The Pros and Cons of The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their relation to Guatemala’s Nonprofit Sector

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When “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) are ever mentioned, they are usually met with broad approval and respect. 

However, what are they exactly? Are they worth incorporating into organizational planning or are they just aspirations that some companies use to boost public image?

This blog looks at the history of the SDGs and the arguments for and against them. We will also look ar how these goals relate to Guatemala’s nonprofit sector and Pionero Philanthropy.

What are the SDGs?

What are the SDGs explanation

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are;

“a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.


They were developed in 2012 at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The aim was to create a set of global goals, related to the environmental, political and economic challenges that humanity faces.

In 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, all UN Member States adopted 17 goals. They then set out a 15-year plan to achieve them. The SDGs replaced the 8 Millennium Development Goals established following the 2000 UN Millennium Summit. 

Each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals comprises more specific, measurable targets. The idea is that all sectors, entities, and countries, no matter their size, can incorporate at least one of these goals into their planning and programming.

list of SDGs

Praise for the SDGs

Having every nation at every level of society working together towards common goals for humanity sounds wonderful. It also makes sense to specify and agree on what these goals are. This is in order for efforts to be concentrated, consistent, and more swiftly achieved. 

The 17 goals have 232 unique indicators and 169 specific targets. These indicators guide standardized, collective measurement of global development progress. These measurable targets and indicators are especially useful when holding governments to account who agreed to them when they were set.

These indicators and targets are also helpful as an impact measurement and planning framework for nonprofits and the commercial sector. With regard to Guatemalan nonprofits for example, these preset, measurable, and bitesize targets are simple to incorporate into smaller organizations. This is essential because development policy effectiveness hinges on a local as well as global approach. This is in order for the effects to be felt at every level of society.

Criticisms of the SDGs

Criticism 1: They are Built on Flawed System

SDGs in sections
The 17 SDGs refer to different sectors of Economy, Society, and Biosphere. There are 232 unique indicators and 169 specific targets.

Whilst the SDGs sound flawless in theory, in practice, the reality has proven vastly different. 

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out more than four years of progress on poverty eradication and pushed 93 million more people into extreme poverty in 2020”


The pandemic also severely affected education attendance levels. There are reportedly more than 24 million learners at risk of never returning to education again. Lastly, developing countries are facing record levels of inflation, interest rates and debt in order to cope with the fallout.

A second criticism of the SDGs is that they aren’t radical enough. This is because they are set within a system that created these issues in the first place. For example, a letter signed by 100 experts from 37 countries argues that it’s time to get rid of SDGs “due to 30 years of proven failure from its allegiance to global capitalism”

A concrete example is regarding the “Zero Hunger” SDG where corporations are allowed to produce cheap, unhealthy foods for children. In relation to Guatemala and other Central American countries, although these foods relieve hunger, they replace one issue with another. These foods contribute towards worsening malnutrition, and diabetes levels. For this reason, some claim that this SDG amongst others, should go further and be renamed “Food Sovereignty”.

Many critics believe that true Sustainable Development should focus on more decentralized and deglobalized solutions for thriving local communities. These large systemic changes however go against the current global economic system which most governments would not agree to. As one writer puts it:

“Saving the oppressed is always so sexy and romantic — but what about exploring the forces that are oppressing and putting a stop to those first?”. 

Criticism 2: They are Unsustainable

One criticism of the SDGs is that they aren’t sustainable at all, especially ecologically.

Another criticism of the SDGs is that, especially ecologically, they aren’t sustainable at all.

For example, an “SDG Index” was created in order to assess how well each country is attaining the SDGs. The rich countries score best according to the metric with nations such as Sweden, Denmark, and France featuring highest. However, as one writer says, “the countries with the highest scores are some of the most environmentally unsustainable countries in the world.”

For example, Sweden, who is at the top of the list, uses the highest amount of natural resources per capita. The global average is about 12 tons per person, and the sustainable level is 7 tons per person. Sweden consumes nearly 5 times over the sustainable amount. There is nothing sustainable about this kind of consumption. 

This data doesn’t show just a few anomalies. It shows that all of the top-ranked countries in the SDG Index significantly overshoot in terms of resource use, emissions, land use, and chemical flows. If all countries were to consume at the levels of the top ranked SDG nations, the planet would be destroyed.

Criticism 3: They are not Binding

UN conference discussing SDGs
The fact that the SDGs aren’t legally binding means that there are little to no consequences politically if they aren’t reached.

A final critique is that the SDGs are nothing more than grandiose wishful thinking. That there are no consequences should they not be fulfilled by those seeking to achieve them. Countries and governments are not penalized for a lack of follow through and are therefore not held accountable.

In addition, there is commentary regarding the lack of specific division of tasks and responsibilities.  As Pogge and Sengupta rightly state:

Each specific task, who is responsible for ensuring that it actually will get done. If no such division of labor is agreed upon, then all we have is a long list of Sustainable Development Wishes along with the pious hope that economic growth and charitable activities will move things far enough in the right direction ”

Pogge and Sengupta “A Critique of the Sustainable Development Goals’ Potential to Realize the Human Rights of All: Why being better than the MDGs is not good enough,” in Bob Deacon ed. Social Policy and the Transformative Potential of the SDGs, special issue of the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy.

Are the SDGs worth the effort for Nonprofits? 

So with their already heavy workload, is it worth it for nonprofits to incorporate the SDGs into their programming?

There are many funders that support organizations who are working towards certain SDGs. For example on this website

Well, in our opinion, despite the criticisms, YES for a few reasons:

Firstly, capitalizing on the mass attention of the SDGs, public and private bodies always release funding in connection to them. For example, The World Bank committed US$23.5 billion in projects to help developing countries find solutions to SDG-aligned challenges. In Guatemala alone in 2016, there was $125,473,144 of foundation funding available for organizations working towards the SDGs. These funds are released in order for the goals to be more easily achieved, and/or for purely PR reasons. Whatever the reason, does it really matter if it means more funding for the nonprofit and increased impact?

Secondly, showing that the organization is tuned into the wider global development agenda shows that it is open to collaboration with those with the same agenda. This looks attractive to prospective donors and supporters alike.

Lastly, taking into account the goals and indicators in planning could be useful for nonprofits in benchmarking. Why not incorporate the SDG indicators where applicable? If appropriately done, it could help in measuring program outcomes whilst also granting kudos due to its UN association. 

Pionero Philanthropy and the SDGs

Through its data and consultancy services, Pionero Philanthropy connects and facilitates partnerships between Guatemalan nonprofits and supporting parties. 

SDG 17
Pionero Philanthropy proudly contributes to SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals.

For this reason, Pionero Philanthropy proudly contributes to SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals.

According to the UN,

“Multilateralism and global partnerships are more important than ever if we are to solve the world’s problems” (UN)

Pionero Philanthropy believes that through improving the visibility and information on Guatemala’s nonprofit sector, that multi stakeholder partnerships will increase and flourish.

We hope that stimulating and strengthening new and existing partnerships will lead to the achievement of the remaining SDG goals.

Get in touch with us to find out more!