Responsibility and the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


This article asks what key concerns emerge from the way responsibility is framed in United Nations summit documents on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015. Our conceptual framework serves to make the study of SDG responsibility more systematic by distinguishing three main senses of responsibility: cause, obligation, and accountability. The framework structures our analysis of two SDG summit documents, Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. The article shows, first, that the causal sense of responsibility is hidden between the lines in paragraphs on poverty, debt and environmental issues. As a consequence, root causes of problems might not be appropriately addressed. Second, SDG summit documents deal predominantly with responsibility in the sense of obligation. We raise concerns with repeated consideration for national circumstances and with vague obligations for non-governmental actors. Third, with regard to accountability, we stress that quantitative indicators have unintended steering effects both before and beyond the review phase. The focus on indicators risks shadowing broader obligations, such as international human rights. In all its three senses, responsibility in key SDG documents remains state-centric with great room for state sovereignty, self-regulation and respect for national circumstances. Our framework is useful also in showing that the three senses of responsibility build on each other and that engagement with responsibility provides fruitful ground for further research.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Political Science


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)13-29
Number of pages17
JournalForum for Development Studies
Issue number1
Early online date2016 Nov 21
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Jan 2
Publication categoryResearch

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