In the midst of an American election year, many newsworthy stories on pertinent issues ranging from hunger to fair wages are not receiving the coverage or attention they deserve.

As UN Week approaches at United Nations Headquarters in New York, we are reminded of one such somewhat buried story—that of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were unanimously adopted by 193 United Nations member states as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on September 25, 2015.

What Are the SDGs, and Why Do They Matter?

The SDGs, which succeeded the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (2000–2015), are a set of universal targets for the next fifteen-year time frame covering seventeen areas of development. The goals, which are executed by all countries, seek to end poverty in conjunction with strengthening economies and addressing critical social issues such as hunger, education, health, and gender equality—all while battling climate change.

The 2030 Agenda, or General Assembly resolution 70/1, took effect January 1, 2016. Since then, the UN has produced two progress reports on the first year of implementation: the secretary-general’s report, “Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals” and “The Sustainable Development Goals Report.”

Learn more about the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals.
Learn more about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This summer also witnessed the participation of twenty-two countries ranging from Togo to France to China in the first round of Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the 2016 meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) on July 11. Notably not among them was the United States.

The 2030 Agenda encourages member states to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels, which are country-led and country-driven.” The agenda also provides that these reviews are voluntary, undertaken by developed countries as well as developing countries, and should involve multiple stakeholders. The importance of this follow-up and review system and member states’ full participation in it has been staunchly advocated for by a range of U.S.-based organizations including Save the Children, WaterAid, and the Centre for Social and Economic Development, among others.

The United States cannot be an exception to this rule. One need only look to the below handful of the SDGs in relation to recent events nationwide to be assured of this.

Hunger and Food Insecurity

SDG 2 seeks to achieve zero hunger worldwide by 2030. In his report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition has declined since the new millennium, but more than 790 million people still suffer from a lack of access to regular food sources globally. As the vast majority of the hungry live in developing countries, those facing dire realities of food security in rich nations do not receive the attention they need.

A staggering 12.7 percent of U.S. households suffered from food insecurity.

A staggering 12.7 percent of U.S. households suffered from food insecurity in 2015. This figure is down from 2014’s reported 14 percent, but still 1.6 percentage points more than the number of hungry Americans before the recession, in 2007. While the federal government presently operates fifteen food and nutrition programs for its citizens, over half of the households utilizing one of these programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), were still categorized as food insecure in 2014.

Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness

SDG 13 aims to combat climate change and its impact. The secretary-general has cited the 2015 Paris Agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by 175 member states, as significant global progress. But he also hastened, “climate change often exacerbates disasters,” and noted that eighty-three countries presently have some form of legislative and/or management of disaster risk.

The United States is one of those countries. However, one need not look further than last month’s extreme flooding in Louisiana—which the Red Cross called America’s worst disaster since Hurricane Sandy—to witness the enormous strain placed on the existent American emergency management program. As Samantha Montano writes, the U.S. emergency management program is comprised of a myriad of different players, all competing for very limited resources; local emergency management systems often do not exist, either. Climate change promises to only make this reality worse.

The Obama administration has made strides to counter the imminent danger posed by climate change through actions including the Clean Power Plan, global agreements with countries including China, Brazil, India, and Mexico to cut emissions and consumption of greenhouse gases as well as to develop clean energy sources, and the establishment of the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force to advise the president on supporting communities affected by climate change. However, despite the current president’s commitment to the issue, we still live in a political culture that is far behind the rest of the world in terms of the acceptance of the science behind climate change—and as Louisiana’s floods have shown, we simply do not have time for political stagnation on such topics.

Employment and Fair Pay

American progress has undoubtedly been made in terms of SDG 8, to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” In a world with a 6.1 unemployment rate as of 2015, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) jobs reports have indicated the United States is moving toward full employment at a national 4.9 percent unemployment rate.

However, despite overall national growth, there is an alarming lack of shared prosperity among Americans nationwide. BLS recorded an 11.5 percent youth unemployment rate this summer, largely unchanged over the course of the past year; the unemployment rate for young black Americans at 20.6 percent—twice as high as young white Americans—has also remained way too high. Indeed, America’s recent economic and job growth has fostered severe inequality among its population, and there is much work to be done in terms of closing the gender pay gap and ensuring livable wages for all (the federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not been increased since 2009, and is considered insufficient by both the International Labour Organization and the International Monetary Fund).

Gender Equality, Violence against Women, and Gender Parity in Government

SDG 5, to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” also begs attention in the United States. 2016 was a year in which the country was both stunned by the American judicial system’s failure to bring the Stanford rape case to justice and forced to confront the persistence of America’s sexual violence problem.

The United States struggles with gender inequality unilaterally; it has much work to do in terms of women’s political representation, as well. The secretary-general reported that women’s participation in parliaments worldwide has risen to 23 percent (a 6 percent increase over the past decade), yet according to Women In Parliaments, in the United States just 19.7 percent of both houses of Congress are women.

Yet 2016 was also the year in which the United States made history with gender parity in that a woman became the first female presidential candidate of a major political party, proving that the country should use its voice not just to outline room for improvement, but to tout achievements.

The 2030 Agenda is ambitious, incredibly so. In order to come close to achieving its seventeen goals, powerhouses like the United States must fully engage in its processes.

One Year Down, Fourteen to Go

The 2030 Agenda is ambitious, incredibly so. In order to come close to achieving its seventeen goals—including SDG 17, which explicitly calls upon a revitalized global partnership for sustainable development—powerhouses like the United States must fully engage in its processes. The aforementioned SDGs are just a few examples the United States can improve upon—and with one year already gone, the next fourteen are not the time for American Exceptionalism.


Cover Photo: Flickr, Thomas Cizauskas.