Why the Sustainable Development Agenda Matters to the USA

In my last post, I discussed the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and why they matter. In this post, I want to focus more on how the agenda applies to the USA.

The idea for a Sustainable Development Agenda grew from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development that took place in Rio de Janeiro back in June 2012. Here, a Political Outcome Document was developed that contained "clear and practical measures for implementing sustainable development". The first four items in the document are summarized below and these give a sense of what is covered in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were eventually developed: 0

1. A renewed commitment to sustainable development.

2. Eradicating poverty.

3. Pursing sustainable development agendas at all levels and across many dimensions -e.g., economic, social and environmental.

4. Essential requirements of sustainable development. In addition to eradicating poverty, other issues are raised including: raising basic standards of living; promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production; promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth; creating greater opportunities for all; reducing inequalities, fostering equitable social development and inclusion; and promoting integrated and sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems that supports economic, social and human development while facilitating ecosystem conservation, regeneration and restoration and resilience in the face of new and emerging challenges.

Why should the USA take notice?

When eradicating poverty sits front and center, it is easy to dismiss the goals as being irrelevant to a high income economy such as the USA. Unfortunately, with more than 46 million Americans living in poverty in the USA. So poverty isn't just a problem facing low income economies

Many other issues on the Sustainable Development agenda confront the USA on a daily basis. In a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times, for example, two stories caught my attention and both relate to items on the sustainable development agenda. The first noted the rise in violence in the City of San Bernardino. A caption underneath a photo reads: "Few economic opportunities and a lack of services are cited as factors for the city's violence."

A second story documented actions some have taken to undermine Obamacare. The Los Angeles Times reported: "Among other things, they blocked expansion of Medicaid coverage for the poor, erected barriers to enrolment and refused to move health plans into the Obamacare marketplaces, a key step to brining in healthier consumers. Those decisions left the marketplaces in many red states with poorer, sicker customers than they otherwise might have had."

How does the USA fare across SDG measures?

The UN developed a method to measure how well economies achieve the SDGs. Overall, the USA sits in the bottom half of the OECD with an overall score of 72.7%, which means it achieves 72.7% of the Sustainable Development Goals. The USA is ranked 25th in the world. Sweden comes in at #1 with a score of 84.5%.

Areas in which the USA scores in the "red" zone include poverty, obesity, the proportion of women holding seats in national parliament, the proportion of renewable energy in final energy consumption, the proportion of youth (15-24) not in employment, education or training, the GNI and Palma ratios (as measures of income inequality), non recycled municipal solid waste, CO2 emissions from energy, the Ocean Health index for biodiversity, the proportion of fish stocks over exploited or collapsed, annual change to forest areas, homicides, prison population, and official development assistance as a percentage of GNI.

There are many areas in which the USA did well. In particular, with SDGs 6 and 9, and to a lesser degree SDGs 3, 4 and 11. SDG 6 measures access to good water and sanitation, whereas SDG 9 considers the existence of a quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure (which includes Internet and Broadband access), along with measures of innovation, which include R&D expenditure, R&D workers per capita, and patent applications. SDG 3 measures health and well-being and includes measures such as infant mortality, life expectancy, the number of physicians per capita, the number of infants who are vaccinated, and the number of smokers. SDG4 measures access to quality education and SDG 11 measures access to safe and affordable housing.

The role of the USA on the international stage

In addition to identifying what goes on within the USA, the USA does play an important role on the world stage. The USA gave $31.08 billion in foreign aid in 2015. This made the USA the largest donor in the world. As an aside, the USA spent 0.17% of its Gross National Income on foreign aid, placing it 22nd in the world, which is why it was reported above as a "red" item above.

In addition, the areas in which the USA has strength - in particular SDG 9 which relates to infrastructure and innovation - are areas in which USA based organizations can (and do) provide expertise to other economies. As a consequence, we are starting to see the definition of aid expand beyond humanitarian and military aid to aid that enables economies to be more effective - much of which relies on technology and innovation.

The USA should care about functioning societies

Peter Drucker first wrote about a functioning society in The Future of Industrial Man (1942). Since then, a collection of his works was published in a book called A Functioning Society: Community, Society, and Polity in the Twentieth Century (2011). I recently re-read A Functioning Society and believe Drucker's work underscores the Sustainable Development Agenda. For example, Drucker's central thesis is that: "No society can function as a society, unless it gives the individual member social status and function, and unless the decisive social power is legitimate."

The rising violence in San Bernardino can be attributed to a malfunctioning society in that the its residents lack social status and function. The same can be said of much of the conflict and instability in the world today. Poverty, inequity, injustice, or a lack of social inclusion explains much of it.

The USA, sits alongside 192 other economies who agreed to abide by the Sustainable Development Agenda. While the agreement is not legally binding, economies committed because we all strive to live in a functioning society.

There is much work to be done but for now, the message is clear: business as usual is not an option.