Sustainable Development Goals: Does success start with failure?

dfsffAs an outcome of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, countries agreed to embark on the process of developing the Sustainable Development Goals to carry on the work of the Millennium Development Goals. Set to be adopted at a UN high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly in September this year, the SDGs have come under recent criticism.

15 years ago, 189 UN members adopted the Millennium Declaration and the 8 Millennium Development Goals, comprising of 18 quantified targets and 48 statistical indicators (later expanded to 21 targets and 60 indicators). The MDG Report 2014 discusses progress so far in achieving the MDGs. The SDGs aim to continue the economic, social and environmental vision the MDGs first set out to achieve but the proposed SDGs number 17 in total with 169 targets and an estimated 300 or so indicators. In a blog post last year we discuss the 17 proposed SDGs. In recent discussions and articles the SDGs have come under considerable criticism for being too ambitious, too aspirational and too numerous. Here we look at some of these arguments.

More targets = greater success?

Does having significantly more goals, targets and indicators than the MDGs mean we can expect the SDGs to achieve more? Some are highly doubtful. The MDGs were criticised for being limited in scope and lacking consensus but in seeking consensus for the SDGs, even running door-to-door surveys, have the UN gone overboard in trying to please every interest group to the detriment of a joint vision? Some member states are arguing for the number of goals and targets to be reduced, while others see the higher number as a positive reflection that their creation was more bottom-up, through widespread consultation than the creation of the MDGs. Another view is that the number of goals has to be this numerous if they are to be universal. But should we have universal goals when their meaning and implementation will be so different in different countries? For example environmental protection will no doubt look very different in a developing as opposed to a developed country. Should there be separate goals for richer and poorer countries? Others value the proposed SDGs because they at least make an attempt to share responsibility between developed and developing countries, whereas the MDGs largely separated developed countries into funders and developing countries into actors.

Another view is that with more goals and more complexity the SDGs will be easier to ignore. The MDGs had a very simple, concise and easy to communicate message. Will the SDGs, and the work involved in putting together road maps for the implementation of 17 goals scare away policymakers? Is less more in international policy? Do broader goals better allow for local context and adaptation, and by having narrower goals will the plans put in place be less tailored, more one-size-fits-all, an approach typically condemned?

But perhaps the number of SDGs reflect the growth in our understanding of development and the environment. As our comprehension of the complexity of the issues and their connectivity grows do the goals grow too? Do more goals become necessary? Yes the SDGs are more ambitious than their predecessors but they tackle issues such as poverty from several angles: urbanisation, infrastructure, climate change, for example. Poverty is the result of social and political structures that favour inequality, poor governance and transparency, thus we need more goals to tackle each aspect.

Ultimately the actual number of goals, indicators and targets perhaps doesn’t matter – however the goals are couched they are a massive undertaking whatever way you slice it. Instead the major problem may be that the SDGs are simply unattainable.

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Aspirational vs. Implementable?

The SDGs have also come under criticism for being too aspirational, too ambitious. The SDGs, in their current state, fail to provide guidance to countries on how to prioritise or implement the targets, despite past evidence that countries may require help with this. Many of the current targets also come across as political statements that would be difficult to convert to measurable targets.

Indeed the degree to which the SDGs have considered strategic implementation is unclear. There have been some efforts to attain rough figures for the costs associated with attaining each goal and while finance is one aspect of the implementation planning stage, it will be the responsibility of each country to develop the actual budgets as well as action plans, supporting institutions, policies and monitoring and evaluation. As one article put it we haven’t begun to understand how to implement the SDGs nor how to answer a very important question – “what it would it take to achieve the SDGs?”

There is also concern that some of the goals are in conflict with one another. For example, goals to end poverty and those to remove fossil fuel subsidies. Or goals to protect the environment versus those that promote industrialisation. Are the SDGs, therefore, even achievable as a whole?

The way in which each goal is interpreted may also bring difficulties in their implementation and has certainly caused problems in their development. For example, Goal 16, which focuses on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, has caused much discussion, particularly from BRICS countries about the way global policy is made and whether it is inclusive and fair, particularly when the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions are dominated by a handful of countries.

In an Economist article, which asks whether the SDGs are “a waste of time”, the drafting committees work in developing the SDGs has been criticised as being “so sprawling and misconceived that the entire enterprise is being set up to fail” and as “a betrayal of the world’s poorest people”. While harsh perhaps it is a reminder that the SDGs will likely impact how we do development, how people are helped out of poverty or hunger, and how people are educated. They are important. And currently they are a bit of a shambles – confusing, complex and trying to please everybody.

Present pledges for Western countries to provide 0.7% of GDP in aid each year will add up to only a third of what is estimated to be needed to achieve the SDGs, so already we know that not all the goals or all the countries will meet the SDGs, the knowledge of which reduces the urgency in meeting them and causes one to question why we are being set up to fail. Should we focus on just one goal, ending poverty perhaps? But then how do we rationalise dropping some of the other goals? What is the point of ending poverty if climate change will reverse all the work in a few decades? While the Economist article is particularly scathing, it fails to consider the difficulty in choosing which goals are more important than others. The SDGs may be too ambitious, too numerous, too messy, they need streamlining, more planning around their implementation and more consideration for country differences. But writing them off as a failure before they have even come into force is, I think, a mistake. Perhaps all the SDGs need to work is our support?

I realise this post presents more questions than answers and as such we’d love to hear your thoughts on the SDGs.

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