Using the new UN 2030 Agenda to work for justice at the local level

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 29. March 2016 - 0:30
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

Using the new UN 2030 Agenda to work for justice at the local level

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

Paper presented at the
21st Justice Conference, de Poort, the Netherlands, 25-27 March 2016
on the theme "Justice In Action: From Local to Global"

As we discuss justice in action, it is useful to consider the case of the new United Nations 2030 Agenda adopted at a summit of the General Assembly last September. This ambitious agenda is a modern definition of what justice should mean today for everyone on this planet. It is a global agenda that now needs to be translated into action at the national and even local levels. This paper aims to motivate action at the local level by making clear the link between the global goals and spiritual principles and values relevant to all of us.

The questions raised at this conference are quite relevant. How do we meaningfully build a sense of human solidarity at all levels of society? The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a definition of human solidarity, with the aim to leave no one behind. Is there an interdependence of the micro and macro levels, or are they worlds apart? The goals will never be achieved at the macro level if we do not act at the micro level of each community. How can ordinary people – as global citizens – influence urgent and compelling international policy areas? The cumulative actions of many individuals around the SDGs will put pressure on national leaders to fulfil their obligations. How do we instil a sense of service and a love for justice in our local communities? Taking the SDGs to heart and working to do our part at our own level is something positive everyone can undertake.

This new agenda is a challenge for us all. The United Nations may seem far removed from our local actions in our communities, yet the 2030 Agenda is a call for justice addressed to everyone. We need to look at the global goals and aspirations as if they were addressed to each of us, and to our local communities, and to ask what we can do to implement them at our own level.

There are two key documents we need to refer to. The first is the Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General On the Post-2015 Agenda, "The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet" (UN 2014). In it, the Secretary-General calls for a fundamental transformation in society and the economy. He says that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) define a paradigm shift for people and planet that is inclusive and people-centred, leaving no one behind. The SDGs integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development in a spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability, with the participation of governments and all stakeholders. He calls for transformative partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, shared goals, and the participation of all relevant stakeholders, mobilizing the power of culture, with mutual accountability at the centre. He says that "young people will be the torch bearers... the first truly globalized, interconnected, and highly mobilized civil society, ready and able to serve as a participant, joint steward, and powerful engine of change and transformation."

The Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, meeting in New York on 25-27 September 2015, adopted its outcome document "Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (UN 2015). In it, the Heads of State and Government state: "This Agenda is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. It also seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. We recognise that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge nd an indispensable requirement for sustainable development." "All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind."

The document, which includes the approved Sustainable Development Goals and their targets, identifies five overall priorities:

We are determined to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.

We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

We are determined to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.

We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.

We are determined to mobilize the means required to implement this Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focussed in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people."

The Summit emphasized that "the interlinkages and integrated nature of the Sustainable Development Goals are of crucial importance in ensuring that the purpose of the new Agenda is realised. If we realize our ambitions across the full extent of the Agenda, the lives of all will be profoundly improved and our world will be transformed for the better." "This is an Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance. It is accepted by all countries and is applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. These are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development."

The Heads of State conclude "It is 'We the Peoples' who are embarking today on the road to 2030. Our journey will involve Governments as well as Parliaments, the UN system and other international institutions, local authorities, indigenous peoples, civil society, business and the private sector, the scientific and academic community – and all people.... It is an Agenda of the people, by the people, and for the people – and this, we believe, will ensure its success." This last point is particularly important, as it is a direct call to all of us to take up this agenda and to implement it

The Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 SDGs themselves are quite brief and general. They are action oriented, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries. There are a set of goals that place humans at the centre, where environmental challenges represent threats to human health and well-being, and where environmental solutions can reinforce human progress. Another set of goals focuses on environmental resources, processes and boundaries defining planetary health on which human well-being and development depend. Other goals are about transitioning to a green economy that builds rather than undermines planetary sustainability. The final two goals are on institutional and governance issues and the means of implementation. What is really significant about this redefinition of what sustainable development means in today's world is the 169 quantified targets that underlie the goals, that really will allow measuring progress. These are generally quite specific and action-oriented. The UN Statistical Commission has recently decided on a first set of 230 global indicators to measure progress towards these targets. Now it is up to governments to determine their own national goals and targets as their fair share of the combined effort to meet the global goals by 2030. Government are expected to report regularly to the UN on their progress, and a High Level Political Forum will review progress periodically. That is what is happening at the global level.

Appropriating the SDGs

The United Nations process is essentially top-down, building a global consensus among governments. It is wonderful to see this consensus, but it will not be enough. The SDGs need to be appropriated by individuals, communities and civil society to start a bottom-up process, translating the global goals into local realities. We should not wait for governments to act, as they always do too little, too late.

How, then, do we turn these into local goals? What is our local 2030 Agenda? If we think abut them. Many will have their counterparts in our local communities. There must be some local inequality that could be reduced, and poor people who could be lifted out of poverty over the next 15 years through local efforts. We all can make changes in our lifestyles to consume more sustainably. Education is something that can be improved everywhere, perhaps through local children's classes and activities for pre-adolescents to supplement the formal school system, or with programmes for life-long learning to help people find meaningful employment.

The SDGs could become a subject of local consultation, with everyone in a neighbourhood or community discussing what can be done within available local means, perhaps just considering one goal at a time to build some local capacity. There may be some young people with energy to spare, and some others ready to accompany them.

As a first step to assist this reflection, the 17 SDGs are listed below, with one or more quotations from the Bahá'í writings or statements of the Bahá'í International Community that give a perspective on the goal that is both spiritual and practical. These could be a starting point for a community consultation or reflection, or even an individual effort to consider what a goal might mean for one's own objectives or lifestyle.

Relating the SDGs to Bahá'í principles

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Poverty can be described as the absence of those ethical, social and material resources needed to develop the moral, intellectual and social capacities of individuals, communities and institutions.... the goal at hand is not only to remove the ills of poverty but to engage the masses of humanity in the construction of a just global order. (Bahá'í International Community, Eradicating Poverty: Moving Forward As One, 2008)

The technologies and resources exist to meet the basic needs of humanity and to eliminate poverty. Equity in the use of these technologies and resources, however, will come about only with certain understandings and commitments. While individuals must do their utmost to provide for themselves and their dependents, the community must accept responsibility, when necessary, to help meet basic needs. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

The economics of food production and distribution will have to be reoriented and the critical role of the farmer in food and economic security properly valued. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Food production and agriculture is the world's single largest source of employment.... Agriculture still represents the fundamental basis of economic and community life: malnourishment and food insecurity suffocate all attempts at development and progress.... The farmer must be accorded his or her rightful place in the processes of development and civilization building: as the villages are reconstructed, the cities will follow. (Bahá'í International Community, Eradicating Poverty: Moving Forward As One, 2008)

Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

With regard to health – the physical, spiritual, mental and social well-being of the individual – access to clean water, shelter, and some form of cheap energy would go a long way toward eradicating the problems that currently plague vast numbers of individuals and communities. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all

Education must be lifelong. It should help people to develop the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills necessary to earn a livelihood and to contribute confidently and constructively to shaping communities that reflect principles of justice, equity and unity. It should also help the individual develop a sense of place and community, grounded in the local, but embracing the whole world. Successful education will cultivate virtue as the foundation for personal and collective well-being, and will nurture in individuals a deep sense of service and an active commitment to the welfare of their families, their communities, their countries, indeed, all mankind. (Bahá'í International Community. Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women.... Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women's distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. (Bahá'í International Community, Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the challenge of climate change, 2008)

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Wash ye every soiled thing with water that hath undergone no alteration.... Be ye the very essence of cleanliness amongst mankind.
Immerse yourselves in clean water; it is not permissible to bathe yourselves in water that hath already been used. (Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas)

Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

A world federal system... bent on the exploitation of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet... (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 203-204)

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Society must develop new economic models... furthering a dynamic, just and thriving social order. Such economic systems will be strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature; they will provide meaningful employment and will help to eradicate poverty in the world. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

The owners of properties, mines and factories should share their incomes with their employees and give a fairly certain percentage of their products to their workingmen in order that the employees may receive, beside their wages, some of the general income of the factory ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 43-44)

The dominant model of development depends on a society of vigorous consumers of material goods.... This preoccupation with the production and accumulation of material objects and comforts... has consolidated itself in the structures of power and information to the exclusion of competing voices and paradigms. The unfettered cultivation of needs and wants has led to a system fully dependent on excessive consumption for a privileged few, while reinforcing exclusion, poverty and inequality, for the majority. (Bahá'í International Community, Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, 2010)

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

All too many of these ideologies...callously abandon starving millions to the operations of a market system that all too clearly is aggravating the plight of the majority of mankind, while enabling small sections to live in a condition of affluence scarcely dreamed of by our forebears.... Why is the vast majority of the world's peoples sinking ever deeper into hunger and wretchedness when wealth on a scale undreamed of... is at the disposal of the present arbiters of human affairs? (Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, 1985, I, p. 6-7)

It is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few that is in urgent need of attention. (Bahá'í International Community, Eradicating Poverty: Moving Forward As One, 2008)

Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable

Our challenge... is to redesign and develop our communities around those universal principles -- including love, honesty, moderation, humility, hospitality, justice and unity -- which promote social cohesion, and without which no community, no matter how economically prosperous, intellectually endowed or technologically advanced, can long endure. (Bahá'í International Community. Sustainable Communities in an Integrating World, 1996)

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Take from this world only to the measure of your needs, and forego that which exceedeth them. (Bahá'u'lláh, Súriy-i-Mulúk §19, in The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 193)

Sustainable production is not simply about ‘greener’ technology but rather, should involve systems that enable all human beings to contribute to the productive process. In such a system, all are producers, and all have the opportunity to earn (or receive, if unable to earn) enough to meet their needs.
The concept of justice is embodied in the recognition that the interests of the individual and of the wider community are inextricably linked....
Ultimately, the transformation required to shift towards sustainable consumption and production will entail no less than an organic change in the structure of society itself so as to reflect fully the interdependence of the entire social body—as well as the interconnectedness with the natural world that sustains it. (Bahá'í International Community, Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, 2010)

Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Much has been said about the need for cooperation to solve a climate challenge that no nation or community can solve alone. The principle of the oneness of humankind... seeks to... anchor the aspirations of individuals, communities and nations to those of the progress of humanity.... As children, women, men, religious and scientific communities as well as governments and international institutions converge on this reality, we will do more than achieve a collective response to the climate change crisis. We will usher in a new paradigm by means of which we can understand our purpose and responsibilities in an interconnected world.... (Bahá'í International Community, Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the challenge of climate change, 2008)

Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development

A world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources.... A world legislature... will... ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations.... The economic resources of the world will be organized, its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be coordinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 203-204)

Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

In light of the interdependence of all parts of nature, and the importance of evolution and diversity "to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole," every effort should be made to preserve as much as possible the earth's bio-diversity and natural order.
As trustees, or stewards, of the planet's vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must learn to make use of the earth's natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. (Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development, 1998)

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development: Finance, Technology, Capacity-building, Trade, Systemic issues: Policy and institutional coherence, multi-stakeholder partnerships; data, monitoring and accountability

The pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world. It will be shaped by the experiences of women, men, children, the rich, the poor, the governors and the governed as each one is enabled to play their rightful role in the construction of a new society. As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness. (Bahá'í International Community, Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism, 2010)

At the local level, it can help to consider how each person can benefit from actions towards the SDGs. Creating new measures of development at the individual level will help to change the focus from creating wealth to creating well-being in a spirit of justice and equity (Dahl 2014). Values-based indicators can make people conscious of their real desires and motivations, and build an emotional commitment to change (Burford et al. 2013). By getting the signalling right, we can measure implementation of the social contract for a just and sustainable society for each and every one of us.


It is clear that the fundamental motivation behind the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals is the concept of justice and the need “to leave no one behind”. Rather than leaving the SDGs as an exclusively intergovernmental process, they should be appropriated by everyone as an agenda for the improvement of the sustainability and well-being of communities and even individual lifestyles. Many things can be done to implement the SDGs at the local level, and these could be the subject of local consultation and reflection using the SDGs as a starting point. At a time when things seem to be going from bad to worse, and many people have lost hope in the future, using the SDGs to set positive goals aiming for tangible results at the local level can be very motivating. Just as the SDGs require an integrated approach, since failure to advance on one goal can retard others, so will a similar integrated approach ultimately be needed at the local level, even if its is only possible to start with one goal at a time to build capacity. The SDGs represent universal human values based on justice, and using them as a focus to achieve unity of purpose can help to build unity in the whole community.


Burford, Gemma, Elona Hoover, Ismael Velasco, Svatava Janoušková, Alicia Jimenez, Georgia Piggot, Dimity Podger and Marie K. Harder. 2013. Bringing the "Missing Pillar" into Sustainable Development Goals: Towards Intersubjective Values-Based Indicators. Sustainability 5: 3035-3059. doi:10.3390/su5073035

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2014. "Putting the Individual at the Centre of Development: Indicators of Well-being for a New Social Contract". Chapter 8, pp. 83-103, In François Mancebo and Ignacy Sachs (eds), Transitions to Sustainability. Dordrecht: Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-9532-6_8

United Nations. 2014. "The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet", Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda. Document A/69/700, 4 December 2014. New York: United Nations.

United Nations. 2015. Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Outcome document of the Summit for the adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, New York, 25-27 September 2015. A/70/L.1. New York: United Nations.

Last updated 28 March 2016