Reshaping development goals

This impact story, one of a series from the ESRC STEPS Centre, shows how we engaged in processes around the Sustainable Development Goals.

A roadside display in New Delhi, India, listing the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo: ESRC STEPS Centre

In 2015, a new set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals were formally adopted by members of the United Nations. They followed on from the previous set of 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

There are some key differences this time around. Sustainability is now central, and the goals apply explicitly to all countries, not just ‘developing’ ones. There was much more effort made to enable civil society to participate in creating the goals and targets than with the MDGs.

The Centre has galvanised its expertise to engage with the process of formulating the Sustainable Development Goals from an early stage. The STEPS Centre was active throughout Planet Under Pressure, a major scientific conference held in the UK in 2012, which was considered an important stepping stone on the way to Rio.

Prof Melissa Leach presents ideas on citizen engagement in science and innovation at the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March 2012. Photo: STEPS Centre

The Rio plus 20 conference itself in 2012 provided an important moment. The STEPS Centre submitted a position paper to the Rio+20 zero draft preparation process, in which it argued that science, technology and innovation have essential roles to play in sustainability; but innovation should give recognition and power to poorer people. Melissa Leach as STEPS director attended the conference, and presented at a variety of events, including the High-level Dialogue on Global Sustainability: Tipping the scales towards sustainability — The Future We Choose.

Meanwhile, the Centre led a series of Guardian articles profiling our research — both from individual projects/domains, and across the Centre.

It’s time for sustainable development

Why Rio+20 must not leave the politics out of sustainable development

Edge of sustainability: why Rio+20 mustn’t ignore people on city fringe

Rio+20 must make inclusive innovation stepping stone to a sustainable future

Achieving universal energy access


Ecology and society

Together with our colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (now part of the STEPS Global Consortium), we collectively prepared a paper linking SRC and STEPS ideas in new and productive ways. This was published in the OA journal Ecology and Society and was widely shared at Rio.

The World Social Science Report 2013 featured an article by Melissa Leach, Johan Rockström and Kate Raworth bringing together ideas about planetary boundaries informed by earth systems science, and social wellbeing.

In addition, Melissa Leach, Johan Rockström and Kate Raworth worked together in debates about how the planetary boundaries ideas can link with wider questions of social justice and social floors of income and well-being, contributing to an important piece in the 2013 World Social Science report entitled ‘Between social and planetary boundaries: navigating pathways in the safe and just space for humanity’. Since then, the planetary boundaries thinking has evolved further, with an updated paper in 2015; and Kate Raworth has gone on to write a popular book on ‘doughnut economics’, taking forward ideas about how wellbeing can interact with planetary boundaries.

An IDS briefing was also produced based on STEPS work. These activities aimed to present a distinctive perspective on innovation and sustainability at a turning point for global collective action on development, by working with high profile and influential partners and networks, and through the media to maximise our contribution to the debate.

How can the SDGs transform development?

Following Rio, the Centre was able to contribute widely to the debates around the SDGs, arguing strongly that the challenge was to think of these as a political platform for transformation, not one where a UN/governmental system got bogged down in goals and targets. This meant, as with all STEPS work, politics had to be central to sustainable development. Making this case, we published a series of articles in the Huffington Post, as part of a commissioned special feature on the SDGs around their launch in 2015 and on the STEPS site:

Gender should be part of the conversation across *all* SDGs

Rethinking Africa’s sustainable development pathways

Giving flesh to the science and innovation we need to see

Science, politics and the post-Rio+20 agenda

In addition, STEPS members contributed to various parliamentary inquiries in the UK framed by SDG concerns in this period.

In 2016, wanting to take stock a year and half on, together with the Independent Expert Group for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), we co-hosted a meeting in London to reflect on progress and challenges around the SDGs. A summary of the event gives links to papers, interviews and other materials.

Interviews with participants in the IEG/IIED/STEPS event on SDGs in Low Income Countries (YouTube)

Implementing the new global goals

The STEPS Annual Lecture in 2017, by incoming director of UNDP and former director of UNEP, Achim Steiner, focusing on implementing the SDGs, and provoked interesting debate, around the challenges of multilateralism today.

Achim Steiner pointed out the close connection between the launch of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Despite the rise of authoritarian nationalism in some countries, he suggested, this was evidence that many nations still saw the benefits of working together. The SDGs and the Paris Agreement were a unique moment for global action on the environment.

What happens next?

In the period to 2030, we will continue to engage in academic and public debates around implementing the SDGs. Crucial to this will be showing how the goals can be more than a box-ticking exercise but instead offer opportunities for new debates and new alliances to form. They remind us how the achievement of any goal depends on success in the others — for example, how tackling hunger (Goal 2) links to land (15), poverty (1) and health (3) and so on.

They also remind us that sustainable development, as a global effort, should neither be thought of as a burden for poorer countries, or an indulgence for the rich. It’s a responsibility for everyone — and that means facing up to the historical inequalities, injustices and power relations between communities and countries.

Any transformative action towards achieving the goals will meet with resistance, contestation, and politics as it becomes clear who the winners and losers might be. Confronting these political issues is just as important as overcoming the technical and scientific challenges of sustainable development.


Find out more

Read more impact stories on other topics, or browse our resources on the Sustainable Development Goals.