Sustainable Development Goals

In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 Agenda). This contained 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), intended to drive action in critically important areas to the year 2030. These goals have been broken down into 169 targets and 232 indicators.1 They build on the momentum of the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in reducing extreme poverty, and are intended to reflect a people-centred approach to development by governments and civil society across the globe.2,3 Participation in the 2030 Agenda is voluntary and actions are implemented by individual countries.

E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-01 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-02 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-03 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-04 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-05 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-06E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-07 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-08 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-09 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-10 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-11 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-12E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-13 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-14 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-15 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-16 E_SDG goals_icons-individual-rgb-17 

The table below highlights the differences between goals, targets and indicators.4


Attribute Goals Target Indicator
Key definitions


An ambitious commitment to address a single challenge


A specific, measurable and time-bound outcome (result) that directly contributes to
achievement of a goal.

Accountability for results:

A metric used to measure progress towards a target; generally based on available or established

Quantitative or Qualitative Qualitative or quantitative Quantitative Quantitative
Scope Global Global or national; may be aggregated to assess global progress Global or national; may be aggregated to assess national or global progress
Examples Achieve universal primary education Ensure that, by 2030, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling
  • Net enrollment ratio for in primary education
  • Literacy rate of 15-24 year olds
  Reduce child mortality Eradicate under-five mortality
  • Infant mortality rate
  • Under-five mortality rate
  Ensure food security and good nutrition Reduce post-harvest loss and food waste by 50% by 2030
  • Share of agricultural produce loss and food waste

Progress on the MDGs was uneven across goals, countries and different population groups and the UN undertook a careful analysis to understand why. Some of the key findings:

  • The most successful countries and MDGs were the ones that had been approached in an integrated manner by a supportive government.5
  • While there was positive change overall, vulnerable groups did not always benefit, and this remained invisible due to data not being broken down into sufficient detail.6
  • Local success was achieved when the globally-set goals were customized to fit local needs.7

The 2030 Agenda was developed based on lessons learned from implementing the MDGs.8 The SDGs are meant to be considered as a single initiative where work on one goal supports the others. One priority is breaking down the data to show useful details. The Inter-agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) will submit guidelines on this to the UN Statistical Commission by 2019. In addition, countries are encouraged to adapt the global targets to their unique local context, in a process the UN calls localization.

Impact of COVID-19 on Meeting the SDGs

The novel coronavirus pandemic is expected to significantly impact the ability of countries, particularly least developed countries in the Lower Mekong Countries (LMCs) like Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, to meet the SDGs by 2030, and pull back gains made in recent years, especially in gender equality.9 Lockdown measures have disrupted supply chains, and economic sectors that the LMCs are highly dependent on, such as textiles and manufacturing, tourism and hospitality, and agriculture have been severely hit.10 The socio-economic impacts of the pandemic are predicted to hit vulnerable populations in the region – which include urban and rural poor, migrants, informal workers, refugees, indigenous and ethnic groups, religious minorities, and women – harder.11 This is due to a complex intersection of a lack of social protections, limited infrastructure for hygiene and sanitation, difficulties in implementing social distancing, and overall low resilience to shocks like these due to underinvestment in the necessary supports.12

This graphic shows the interconnection of COVID-19 with the SDGs. United Nations. 2020. Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. Accessed May 1, 2020.

Localization in the Lower Mekong countries

Localization is the responsibility of each country. It requires a government to integrate the SDGs into its national development plans and then monitor progress of SDG implementation within its borders. Sectoral working groups made up of relevant NGOs, CSOs, donors and international organizations consult with government to ensure that the national development plan meets both international criteria and national development needs in all relevant sectors. The LMCs are all at different stages of this process.


Localization of SDGs is well underway in Cambodia, from setting goals and targets to determining how they will be implemented and using indicators to measure and monitor progress.13 In addition to the 17 global SDGs, Cambodia will adopt an additional goal and three targets on unexploded ordnance (UXO) and unfinished business from the MDGs.14 Led by the Ministry of Planning, the localized SDGs will be integrated into national plans in 2018.15 Progress has been hindered by the government’s lack of financial and technical expertise.


Myanmar has committed to implementing the SDGs, and is in the preliminary stages of localization and implementation. However, awareness of SDGs in Myanmar, from government officials, NGO staff and academics to the general public is relatively low.16 An SDG Coordination Committee, chaired by the Ministry of Planning and Finance, has been established, and policy recommendations have been developed for child-focused SDGs.17 Additional efforts are being made to assess the data sources in Myanmar.

Only 60% of baseline data exists across all indicators for the SDGs in Myanmar.18 However, the reliability of this data is unknown.19


Vietnam launched its National Action Plan for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda in May 2017. Vietnam has chosen 115 targets. It has prioritized the development of sectoral action plans, awareness raising, strengthening capacity and human resources, and preparing and issuing specific indicators, as well as developing tools and statistical personnel to gather baseline data on indicators as they are issued.20


Thailand has completed localization of the SDGs by integrating them into its national development plan, and participated in the 2017 Voluntary National Review process of the High Level Political Forum. Each SDG has a coordinating body responsible for its implementation and an implementation roadmap. SDG goals and targets have been mapped to the strategic plans of relevant line ministries, such as

  • the Water Resource Management Strategic Plan 2015–2026 for SDG 6
  • the 20-Year Integrated Energy Plan for SDG 7
  • the Climate Change Master Plan 2015-2036 for SDG 13.

Thailand has also identified 30 priority targets and reviewed and assessed the baselines of data for the proposed global indicators. Data and statistics have been collected on the SDGs, and using this Thailand has reported on progress for all SDGs.21


In addition to the 17 global SDGs, in September 2016 the government of Lao PDR agreed on national SDG 18 – Lives Safe from UXO.22 Since 2015, Lao PDR has been raising awareness on the SDGs with Laotian youth. A national steering committee was established,23 and SDGs have been incorporated into the country’s national development plan with approximately 60% of the national development plan indicators linked to SDGs. A list of priority issues has been developed, and additional SDG indicators proposed.24

How LMCs rank with each other and globally

The UN has developed a tool to assist with understanding a country’s level of readiness to implement the SDGs. The index shows how the LMCs rank with each other and globally. The dashboard indicates the LMCs’ readiness with respect to each goal.

Chart created by ODM January, 2017. CC BY SA 4.0 View Metadata The accuracy of this tool will improve as the method for measuring each indicator becomes clearer.

Regional support mechanisms for SDG implementation

Although the focus will be on data collected at the national level,25 the 2030 Agenda also recognizes the role of regional and sub-regional coordination in supporting national implementation of the SDGs.26 For this bridging role, the UN has identified its regional commissions, including the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) for its Asia-Pacific region. The Asia-Pacific region covers 53 member states including all of the ASEAN countries.27 For the LMCs in Southeast Asia, the inter-governmental body and economic community ASEAN is the sub-regional coordination body.

UNESCAP supports national implementation of the SDGs by providing policy guidance, assisting with building capacity in member countries, and serving as a platform for information exchange, follow up, and review. UNESCAP has developed a road map for implementing the SDGs in the Asia-Pacific region.28 Member states identified six thematic and five means of implementation issues as priority areas for collaboration. The thematic issues focus on the SDGs with a transboundary nature and include social development, disaster risk reduction and resilience, climate change, management of natural resources, connectivity, and energy.29 Sub-regionally, ASEAN provides the necessary support to UNESCAP for tackling cross-boundary Southeast Asian issues in a way that is responsive to local needs. It has done this by highlighting the overlaps between its own community agenda, most recently established in the ASEAN Community Vision 2025,30 and the 2030 Agenda. ASEAN’s five priority areas for action have significant overlap with the UNESCAP road map. They are:

  • poverty eradication
  • infrastructure and connectivity
  • sustainable management of natural resources
  • sustainable production and consumption
  • resilience.31

Means of implementation

The means of implementation refers to the resources required to implement the SDGs. More than just financial, they also include technology, capacity-building, trade and fixing systemic issues.32 Expanding on the MDGs, whose means of implementation was limited, the SDGs include a specific goal on this (SDG 17 Partnerships for the goals) and all other goals include indicators covering means of implementation.

The different countries, sub-regions and regions have different needs, and will thus prioritize different means. For example, the least-developed countries of Lao PDR, Myanmar and Cambodia may focus more on developing their own capacity and expanding their financing with North-South partnerships to make up for decreasing official development assistance. In contrast, a more developed country like Thailand or Vietnam may work towards supporting sustainable development in the region in the form of South-South partnerships.

UNESCAP has identified priority means of implementation issues:

  • Technology
  • Finance
  • Three systemic issues:
    • data and statistics
    • policy coherence
    • North-South, South-South, international and regional partnerships).33

The international development banks are major stakeholders addressing finance and the various partnerships. These banks, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), play a major role in enabling member countries to implement the SDGs.34 They have aligned aspects of their financing strategies to both the commitments of the SDGs35 as well as those of ASEAN,36 and are committed to providing assistance for related efforts. In the LMCs this is particularly significant, as ADB has approved projects in all of the countries,37 while AIIB has an approved project in Myanmar38  and a proposed project in Lao PDR.39 In addition, AIIB has plans to contribute funds to the International Finance Corporation’s Emerging Asia Fund for investments in projects in Emerging Asia, which includes Thailand and Vietnam.40

Aid from individual countries, such as China and the United States, also plays a strong role in the LMCs. However, Chinese-led financing for infrastructure projects in the region has not been without its critics, in part because of concerns around the Belt-Road Initiative and the fact that Chinese investments are often less transparent than others.

Indicators and monitoring

Monitoring, review, and follow up41 are important to track the progress of work being done to achieve the SDGs. Key to this is ensuring that the data collected is broken down enough to be useful and is comparable between countries. A list of indicators was developed to support this. Countries are encouraged to choose and customize the indicators in order to best monitor the progress of the SDGs in their country and participate in review and follow up nationally, regionally, and globally.

The indicator development process is a work in progress. An initial list of global indicators was adopted in 2016 but continues to undergo review. The current list, adopted in 2017, has 232 indicators,42 and additional indicators will be finalized by March 2018.43 The list of indicators will undergo a comprehensive revision in 2020 and 2025.44 34 Custodian agencies – international agencies chosen by the UN for each indicator – are responsible for developing the methodology for the indicators. They are also responsible for ensuring compatibility of data across countries, coordinating data collection, and maintaining global databases for the dissemination of the data.

The UN uses a three-tier system to rank how close each indicator is to being ready for use. A tier 1 indicator is the most methodologically developed and includes baseline data, while a tier 3 indicator is the least developed with no data. The rankings of each indicator are regularly reviewed. The readiness of each indicator (number of goals at each tier, as of December 2017) is shown in the following graph.45 


Follow up at a national level consists of using the indicators to collect data and referring this information to the relevant custodian agencies. Baseline data is crucial for accurately measuring performance and establishing processes and structures for measurement. However, this is a challenge for the LMCs. Availability of baseline data is inconsistent in ASEAN countries, including the LMCs. In particular, data for SDGs 10 through 15 are especially sparse, with baseline data available for only one or two indicators per goal, at best.46 What data is available is often not openly available.

Another challenge is that SDG indicators do not necessarily recognise all the elements that form an important part of a country’s baseline and their ability to achieve the SDGs. They may not take account of, for example, ongoing localization, evolving methodologies or the indirect impacts caused by one country’s actions on another such as transboundary pollution and biodiversity loss embedded in trade.47 Growing international trade in food products in particular may have an impact on biodiversity loss when agricultural production is increased to meet demand.

Regional follow-up and review involves data coordination, information sharing and technical capacity development. UNESCAP has established publicly-accessible databases of SDG-relevant data.48  Although regularly updated, availability of data on these databases is dependent on the official data sources, including UN agency and programme data, used by UNESCAP.49As such, the database currently remains incomplete. UNESCAP, along with the UN Asia-Pacific Regional Coordination Mechanism and ASEAN, also provides assistance with developing statistical capacity.50,51

The 2030 Agenda has also indicated that regional-level indicators may be developed52 to build on and support monitoring and evaluation at the national level. At present, ASEAN’s Working Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators is developing ASEAN SDG indicators and an implementation roadmap and work plan,53 but regional-level indicators have yet to be developed.

Global follow-up and review primarily takes the form of the Voluntary National Review.54 Countries are encouraged to share lessons learned, challenges and successes each year at the High-Level Political Forum. In 2017, the only LMC that participated was Thailand.55 Lao PDR and Vietnam will participate in 2018.56


Contact us

Contact us

Do you have questions on the content published by Open Development Mekong? We will gladly help you.

Have you found a technical problem or issue on the Open Development Mekong website?

Tell us how we're doing.

Do you have resources that could help expand the Open Development Mekong website? We will review any map data, laws, articles, and documents that we do not yet have and see if we can implement them into our site. Please make sure the resources are in the public domain or fall under a Creative Commons license.

File was deleted

Disclaimer: Open Development Mekong will thoroughly review all submitted resources for integrity and relevancy before the resources are hosted. All hosted resources will be in the public domain, or licensed under Creative Commons. We thank you for your support.

* The idea box couldn't be blank! Something's gone wrong, Please Resubmit the form! Please add the code correctly​ first.

Thank you for taking the time to get in contact!