Confidence in UN's global goals faltering amid slow progress: Survey

An man carries a bag full of recyclable waste material which he sells for a living, in Daveland near Soweto, South Africa, on Aug 4, 2015.
An man carries a bag full of recyclable waste material which he sells for a living, in Daveland near Soweto, South Africa, on Aug 4, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ambitious global goals aimed at ending poverty and inequality by 2030 are moving more slowly than expected and would struggle to get approval from United Nations members if put to a vote today, an exclusive survey showed on Tuesday.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked policymakers, campaigners and executives with an interest in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) how they viewed the progress of the blueprint of 17 goals that won unanimous support from the 193 UN member states two years ago.

The sweeping 15-year agenda is a global "to-do" list on such issues as climate change, women's rights, education, hunger, joblessness and land degradation. The cost of implementation has been estimated at US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) a year.

But the online poll, conducted between July 31 and Sept 8, found two-thirds of 113 respondents said progress on the goals was slower than anticipated.

Half of those surveyed said they were not confident that the goals could be met by 2030, while about a quarter expressed confidence in meeting that deadline.

Experts said dashing hopes for the SDGs has been the rise in nationalism, with US President Donald Trump pulling away from global cooperation, Britain's decision to withdraw from the European Union, the far right showing in the French presidential election, and hard-line leadership in Turkey and India.

"Unfortunately the change in the U.S. administration and similar populist tides in other countries really puts global cooperation in peril," said Elisha Dunn Georgiou, a vice president at PAI, a US-based reproductive rights organisation.

Georgiou said US policies, and associated funding cuts, reduce its leadership role on a host of global issues and embolden other nations to step back from international cooperation as well, giving the United States less power.

"Under the previous administration (of US President Barack Obama), we were able to keep bad actors in check," she said.

A United Nations report this summer assessing the SDGs also found progress was not moving fast enough to meet the 2030 deadline. The UN report said growing war and violence were the major obstacles to their implementation.

After two years of negotiations, the SDGs were approved unanimously in a flurry of high-profile events at the United Nations attended by Pope Francis and a host of world leaders.

But if those same goals went to a vote today, two out of five survey respondents were not confident of the same approval. Roughly the same number expressed confidence the goals would make it through today.

World leaders later in 2015 in Paris also agreed on a global pact to reduce global warming. The United States under Trump has since said it will pull out of that arrangement.

"My sense is that the time of arriving at large global agreements isn't particularly conducive right now," said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, chief executive of Plan International that promotes children's rights and equality for girls.

"Nationalism is growing (and) self-interest .. (but) I think we all collectively have to be disappointed and tell governments that actually you worked on this together, it took you two years to arrive at these goals and get with the programme."

But she said she was not disheartened as typically big international agreements can take two or three years to be translated into more specific plans for implementation.

The survey found that the goal seen as most successful so far was ensuring access to affordable, sustainable energy, followed by gender equality and education.

At the other end of the scale, seeing the least success, were the goals of reducing inequality and conserving and sustainably using oceans and seas.

Facing the biggest obstacles are the goals to end poverty, reduce inequality and combat climate change, the poll found.

"The inequality goal is the one that we'll struggle the most with because that will require massive shifts in behaviour, in resources, in political power," said Albrectsen.

"It will require differences to our lifestyles and our behaviours that most societies are not ready for." Asked what would be the best ways for the SDGs to attract more attention and gain traction, the top three answers were more public and private funding, more incentives for countries to act and more community- and grass roots-level involvement.

Only one in 10 Europeans know what the SDGs are, according to a study conducted for the European Union earlier this year.

"There needs to be more private sector involvement," said Amit Bouri, chief executive of the Global Impact Investing Network that promotes private investment for global issues.

"What's really important is to figure out how to connect those high-level goals to actual projects and investment opportunities .. There's a need for much greater urgency. I think everyone needs to do more and move faster."