The risk of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: too many goals, too little focus

Now comes the hard part. lukeredmond/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

As the world’s leaders gather at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York City this week, they face a busy agenda. Among their many tasks is the adoption of new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) guiding actions toward 2030 – a major and much-needed accomplishment.

Setting global goals can be crucial to galvanizing action. But an agenda centered on 17 SDGs runs the danger of being too general. A more targeted approach would provide clearer guidance and make it easier to oversee implementation of the goals and adjust efforts as needs change in the future.

Also, settings high-level goals is only a first step – the hard work around governance starts now as countries move forward with implementing the SDGs. Making progress on these broad goals will require a level of focus and coordination between governments and other actors in society that we have yet to see.

Learning from Millennial Development Goals

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) in 2012, member countries launched the SDG process. The SDGs expand on the eight Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted at the Millennium Summit in 2000. The SDGs were formulated to help advance the post-2015 global development agenda and accelerate progress on achieving the MDGs by 2015.

In an early sign that this would not be a simple political process, the General Assembly was not able to limit participation to an original target of 30 countries. To meet demands for a large number of member states joining the deliberations, 24 of the 30 seats were shared by at least two countries, so that a total of 70 countries were official participants. Also many nonstate actors closely followed the deliberations.

In the end, members of the process proposed 17 new SDGs with a total of 169 targets. Unlike the more narrow MDGs that focused mainly on conditions in developing countries, the broader SDGs are meant to be relevant to all states.

Better accounting

With the SDGs, countries are seeking to build on positive experiences with the MDGs, which introduced a new method of UN goal formulation. This change came in response to member states’ long history of formulating international development goals that were never met. There was also no robust system for following up and adjusting priorities once the initial goals had been set.

With the MDGs, countries agreed on a more refined method. The eight goals came with a clear system for monitoring progress by having 18 goal-specific targets (later expanded to 21 targets further broken down into 60 indicators). Regular progress reports and charts showed progress in different geographical regions on specific goals and targets on a yearly basis.

The annual data made it possible for a wide range of stakeholders – governments, international organizations, advocacy groups and individuals – to review both achievements and shortcomings. This, in turn, made it possible to shift priorities over time to where action was needed based on lagging progress.

But did the MDGs work?

Reviewing progress in achieving the MDGs and their targets ending this year, it is clear that the record is mixed across goals, regions and countries.

There has been substantial advancement on reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger, expanding the number of children (including women) who receive at least primary schooling, decreasing child and maternal mortality rates and increasing access to safe drinking water. Some targets were even met early.

However, there is a long way to go before safe living conditions and gender equality are enjoyed universally. Approximately 800 million people continue to live in extreme poverty, suffering from hunger. There is also much more to do to combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases and reverse negative ecological trends, such as growing greenhouse gas emissions and steady biodiversity loss.

Deforestation in Australia: the Sustainable Development Goals broadened the scope of development programs to include the environment and developed countries. crustmania/flickr, CC BY

All positive trends over the past 15 years also cannot be attributed simply to the MDGs. Many international policy initiatives would have happened anyway. Also, national programs launched by China and other rapidly growing economies to reduce poverty and improve living conditions improved MDG statistics but were largely driven by their own domestic priorities.

Still, the MDGs did help focus the attention of the international community and move the development agenda forward. When UN agencies, the World Bank, the Global Fund or nongovernmental organizations have acted in a multitude of ways, they have often done so guided by one or more MDGs. Financial resources, even if they still fall well short of what is needed, were also channeled toward meeting the MDGs.

Formulating and expanding the SDGs

One of the strengths of the SDG process was that the goals were developed in a transparent manner with ample opportunities for input from countries, international organizations and civil society. This was in sharp contrast to the formulation of the MDGs, which happened largely without deliberation within the frequently opaque UN system.

Another important development with the SDGs is that they pay greater attention to ecological and environmental issues than did the MDGs. This helps to solidify the fact that all human development and prosperity ultimately rests on healthy ecosystems and a healthy planet.

But the SDG process is also an excellent illustration of what can happen when there is decision-making by committee. To a much too high degree, countries and advocacy groups primarily fought to get their pet issues included among the ballooning number of wide-ranging goals and targets.

This largely prevented a meaningful debate about the need for setting priorities and what constitutes an appropriate number of goals with a manageable system for their monitoring, review and adjustment. The lack of attention to these kinds of practical issues raises serious concerns for the future.

Are good intentions enough?

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin put it succinctly in 2014:

The new development goals must be tweetable. They must be understood by ministers, mothers, capitals, youth, local governments, and citizens around the world. School age children should be able to recite them. At the same time, the SDGs could be a tool for launching a truly major transformation – globally.

The UN member states come together and adopt the SDGs for all the right reasons; establishing new goals, practices and norms can guide a necessary transition toward global sustainability.

At the same time, the highly complex sustainable development agenda benefits from being broken down into manageable parts, even as we must not lose sight of the big picture. It is unclear if moving forward with 17 goals and 169 indicators, many of which are long and cumbersome, is consistent with this need to focus attention.

In addition, further refinement of determining a large number of suitable indicators for all 169 targets will not take place until next year. This will add yet another administrative and extensive data-gathering layer to the already cumbersome SDGs.

Taking the promise of the SDGs seriously requires a stronger and more consistent political commitment to tackling human needs and inequalities. It also demands a recognition of the need to more efficiently consume natural resource, for enhanced environmental stewardship, and to provide necessary financial resources toward better stewardship of planet Earth.

Accomplishing all this under the guidance of the SDGs necessitates greater cooperation between governments, the private sector and many facets of civil society, as broad local level change is central to global goal fulfillment. It also requires having a clear and persistent focus because achieving sustainability is a collective challenge that we cannot afford to neglect.