The United Nations’ Global Goals: What do they have to do with America?


The United Nations was established in the 1940’s as a way to convene all of the countries in the world around global issues, such as war, climate change and economic development. Over the past few decades, the United Nations has begun setting high-level development goals that Member States agree to work towards for the betterment of the world. The most recent set of goals are called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and cover a broad range of issues related to economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. What’s unique about this agenda is that it urges every country, regardless of development status, to critically examine its economic growth and make adjustments to how it impacts society and our environment. It challenges countries on the notion that growth for the sake of growth is the ultimate goal. Instead it urges lawmakers towards sustainable development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]

The United States was one of the 193 Member States of the United Nations that agreed upon these goals. Where does America stand in terms of achieving these 17 development goals? Which ones are we doing well on and which ones do we need work? How can the SDG agenda help guide Congress and lawmakers in policy and planning?

According to a 2017 independent report on where countries stand in regards to fulfilling the SDGs, America ranked 42nd out of 157 countries in its progress.[2] The report uses globally available metrics for each goal to compare countries’ progress over time and against each other. America scored well on goals related to human development, such as education and health. For instance, the United States has the most top-ranked universities in the world, which bolsters our citizens’ skills and attracts foreign nationals from around the world.[3]  Our country also scored well on goals related to strong economic development, such as good jobs, infrastructure and innovation, water and sanitation and sustainable cities. The United States accounts for the largest proportion of the world’s patents, making it the world’s most inventive country, for example.[4]

On the other hand, the major challenges that America faces are similar to ones that other rich countries face: climate change, clean energy, sustainable consumption and production and ecosystem conservation. For instance, America has the second highest per capita carbon dioxide emission in the world next to China.[5] We make up about 4.25% of the world’s population[6] yet are responsible for around 18% of the world’s total energy consumption.[7] Interestingly, America also scored poorly on metrics of gender and social equality, as well as justice and global partnerships. Women are paid 80 cents for every dollar paid to a man in our country, which totals an annual gender wage gap of over $10,000.[8]

Ultimately, the SDGs provide America with an opportunity to step back, review our development trajectory and make decisions on how best to meet our national goals alongside global goals. The SDGs took years to negotiate and are the product of governments, citizens, academics, practitioners, and business leaders coming together to state what the world wants the future to look like. Although the SDGs are not legally binding they offer a “North Star” for the world to shoot for, which helps mobilize resources, focus efforts and catalyze partnerships. Cities like New York City and Baltimore have used the SDGs and goal-based planning to create roadmaps for where they want their cities to go. Hopefully, more levels of American government will adopt this method in a transparent way so that citizens can hold their elected officials accountable to the promises they make.

[1] Our Common Future