sustainable development goals

Eight years on, are we on track to achieve the SDGs?

Eight years ago, world leaders gathered to agree “the world’s most ambitious to do list” and developed the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that we all know today.

With hopes to secure peace and prosperity for both people and the planet, the goals have been linked with 169 individual targets – yet we are nowhere near on track to achieving them by the optimistic 2030 deadline. This is a problem that we must continue to address...

From tackling the climate crisis to promoting access to basic education and health services, the SDGs are intended to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the world today. They are also at the forefront of everything we do here at VSO, acting as a guiding force for the work of our volunteers.

Graphic showing the sustainable development goals
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) first created by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.

Although they are more comprehensive than the Millennium Development Goals which came before them, the SDGs intend to combine both development and environmental goals, with one big framework. 

However, we are now at the half-way mark. As the world faces the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and is faced with the stark realities of the climate crisis, it is clear that there is so much more work that needs to be done.  

Latest reports from the United Nations (UN) highlight that we have widely missed the mark if current trends continue. Only a third of countries will halve national poverty by 2030, and without additional efforts, 300 million people will still lack numeracy and literacy skills.1 Can we really allow for this to happen right in front of our very own eyes? 

Supporting this question is UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who gave stark warnings to member states, highlighting that we cannot wait for more lofty words or empty promises at the most recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York City.

The role of volunteers

Across the world, one billion people volunteer their time to create lasting change, and they all play a significant role in achieving the SDGs, which cannot be underestimated. They are the campaigners, activists, and champions of their communities, raising the voices of those that are often left unheard in wider development discussions. They are actively holding governments to account for their progress and are the ones fighting for change to happen.

Across our programmes, VSO is working to embed the SDGs in our work and bring to life the ambition of the goals. Temesgen, a volunteer working the UK funded ACTIVE programme in Ethiopia, is particularly passionate about Goal 13 - Climate Action:

Temesgen SDG 13 graphic

I’m passionate about climate action because I believe through awareness creation initiatives and advocacy campaigns, we can mitigate our carbon footprint. The cause of living the life we are living right now is a gap in knowledge of utilising natural resources effectively, poor waste management, and recycling systems. I am contributing to my environment positively through Plogging (jogging while collecting plastic bottles) with fellow environmentalists at a natural park."

Michal SDG 5

In Tanzania, another volunteer sparking inspiring change is Youth Champion, Michael, who is most passionate about Goal 5 - Gender Equality:

GBV is a pervasive issue worldwide, and through this project, I have been deeply committed to creating a world where everyone, regardless of their gender, can live free from violence and discrimination. Gender equality is not just a goal in itself; it's also a powerful catalyst for achieving progress in all other SDGs.” 

VSO volunteers are working with communities to help them find their own solutions to the challenges outlined in the SDGs. From the youth activists harnessing alternative sources of energy in Uganda to the school children learning from innovative tablet technology in our education programmes in Sierra Leone and Malawi. Great work can and will be achieved by volunteers in all corners of the world.  

We also help volunteers to raise the voices of the communities they work with in the national review processes for the SDGs, ensuring that there is real accountability to decision makers in countries, and what is said on the UN global stage, matches what is really happening on the ground.

  • In Pakistan VSO volunteers have helped to bring the voices of marginalised groups- including people with disabilities into the SDG review process, and worked with parliamentarians to ensure that there were systems in place to keep track of progress.
  • In Malawi young people supported by VSO managed to get their voices and recommendations included by the government in their official report presented to the UN.  
  • In Zambia community volunteers are working to monitor disruptions to local health services, leading to better health care the community.
  • In Kenya, climate youth champions have raised awareness and trained youth on agroecology via webinars. They have also conducted research on the state of food systems and organised dialogues and stakeholder forums to generate action plans.
Julia SDG number 3 graphic

More recently, VSO’s Chair of International Trustees, Julia Lalla-Maharajh OBE, attended the SDG Summit. Reflecting on the conversations she heard, she says:

“VSO uses the power of volunteering to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. I’ve been a gender activist for 15 years, and when I’m in spaces like this, I often consider the five-year-old girl. She is the one who is bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. She is the one who does not have gender equality, and may not have access to quality of education. Because of her, this is why we must unite and act to meet the SDGs – for our future, but mainly for hers. Now is the time to unite and act.”

If taken seriously by governments, the SDGs can be transformational. Meeting them will not be easy, or cheap but it is critical for our people and planet, and we must all do better. Volunteers are a crucial part of the solution.


  1. The Sustainable Development Goals Report, 2023, United Nations.

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