Too many to count: How I would improve the SDGs

Words by Isabelle Zhu-Magurie
Art by Olivia Tait

I have been working for the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) for 6 months. SDSN is the UN organisation that is in charge of sharing, localising and acting upon the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around the world. Even before I worked with SDSN, I was using the SDGs all the time to shape my understanding of sustainability. I use these goals so much because they are fantastic. They are an amazing tool with groundbreaking ambition, clarity, comparability, and accessibility.


However, they are not without critique. Through my experience using these goals,  I have compiled three ways that I would improve the next lot of global goals as it becomes clear that we will not be achieving these SDGs by their due date.


Suggestion 1: Merge the goals to make them make sense.

I have recently been working on a research project on how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be used to assess the damage caused by the Taliban’s 2021 takeover of Afghanistan. The structure of this paper follows three of the SDGs that have been identified as the most affected by the invasion. My section is focused on SDG 3, Good Health and Wellbeing. I have found that the health of Afghans has been devastated by this crisis with the  main cause of death and illness being food insecurity. Writing this section, it dawned on me that food insecurity, whilst devastating to health and wellbeing, is more accurately encapsulated by SDG 2, Zero Hunger. I acknowledge that these goals are purposefully interlinking as all sustainable development issues are connected. However, in a report where I was using a goal to define a problem, I had an extremely difficult time separating the two in my writing. 


I think this is where my first issue lies – the proliferation of goals makes using them more difficult.


I propose that the goals themselves should be overarching with the specific targets (of which there are already over 160) specifying certain aspects. For example, “Good Health” should be the global goal. This would then include all facets of health such as zero hunger. Another example is that “Reduced Inequalities”’ should remain the goal with gender equality being a clear target of that goal. 


Minimising the number of goals will not only make them easier to remember but will make them more accessible. Fewer  goals mean fewer  people being overwhelmed and feeling overcommitted. 


Suggestion 2: 17 is a bad number 

Not only is 17 too many goals, but ‘17’ is a bad number. The Millenium Development Goals that came before were 8. A simple, even number that carries a lot of auspicious value. But 17 has none of that. 


Firstly, 17 is an awkward number. It is a reasonably large odd, prime number that for many people is difficult to remember. Prime numbers are often hard for people to picture and many people find odd numbers less appealing. I for one have been using the goals almost daily for 3 years and still do not have them memorised.


Furthermore, 7 is not a great number. Western folklore is riddled with things that can give you ‘7 years of bad luck’. 7 can also be considered an unlucky number since July, the 7th month, is seen as a “ghost month” to many. Furthermore, 7 sounds like “to deceive” (欺, pinyin: qī) in Mandarin.


Therefore, future sets of goals should prioritise a number that is more appealing and easier to remember to ensure maximum engagement.


Suggestion 3: One colour for each goal

There are 4 red goals, 4 blue goals, 3 green goals and 4 vaguely yellow goals. Except for a gloriously pink goal and an orange one, all of the SDGs share a colour with at least 2 others. Whilst this seems like a trivial complaint, having goals that look so similar can be problematic when trying to communicate them. 


Colours are one of the first things you learn when you are learning a new language. They are something that can easily help guide you through a spoken language. Pointing to something and then describing its colour is extremely helpful. For example, I am learning Italian but I have no idea how to say the phrase “Good health and well-being” in that language. However, I could tell someone that I am referring to the “verde” (green in Italian) goal. However, in the SDGs, there are three “verde” goals! This becomes more problematic when you consider that one of the aims of these goals is to make global issues easier to communicate across cultures and languages, Therefore, ease of communication is a key reason the colours of these goals need to be separated.


Furthermore, the colours do not link the goals together. For example, the yellow goals are ‘zero hunger’, ‘affordable and clean energy’ and ‘responsible consumption and production’. Even though they share a colour, they don’t share the same core goal. This could give people who are learning the goals for the first time a false impression that only the yellow goals are linked with other yellow goals. This might confine people’s thinking and the way that they innovate around the goals. 


Lastly, from a visual perspective, it is difficult to separate these goals. If you are doing a campaign on SDG 1, No Poverty, you can use that hue of red to show what you are campaigning for. But then if someone else is running a seperate SDG 5, gender equality campaign using another red, you might find people will get confused. Telling people that you are running the “slightly darker, less orange-red” campaign is a waste of your time when you are campaigning for something so important. Like how pink is associated with breast cancer foundations, colours should be able to unite campaigns that are working towards the same goals but should also distinguish the campaigns that are different.  



The SDGs are a fantastic tool which help the global community enormously. I recently ran a breakout room where I discussed human rights issues with people who work with SDSN from Syria, South Africa, the USA, India and Malaysia. We found common ground by being able to refer to human rights encapsulated by the SDGs which aided our cross-culture communication immensely. However, the SDGs still seem overwhelming to many people who are not already working in the sustainable development space. More clarity is required if we are to connect the world by common goals to advance sustainable development.

Leave a Response