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Why the SDGs Should Be Revised to Meet the Needs of Indigenous Peoples

Future Forum's research fellow Rithy Bun published in The Diplomat on April 24 2024. Check out the original article here, and read it below!


Indigenous people have unique needs and backgrounds that are overlooked by the 17 targets outlined by the United Nations.

Two Flower Hmong women work in a field near Bac Ha, North Vietnam.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals consist of 17 targets that were set in 2015 as successors of the Millennium Development Goals. They represent an ambitious call to action for global partnership and apply to all U.N. members, with the aim of creating a just world, protecting the planet, ending poverty, and ensuring prosperity for all by 2030. The hope is that individual countries take ownership of these goals and establish policies at the national level to achieve them.

At the halfway point of the 2030 deadline, the United Nations admits that progress on the SDGs has been slow. More than 50 percent of the targets have seen weak or insufficient progress, while progress on a further 30 percent has stalled completely or gone into reverse. The U.N. says that efforts have been interrupted and undermined by a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has affected global supply chains and has driven up food and gas prices, according to the Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023.

Notably, the report also emphasized that the world’s indigenous communities in particular are among those who bear the brunt of many of these setbacks and failures to address the targets.

An analysis conducted by Dominic O’Sullivan, a professor at Charles Sturt University in Australia, which centers the perspective of indigenous peoples, found that the SDGs compromise the notion of indigenous self-determination and ignore the cultural and political context of indigenous communities. O’Sullivan’s book, “Indigeneity, Culture, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals” went so far as to call for the goals to be revised to more closely follow the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Indigenous peoples continue to be the poorest among the poor, even as poverty and extreme poverty in the Asia and Pacific regions have substantially declined. This demonstrates that indigenous peoples receive less attention and the goals themselves are broad and ambiguous, which hinders the public, policymakers, and government from identifying needs and gaps, keeping track of indigenous development progress, and delivering services that are appropriate to their cultural context, livelihoods, and traditional governance systems.

Speaking on what is missing from the SDGs, O’Sullivan has argued “I critique how effectively the SDGs contribute to indigenous people being among those who are ‘not left behind’ and suggest ways in which the SDGs and their indicators could be revised to support self-determination.” He further argues that UNDRIP provides a framework for revising the goals.

Therefore, the SDGs must be revised to add a separate standalone goal for indigenous peoples, one that is appropriate to their cultural practices, livelihoods, and governance systems. Otherwise, the 2030 goals will not be achieved.

Indigenous peoples, communities, and nations are those that have historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial society, have their own development strategies for their own territories, and consider themselves distinct from other sectors of society. These communities hold a non-dominant position in society and are determined to preserve and develop their ancestral territories, cultural patterns, ethnic identity, and governance systems and to be able pass these assets on to future generations. The phrase “indigenous peoples” is used differently in individual countries according to the context, ranging from “hill tribes” and “indigenous nationalities” to “indigenous communities,” “ethnic minorities,” “natives,” and more. These people often have unique development needs compared with other groups.

There are 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world and belonging to more than 5,000 different groups. Asia represents more than 70 percent of indigenous peoples, followed by Africa with 16 percent, Latin America with 11 percent, and Canada and the United States with 6 percent.

To make the SDGs more relevant to the unique contexts of indigenous communities, perhaps it would be useful to consider what indigenous people-specific SDG targets might look like.

First, a target that addresses indigenous peoples’ rights to free, prior, and informed consent and public participation is vital not just to protect indigenous ways of life, but also to protect the world’s biodiversity.

The majority of indigenous peoples depend on natural resources and land for their livelihoods, which include hunting, fishing, shifting cultivation, and the harvesting of non-timber forest products. These practices are important factors for maintaining their culture and promoting sustainable development. Multiple studies have shown that these ancestral practices and governance systems have enabled indigenous communities to enhance and to protect the world’s environment and biodiversity.

Currently, nearly 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity is being protected by indigenous peoples, an undeniable testament to their ecological knowledge and spiritual relationship with their lands, forests, and natural resources.

However, around the world indigenous culture, traditional forest stewardship, and governance systems are all at risk, as their rights have not been strongly protected by their respective national governments, as well as their historic exclusion from the development decision-making processes in their territories.

Research by the International Labour Organization on the rights of indigenous peoples in Asia found that prior consultation and public participation regarding development projects that affect them are the cornerstones of UNDRIP and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, and incorporating these rights as targets of an indigenous-specific SDG would enable them to protect their land, forests, and traditional systems and so continue to protect the environment.

Second, when it comes to enabling the environment  and sustainable development in indigenous territories, it is also undeniable that we must have an SDG target which specifically recognizes indigenous rights to self-determination, which means allowing indigenous peoples to decide their own priorities for political, social, and economic development that might affect their beliefs, customs, culture, and traditional livelihoods.

Finally, while there is a much-needed specific SDG for women’s political representation, no specific target exists for indigenous peoples and their rights to be fully and equally represented by their national governments. Without full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life, indigenous peoples around the world will continue to be excluded from the policy processes that determine their futures.

Incorporating indigenous peoples more directly in the SDGs would also facilitate and encourage the collection of better data, both quantitative and qualitative, which can contribute to addressing the concerns of indigenous peoples by assessing their actual needs. Official data collection on indigenous peoples is not widely available at either the national or global levels. Adding to collective knowledge about indigenous communities is crucial in that it enhances the ability to monitor the development progress of these communities on the part of the public, civil society, and national governments, and especially allows policymakers who are interested in indigenous issues to be able to identify gaps for development policies.


Rithy Bun

Rithy Bun is a young research fellow at the Future Forum policy institute in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, who has many years of experience working with indigenous communities.


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