The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership. They recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.”

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

The UN SDG framework is incorporated into the strategies of most international and intergovernmental organisations, including the EU, which funds project projects that promote the SDGs. Despite these efforts, there is very little awareness about the SDGs among the public and in government circles. Implementing the goals themselves has equally been a monumental task. Last year, I completed the SDG Traineeship, and gained some valuable insights on the realities of carrying out sustainable policymaking in (local) government. So, after 8 years of the SDGs and 7 years left until completion, what is the current state of affairs of the SDGs worldwide?

A Primer on the SDGs

The 17 SDGs, combined with their respective sub-targets and indicators (231 in total), give a broad set of goals in 17 interrelated sectors. For instance, Goal 1, “No poverty”, entails the eradication of extreme poverty (measured by the percentage of people living under the international poverty line of 1.90$/day), reduction of poverty by at least 50% (measured through national statistics), and further targets with their appropriate indicators. Aside from outcome targets, there are also means of implementation targets: such as the “establishment of poverty eradication policy frameworks at all levels”, measured by the indicator “pro-poor public social spending”.

Collectively, the SDGs are also grouped in a 3-tiered hierarchy (dubbed the ‘wedding cake’), representing the base layer of the Earth’s Biosphere, made up of Goals 6, and 13-15; Society, consisting of Goals 1-5, 7, 11, and 16; and the Economy, Goals 8-10, and 12. This model means that the highest priority should be given to the foundation, as both Society and the Economy depend on a healthy Biosphere to be sustainable, and Economic growth should be predicated on a sustainable and just governance of Society. Partnership, Goal 17, is then the binding glue that connects all these layers. 

The SDG 'wedding cake'

Flawed, but functional

At first glance, the SDGs offer a holistic view of sustainability that is backed with measurable indicator for every target, with some even being measurable on multiple fronts. The SDGs equally have cross-cutting issues and much synergy between different goals, as illustrated by the ‘wedding cake’ model. On the other hand, the SDG framework still sees many issues that make it difficult to operationalise. For one, there are also potential trade-offs between the realisation of goals, such as the eradication of hunger, and the promotion of economic growth coming at the cost of the environment. This issue, however, may be solved through being mindful of the hierarchy between the goals, ensuring that a higher-tier goal does not encroach on the fundamentals of the biosphere. The large amount of goals may make it difficult to track potential trade-offs, but this could also be feasibly resolved through a sufficiently complicated Excel sheet – trust me, I have personally seen this magic in action. Most importantly, however, is the issue that most of the targets are purely qualitative (e.g. “Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related disasters”)  and provide leeway for broad interpretation on a national, regional, and international level. As a result, they are poorly implemented and no target specifically addresses one of today’s most urgent challenges, which shows no signs of abating: the mass of refugees and internally displaced populations.

The connected indicators are precise and quantitative, but they can also be subject to individual biases from the statisticians that compose the indicators, and already suffer from a dearth of data availability – only 40% of the indicators is actually running globally, with a further 31% of indicators only being available in certain countries. The remainder of indicators have still not reached agreement on methodology. Progress measurement is also problematic, as all follow-up reviews are on a voluntary basis using national statistics. While there is the possibility for independent organisation to submit their own survey data (so-called ‘shadow reports’), but this is not yet enshrined in the recommended procedure, limiting the potential of civil society as a check on government. Beyond this, there is also the political philosophy on the legitimacy of statistical indicators in governance, as they are decided upon outside of democratic debate, yet are functionally similar to law (in that present a desired outcome or direction of progress).

Despite these issues, the SDG framework remains the best have out there today that is more or less widely supported (or at least agreed upon as relevant), and with some important tweaks and legal instruments to back up the goals’ implementation, it could actually be a workable, pragmatic framework to deal with global challenges in the status quo. The potential of the SDGs to transform mindsets and open up people to looking at sustainability in a more holistic and integral manner has been its biggest social impact.

SDGs Worldwide

Implementation of the SDGs worldwide has been a slow-to-start, yet somewhat steady process, at least, up until 2020. Early efforts after the SDGs were adopted produced some favourable trends. Extreme poverty and child mortality rates continued to fall. Inroads were made against diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Some targets for gender equality were seeing positive results. Electricity access in the poorest countries was on the rise and the share of renewables in the energy mix was increasing. Globally, unemployment was back to levels not seen since before the 2008 financial crisis. The proportion of waters under national jurisdiction covered by marine protected areas had more than doubled in five years. This year’s mid-term progress report, however, paints a very different global picture:

“It’s time to sound the alarm. At the mid-way point on our way to 2030, the SDGs are in deep trouble. A preliminary assessment of the roughly 140 targets with data show only about 12% are on track; close to half, though showing progress, are moderately or severely off-track and some 30% have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 baseline”

– United Nations Economic and Social Council, SDG Progress Report, Advance Edition, 2023

So far, the areas of global improvement are in childbirth conditions (by percentage of  trained personnel attending birth procedures), access to electricity, access to mobile networks and internet. Worthy of note is that none of the biosphere-tier SDGs have seen any improve since 2015 anywhere in the world, and global poverty has remained mostly stagnant, with OECD countries actually reporting increasing rates of poverty and economic inequality.

SDGs in the Netherlands

Overall, the Netherlands ranks in the lower half of EU members (17th globally) in terms of SDG implementations, but is generally booking progress on most areas, except for poverty, climate action (improvement below the EU average), life below water, and clean and affordable energy. Life on land, and clean water and sanitation were absent from Eurostat’s dataset for 2023, but judging by the news regarding potential water shortages and compounding ecological issues, it would be safe to assume that no progress is being made there. 

Currently, within the Netherlands there are numerous issues with realising the SDGs in policymaking, many of which I experienced personally during my internship. Important to know is that the Netherlands uses both a proprietary framework, Brede Welvaart (tr. ‘Broad Prosperity’) as well as the SDGs nationally, which have somewhat different targets and indicators, with Brede Welvaart taking a more economic focus. Nationally, statistics are collected using the proprietary methodology, and then translated to the SDG framework. The targets as set out, are not actively taken into consideration on a policy level, meaning that proposals are not systematically tested on their potential impact on the SDGs. On a local level, municipalities are free to choose which framework to adopt, but brede welvaart is more widely known and supported. Furthermore, many economic, social, and environmental policies are set on a provincial and municipal level, such as housing, infrastructure, water management, and urban and industrial planning. This decentralisation effectively means that disadvantaged communities struggle more to implement protective regulations as the national government introduces further budget cuts to local government. 

Aside from the structural problems, there remains the issue of awareness as well. While I cannot personally speak for how well-known the SDGs are in national government, the situation on the municipal level is abysmal. While there exist organisations that promote awareness and provide blueprints for implementing the SDGs on a local scale, the overwhelming majority of municipalities is completely unaware of both the framework and their own organisation’s commitments to sustainable development. Specifically, when I worked on finding out the best practices for SDG governance, my team contacted over 50 municipalities who were part of the the Municipalities for Global Goals (Gemeenten 4 Global Goals) initiative, including those who had won prizes for their contributions. Of those contacted, nearly 80% were completely unaware that their municipality was part of this initiative or that they had won a prize. One municipality reported that since their last election, their priorities changed, and thus they neglected to continue working on the SDGs. Even among municipalities that were actively committed to sustainable development, none had any systematic ways of testing policy or integrating the SDGs in a uniform fashion into local governance. Thus, there was quite some interest for our proposed solution – a policymaking roadmap with testing criteria to analyse and compare solutions to societal challenges. While the concept is out there, it is still in its infancy and needs rigorous testing and fine-tuning, as no best-practices exist yet in this field. Hopefully, another group of unpaid interns will pick up on that soon…

As of 2023, the Sustainable Development Goals are in a precarious position. With the halfway point already behind us and limited tangible progress made globally, it really is now or never. A lack of a formal and legal framework to implement the SDGs remains a major barrier to realising the SDG through public policy, even in the most developed countries. Hence, there is a strong need for political courage and decisive action to enshrine the SDGs, alongside evaluation and monitoring blueprints, in national and international law, or establish them as principles of best practice to enable policymakers at all levels to integrate holistic sustainability when thinking of ways to address local and global challenges.

By Konstantijn Rondhuis

Want to read more?

Interested in the SIB?

Leave your email address and we'll send you some more information! Just one email, no strings attached. makes use of functional and analytical cookies. If you continue to use our site, we’ll assume that you’re okay with this.