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Social Sciences Guest Lecture

SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals): The Tyranny of an Acronym

By Jan Vandemoortele

Independent researcher, formerly with UNICEF, UNDP and ILO, co-architect of the Millennium Development Goals.

The formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was an ambitious endeavour but any irrational exuberance about the outcome would be misplaced. They are frequently described as transformative, universal and equity-focused, which is an incorrect description. The SDGs are not universal and equity-focused. Moreover, they embody many shortcomings and oddities, which will be exposed by the speaker. Their level of ambition is inversely related to their level of specificity—general goals are bold but targets are considerably less ambitious, whilst indicators further narrow their scope. Most of their flaws stem from the multilateral context in which they were fashioned. The biggest danger they face is the tyranny of the acronym; the belief that having an agreement is more important than its content. Stakeholders readily accept this tyranny for a variety of reasons, ranging from clinging to old worldviews, sheer parochialism about mandates, and weak leadership at the global level. Despite this tyranny, take-off of the SDGs is slow and arduous, mostly due to their complexity and woolliness. Critiquing the SDGs does not mean they have no worth. The speaker will conclude his talk with a few practical steps to help turn them into a useful instrument for fostering sustainable human development.


The guest lecture takes place on Monday 20 June, 12.00-13.00pm in the Enterprise Centre Lecture Hall, as part of the ESRC Advanced PGR training on “social studies of environment and sustainability”. The lecture is open to all.

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