scientists is that we have many things to say about how to make the world better but few, very few, people and institutions are willing to listen to our ideas. There are exceptions, however. An important one is the United Nations and its initiative to develop a set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs – for the world to meet in the coming years. First, I will give some background about the SDGs and then discuss a recent meeting I attended at the UN in New York on this topic.

The SDGs are being formulated to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight goals agreed upon by world leaders in 2000. The MDGs called upon countries throughout the world (with an emphasis on developing countries) to cut poverty in half, achieve gender parity in education, and meet other worthy targets. As a cultural anthropologist with an interest in development, I can say that many nations take the MDGs seriously, spurred on by a competitive desire to do better than other developing countries in similar situations. Even though not all of the MDGs will be met by 2015, the deadline year for their completion, progress has definitely been made.

The SDGs seek to preserve important goals of the MDGs, such as poverty alleviation, while expanding the number and scope of the goals to be met. In particular preservation of the environment is a new dimension. Equally important for social scientists to know is that the UN is seeking to involve civil society, including social scientists, in the formulation of the SDGs – now well under way. In February, I attended the eighth meeting of the Open Working Group on the SDGs followed by the Commission for Social Development meeting. The proceedings of both meetings have been recorded and are available at UN Webtv (search for “Open Working Group” and “Commission for Social Development”).

Here are some highlights from the meetings.


There is an interesting debate on how to address inequality. At both meetings high-level academic experts and United Nations leaders formed panels on different topics; inequality was discussed frequently. Some advocate a stand-alone goal to address inequality but do not want inequality to replace a goal to end poverty. After all, the goals are closely related. What makes the inequality goal interesting is that it encourages us to attend to the structures responsible for perpetuating inequality, critiquing wider social issues  in a manner less frequently seen in discussions of poverty.

Discussions of poverty often focus on how to move poor people into new jobs where they can earn more money – out of agriculture and into factory jobs, for example. An examination of inequality might ask, more broadly, why farmers are so underpaid in the first place. In my opinion, one cannot address poverty and inequality without first discussing the structural features that perpetuate these related phenomena, as threatening to many elites as such a discussion could be.

Gender issues

The MDGs have been rightly criticised for being insufficient in the goals they set for gender equality. Speakers at the UN meetings noted the absence of goals to make contraception and abortion easily available to women. There was also an impassioned plea that the SDGs include a target for reducing domestic violence against women. Most of those speaking believed that there should be both a separate goal for women’s issues as well as the integration of gender throughout the SDGs. I was pleased to hear so many speakers, including representatives of countries not known for gender equality, and males as well as females, argue forcefully for gender equality. The co-chair of the open working group even deemed as historic the impassioned statements on the issue during one of the sessions.


A controversial topic is whether there should be an SDG for good governance and what such a goal should specify about the nature of good government. Many speakers argued forcefully that without good governance and rule of law there is little hope of meeting new SDGs. Others added that a good governance goal should call for an end to armed conflict between and within nations. These speakers noted how devastating such conflict is and how it slows, or reverses, progress toward addressing poverty and challenging oppression in all its forms.

More to come…

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