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. [Read more…]