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Biden Should Embrace the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals

Many of his domestic policy priorities align with the global campaign.

By , the president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation, and , a senior fellow with the Center for Sustainable Development in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution.
Cases of bottled water are handed out in Mississippi.
Cases of bottled water are handed out in Mississippi.
Cases of bottled water are handed out at a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition distribution site in Jackson, Mississippi, on Aug. 31. Brad Vest/Getty Images

It was a quiet crisis that turned into a perfectly avoidable catastrophe: In August, the failure of the largest water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi, left more than 150,000 people without safe drinking water. The proximate cause of the plant’s breakdown was extreme weather, but its failure was a result of historical disinvestment in communities of color and their infrastructure. Put differently, Jackson’s water crisis was rooted in exactly the kinds of problems the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed to reveal and solve.

The SDGs are the reserved but ambitious sibling of the 2015 Paris Agreement, agreed to three months earlier at the U.N. They identify 17 goals to be achieved by 2030, such as universal access to clean water and sanitation, that together strike at multiple existential crises facing the world: poverty, hunger, violence, health threats, and climate change, among others.

When U.S. President Joe Biden rises to address the U.N. General Assembly today, world leaders will expect U.S. leadership on these issues—and they’ll also harbor skepticism about the credibility of Washington’s pledges to deliver.

It was a quiet crisis that turned into a perfectly avoidable catastrophe: In August, the failure of the largest water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi, left more than 150,000 people without safe drinking water. The proximate cause of the plant’s breakdown was extreme weather, but its failure was a result of historical disinvestment in communities of color and their infrastructure. Put differently, Jackson’s water crisis was rooted in exactly the kinds of problems the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are designed to reveal and solve.

The SDGs are the reserved but ambitious sibling of the 2015 Paris Agreement, agreed to three months earlier at the U.N. They identify 17 goals to be achieved by 2030, such as universal access to clean water and sanitation, that together strike at multiple existential crises facing the world: poverty, hunger, violence, health threats, and climate change, among others.

When U.S. President Joe Biden rises to address the U.N. General Assembly today, world leaders will expect U.S. leadership on these issues—and they’ll also harbor skepticism about the credibility of Washington’s pledges to deliver.

The United States is one of only six countries that has never voluntarily presented a review of its progress on SDGs at the U.N.’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Although Washington made the SDGs a priority during their negotiation from 2012 to 2015 and began organizing internal efforts to meet the goals at the end of the Obama administration, that stopped once the Trump administration took office in 2017. Today, Biden can reinforce U.S. global leadership by making the United States a full partner in the global drive to achieve the SDGs—for example, by providing a review of U.S. progress next year, which is halfway to the SDG’s endpoint of 2030.

Governments and people around the world have broadly embraced the SDGs. Although most Americans don’t know of them, according to a recent survey conducted by the United Nations Foundation and Morning Consult, the overwhelming majority supports their objectives.

For example, 90 percent of U.S. respondents named clean water as an important priority for the country to address, followed by ending hunger (88 percent) and reducing violence as well as creating strong, just institutions (88 percent). Once briefed on the SDGs, 76 percent of people said they or someone close to them had experienced at least one challenge the SDGs were created to solve.

Before the pandemic, the United States was not on track to meet a single SDG. Key metrics on factors like access to essential health care services, food security, educational outcomes, and intimate partner violence showed especially concerning trends for young people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. The United States has even struggled to achieve basic standard of living benchmarks, such as safe sanitation and drinking water. As of 2019, 6.6 million people remained without safely managed sanitation services—meaning they did not have safe sewage disposal options in the form of piped sewers, septic systems, pit latrines, or composting toilets. That’s a population equal to the state of Indiana.

Yet there is cause for optimism. Biden has clearly committed to growing an economy that leaves no one behind. On his first day in office, he issued an executive order advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities, including those in rural areas. Laws passed within the last year mean increased public investment for green infrastructure, action on climate change, and wider distribution of modern industries throughout the country. And the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide more than $400 million to the state of Mississippi to upgrade water and sewer systems. The task for the Biden administration is to ensure these resources get to the communities, such as Jackson, that need it most.

Presenting this record in clear, unambiguous terms to the global community would both help rebuild the trust that eroded when the United States stepped back from the SDGs in 2017 and lend momentum to U.S. interests and development priorities worldwide. For Washington, the task is twofold: measure, mobilize, and achieve progress toward SDGs at home while supporting and partnering with countries abroad to drive global progress. As the Biden administration has demonstrated, this will require both humility and confidence.

Some countries, such as China, are linking progress on the SDGs to their investment initiatives overseas—but are downplaying the targets that call for democratic governance, human rights, and justice. U.S. leadership can reinforce the centrality of these issues to the SDGs and use them to increase global collaboration and accountability in fighting corruption and defending democracy, which Biden has called “the defining challenge of our time.”

Many of the Biden administration’s domestic policies address objectives reflected in the SDGs and even do so in SDG-like fashion. But the United States would be taken more seriously in the global community if it were to make a strong, public commitment to the SDGs and measure its progress against their standards.

Although the federal government has, in recent years, neglected the SDGs, other parts of U.S. society have embraced them. In 2018, New York City—the seat of the U.N.—became the first municipality in the world to measure its progress against the goals, spawning a global movement that includes cities from Helsinki to Buenos Aires. In 2020, Carnegie Mellon University did the same, making it a pioneer in academia.

Meanwhile, investors—such as BlackRock, PIMCO, and Bank of America—see the SDGs as benchmarks that can yield both financial and social returns. And community foundations in places like rural Kansas are using the goals to organize local action. The U.S. government can leverage these partners-in-waiting to unleash American innovation, industry, and ingenuity on the world’s toughest challenges.

Since 2015, the SDGs have become the common language to measure development progress globally. A serious commitment by the United States to achieve these aims will benefit Americans at home while helping Washington exercise leadership abroad. The time for action is now.

Elizabeth Cousens is the president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. She was part of the team that negotiated the Sustainable Development Goals for the United States. Twitter: @e_cousens

Tony Pipa is a senior fellow with the Center for Sustainable Development in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution. He was part of the team that negotiated the Sustainable Development Goals for the United States. Twitter: @anthonypipa

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