17 Goals for a World Community - with Peace, Liberty, and Justice for All

By Bruce Knotts

Goals work. Lose weight, save money, set up a study schedule to improve grades. Set some goals and work towards achieving them and whether or not you achieve your goals, you’ll have improved performance over what would have been the case without goals.

You’ve probably also noticed that goals can be even more effective if there’s someone watching, keeping track, and holding you accountable to the goals you’ve set yourself. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to look out for each other, to cherish, respect, and care for the world around us, including our fellow human beings. In light of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals adopted one year ago this month, we have an opportunity to reflect on how we are active and engaged with our world community, and recommit to each doing our part to ensure it is a world filled with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Graphic logo for the UN Millennium Development Goals

In 2000, the world’s representatives agreed to a set of development goals to end global poverty, improve gender equity, ensure basic education for every child, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, ensure environmental sustainability, and promote global partnerships for development. Eight goals for the new millennium – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Did you know these goals existed? Most people didn’t. Those that did know mostly found out about the goals around 2010, ten years after they had gone into effect and just five years before the deadline to achieve them by 2015. The goals were formulated by diplomats at the United Nations and focused exclusively on development.

Did the MDGs succeed? Yes, in some ways. They definitely improved the world.

Those living in extreme poverty in 2000 numbered about 2 billion and by 2015 it was less than 900 million. In 2000 nearly a quarter of the globe’s people were malnourished. By 2015 that number was cut in half. In 2000 there were about 100 million school aged children out of school, by 2015 that figure had been cut to 57 million. There are now 90% more women in global parliaments due to these goals. Infant mortality was cut in half. The other goals showed similar improvement.

By 2015, the MDGs had expired and the United Nations undertook to establish a new set of goals. Heading into 2015, attitudes had changed. The 2015-2030 “Sustainable Development Goals” or SDGs (sometimes referred to as the 2030 goals) were arrived at through far more civil society collaboration than was even considered in 2000. After months and even years of advocacy work from the UU-UNO and other non-governmental organizations, these new goals reflect civil society pressure to include much more content regarding human rights and climate change. Adopted in September 2015, there are now 17 goals focused on people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership. As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the SDGs work to “end poverty and hunger, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfill their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.” They call for “urgent action on climate change.” “There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development,” the 2030 Agenda states.

The major difference between the League of Nations, which failed to prevent a Second World War 20 years after the end of the first, and the United Nations, which has prevented world war for 70 years, is that civil society has a critical role to play at the UN, but had no role whatsoever in the League of Nations. It was the influence of civil society, including religious groups, individual activists, non-governmental organizations and institutions, that pushed the UN towards the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that include important provisions for human rights and the rights of the planet. Civil society used its power to pressure governments to sign on to the SDGs and the related Paris Agreement addressing climate change.

Graphic logo for the UN Sustainable Development Goals

In many respects, the Sustainable Development Goals are a reflection of our interdependent web of existence. The subjects contained in SDGs themselves are inherently interconnected. Take for example the heavy dependence that the target from one goal draws from another: Target 3d of SDG 3 (good health & well-being) “Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction, and management of national and global health risks,” is heavily dependent on SDG 9, “Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation.”

Aside from the interdependence of the goals themselves, the existence of the SDGs demonstrates the strong interdependence of our world community. Because we share one planet, all countries and people are responsible for contributing to improving the quality of life on Earth for humans and all other living things. We are compelled to work together to ensure that we can continue living together safely, peacefully, and justly on this beautiful planet. An important thing about the Sustainable Development Goals that differs from the Millennium Development Goals, is that the SDGs are goals for every country and every community. They are not just for the developing world – those countries considered “developed,” including the United States and Canada, have a lot of work to do in order to come close to achieving the SDGs. Our whole world community is counting on us to do our part.

Now that the signatures are dry on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, it is civil society (you and me) who must ensure that our governments live up to their commitments made at UN headquarters in New York City. It is our responsibility to watch, keep track, and hold our governments, and ourselves, accountable to these agreements. That means all of us need to be familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals and at least some of their associated targets. Consider the impact each of us can have by working in our local contexts to bring our communities closer to achieving one of these goals.

The UU-UNO has developed resource guides to help Envoys work with their congregations on each of the 17 SDGs.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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