On Friday, September 25th, the UN released its new plan for global development through 2030: the sustainable development goals (SDGs).[i] This plan replaces the millennium development goal (MDG) plan that expires at the end of 2015, and offers a new 17-point agenda focused on social equality, infrastructure, technology, and environmental conservation.[ii] Of note to medical anthropologists, global health workers, and other scholars in social medicine is the continued focus on health and well being as the third item amidst the seventeen goals. The SDG plan champions health “for all at all ages,” although it proposes no specific goals for improving elder care despite the language stressing health across ages. Maternal and reproductive health, substance abuse, traffic deaths, and universal health care coverage are key issues addressed in the SDGs.
Proponents of the new SDGs, like the World Bank, argue that the plan’s emphasis on both developed and developing countries creates a shared impetus for bolstering food security, education, and access to quality health care; likewise, it suggests that these issues are global ones that cross national borders, and do not exist at the state level alone.[iii] Others criticize the SDGs as too ambitious, arguing that global authorities already struggle to aid migrants and peoples in crisis[iv], stating that the goals are too broad and thus not focused enough to produce observable change[v], and highlighting the irony of combating climate change while promising electricity for all by 2030.[vi]
Anthropologists have long held an interest in international development as a site of cross-cultural exchange, a relic of colonialism, and as a paternalistic model of societal shepherding of developing nations by the wealthy West and Global North.[vii] Amongst development anthropologists, the sustainable development goals will certainly generate new questions about the connectedness of social inequities with health, autonomy, and human rights in the contemporary age. The goals will similarly continue to attract the interest of scholars studying biomedicine and global health in diverse cultural settings.
In addition, the SDGs will no doubt capture the attention of anthropologists in science and technology studies (STS) with the plan’s robust emphasis on technologies, energy, infrastructure, and the environment. This sharpened focus on the connection between social order, science, and technology attests to the applicability of STS approaches to the study of development.
The SDGs arrive at a time of increased concern over social justice and equity on the transnational scale, particularly in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis[viii] and given wide income gaps that impact people in the United States, Chile, Greece, Mexico, and Turkey alike.[ix] Anthropologists are ideally situated to explore the impact of development goals across cultures, and to question how and why these goals may face considerable challenges as they are translated into action, law, and practice at the local level.