Episode#2: MDGs to SDGs

In Episode 2: MDGs to SDGs, I talk briefly about the history behind Sustainable Development Goals and how we came about these 17 goals. I also refer to other major agreements that were adopted in 2015 next to 2030 agenda. 

Then I delve into the origins of the term Sustainable Development, and how the move from MDGs to SDGs shows a change of direction in this definition. This is followed up by discussing how Civil Society and Civil Society Organizations are perceived mainly as implementers of SDGs instead of influencers on policies related to SDGs. 

And at the end, there is a brief comparison between the global dynamics and the EU dynamics related to the role of Civil Society. 

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Hallo – This is Somaye Dehban, a passionate Dutchified Iranian who is rather obsessed with impact measurement, cross-sector partnerships and scale up. 

I am the creator and host of Scale Your Impact, a podcast for anyone who has an interest in understanding and measuring impact, and figuring out how to scale the effectiveness of cross-sector partnerships to achieve the 2030 agenda of the United Nations. 

Join me every 1st Tuesday of the month to hear about the articles I have read or written on these subjects and beyond. 

Now let’s partner up to measure this episode of Scale Your Impact!


Welcome to the second episode of Scale Your Impact. Thank you for showing up and tunning in. In this episode I talk briefly about the history behind Sustainable Development Goals and how we came about these 17 goals. I also refer to other major agreements that were adopted in 2015 next to 2030 agenda. 

Then I delve into the origins of the term Sustainable Development, and how the move from MDGs to SDGs shows a change of direction in this definition. This is followed up by discussing how Civil Society and Civil Society Organizations are perceived mainly as implementers of SDGs instead of influencers on policies related to SDGs. 

And at the end, there is a brief comparison between the global dynamics and the EU dynamics related to the role of Civil Society. 


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. And it is meant for both Developed & Developing countries in a global partnership. 

The SDGs recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and stimulate economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests. 

It is very important to recognize the SDGs are built on decades of work, going back to June 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: more than 178 countries adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action to build a global partnership for sustainable development to improve human lives and protect the environment. 

Then in September 2000, Member States unanimously adopted the Millennium Declaration at the Millennium Summit at UN Headquarters in New York. The Summit led to the elaboration of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce extreme poverty by 2015. 

In 2002, in South Africa, The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Plan of Implementation, adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which reaffirmed the global community’s commitments to poverty eradication and the environment, and built on Agenda 21 and the Millennium Declaration by including more emphasis on multilateral partnerships

In June 2012, at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Member States adopted the outcome document “The Future We Want” in which they decided to launch a process to develop a set of SDGs to build upon the MDGs and to establish the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. 

The Rio +20 outcome also contained other measures for implementing sustainable development, including mandates for future programs of work in development financing, small island developing states and more. 

In 2013, the General Assembly set up a 30-member Open Working Group to develop a proposal on the SDGs. In January 2015, the General Assembly began the negotiation process on the post-2015 development agenda. 

The process culminated in the subsequent adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with 17 SDGs at its core, at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015. 

It is worth noting that 2015 was a landmark year for multilateralism and international policy shaping, with the adoption of several major agreements: 

  • Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (in March 2015)
  • Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development (in July 2015) 
  • Paris Agreement on Climate Change (in December 2015) 
  • Now, the annual High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development serves as the central UN platform for the follow-up and review of the SDGs. 

In order to make the 2030 Agenda a reality, broad ownership of the SDGs must translate into a strong commitment by all stakeholders to implement the global goals. 

Meaning of Sustainable Development 

Now that we know a little bit about the history behind 2030 Agenda, we can dig deeper in the meaning of Sustainable Development. 

“Our common future” by Brundtland in 1987 is noted to be the most frequently cited publication to define the beginning of the current understanding of sustainable development, where (among others) the necessity for international cooperation for sustainable development was stressed. According to De Vries (2012) and Robinson (2004) this definition and understanding of sustainable development required economic development to take place as part of the sustainable development. 

However, there are limitations to this definition, for instance, van Tulder in his 2018 book Business & The Sustainable Development Goals: A Framework for Effective Corporate Involvement states: “even the most-quoted definition of sustainable development by the UN Brundtland committee (1987) can be classified as a more or less defensive elaboration of sustainability. It defines sustainable development as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ A more proactive elaboration would read ‘meeting the needs of present generations while enhancing or improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The latter elaboration is less about limitations and more about opportunities.”(van Tulder, 2018a: 85).

In the so-called 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the definition of sustainability has expanded. “They [the sustainable development goals] seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and complete what they did not achieve…They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental.” (United Nations, 2015b, preamble: 1). 

“The interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realized” (United Nations, 2015b, preamble: 2).

The change from Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 is illustrative of the general direction of the change in how sustainability has been defined and shows several issues: 

“(1) greater involvement of the private sector (firms as well as CSOs) in the development agenda, 

(2) bigger emphasis on partnerships to fill remaining institutional voids, 

(3) the more modest role of governments (limited budgets), and 

(4) the universal nature of the agenda, which implies that sustainable development challenges exist all around the world and not only in so-called developing countries” (Partnerships Resource Centre 2015: 36).

The 17 goals and 169 targets, 232 indicators of SDGs have set focus on people, planet, prosperity, peace, and partnerships (5P). The inclusion of partnership as one of the focus areas indicates the collective nature of and requirement for achieving SDGs. “As UN report from 2015 states: We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalized Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.” (United Nations, 2015b, preamble: 2). 

As I mentioned in the previous episode, based on the United Nations Economic and Social Council report in May 2019, there have been progress on certain SDGs and their targets; nevertheless, the slow progress on many SDGs is considerable and the most vulnerable people are still suffering. The report states that the global response is not ambitious enough to guarantee the achievement of the SDGs by 2030; and therefore, “a series of cross-cutting areas where political leadership and urgent, scalable multi-stakeholder action, are needed to dramatically accelerate progress” (United Nation, 2019: 11).

In the next episodes I will elaborate on why the SDGs progress has been slow. 

There has been extensive research on the role of private sector in taking the lead and responsibility for achieving SDGs (van Zanten & van Tulder 2021, 2018); whereas, the available literature and research on the role of civil society and/or civil society organizations (CSOs) and SDGs mainly refer to the role of CSOs as implementers of SDGs and its interventions (Sénit, 2019). 

In the words of Tetet Nera-Lauron Co-Chair, CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, “Multi-stakeholder partnerships are expected to proliferate with the aim of supporting the attainment of the overall 2030 Agenda… But how will this work if we often take it for granted, ignoring many of the tenants that make it true multi-stakeholder. Most days we only take it as a given.” (Global Partnership, 19th October 2016)

In her 2019 article Leaving no one behind? The influence of civil society participation on the Sustainable Development Goals, Carole-Anne Sénit argues that “Spaces for civil society participation within intergovernmental negotiations on sustainability have multiplied since the 1992 Earth Summit…civil society is more likely to influence within informal and exclusive participatory spaces, and when these spaces are provided early in the negotiating process, at international and national level. This reveals a democracy–influence paradox, as the actors with the capacities to engage repeatedly and informally with negotiators are seldom those that are most representative of global civil society.” (Sénit 2019). This indicates the challenge CSOs are facing for influencing the SDGs (in design and achievement), and this challenge is not limited to the global scope SDGs. 

At the European level similar criticism has surfaced: Kröger (2008) stated that “organized civil society was associated with expectations of increasing input or output legitimacy…participation of civil society organizations is officially seen as a means of bridging the gap between the EU and its citizens, as materialized in the EU-discourse of participatory democracy.” However, the outcome of her research shows that “The inclusion of organized civil society contributes little to the democratic legitimacy of the EU and is instrumental to institutional power games of the European Commission and the European Parliament. Worse, the Commission, through its consultation practices, may be contributing to an aggravation of the democratic deficit.”

The 2019 Nairobi Statement at ICPD25 (International Conference on Population and Development) titled Accelerating the Promise (only) makes two references to (the role of) civil society organizations in achieving 2030 Agenda: the first one is about strengthening their capacity to continue their work (ICPD25, 2019) which is a passive positioning of CSOs  and, the second one is in combination with partnership necessity “…the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, requires new, innovative and strategic partnerships, including with and between youth, civil society organizations, local communities, the private sector, and through south-south and triangular cooperation among countries.” (ICPD25, 2019: 4). 

All these point out that our current approach towards achieving SDGs is not matching the desired and required approach which needs multilateral partnerships. 

So we talked about the history of SDGs and other major global agreements that were signed in 2015. We also talked about the definition of Sustainable Development and how between MDGs and SDGs there is a shift in this definition, which is a good move and change. We also talked about how the role of civil society organizations and civil society in general is not taken serious enough for achieving SDGs and why is that problematic. 

We talked about all of this and have not yet got into the conversation about measurement, impact and scaling, and as a little warning, there is a lot more to talk about before we get there. Having an impact, I believe, has become a buzz word in recent years without carrying much value; and I am afraid the same is happening to the term scaling. But let’s end on a more positive note: it is possible to have an impact, and also to measure it. And if you can measure it, then we can scale it.

What was the scaling moment of this episode for you? 

Did you hear about something that IMPACTED your understanding of what IMPACT really means?  

I hope you gained a deeper insight into the complexity of impact measurement and impact scale up. Also learned something about the importance of cross-sector partnerships to accelerate the progress towards achieving sustainable development goals. 

Want to hear more? 

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Until the next partnering – bedrood.