The SDGs – flawed yes, but still a powerful vision of a possible future


September 23rd, 2015

SDGsThis week heads of state, the Pope, the UN Secretary General and a range of dignitaries meet at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in New York. They are meeting to launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set a vision for 2030 for human development and environmental sustainability. The SDGs range from commitments to end poverty in all its forms and reduce inequalities, through to more sustainable industrialisation and peace and justice. The 17 SDGs replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were agreed at the turn of the century as a vision for progress to 2015. The Guardian does a good summary of the SDGs as well as how they relate to the old MDGs.

There are reasons to be cynical about what goal setting of this nature can achieve. Firstly there is the track record of progress against the MDGs themselves, which is patchy. You can see a good summary by the UN of achievements as of 2104  here. In short, some good progress was made across Asia, Latin America and North Africa, but most of the MDGs were not met in Sub Saharan Africa.

More fundamentally there is the question raised by Duncan Green in his From Poverty to Power blog about how much goals of this nature actually influence behaviour of governments at a national level. As Duncan puts it do we really think that “Chinese decision makers leap out of bed every morning asking themselves ‘how can I achieve the MDGs’?”

And finally you have to wonder whether some of the metrics used to measure progress against the goals really say anything meaningful (or indeed whether the data can always be trusted – a criticism of some reporting against the MDGs).

Despite these reservations, I am a supporter of the SDGs for 3 reasons:

Firstly, standing out against the miasma of bad news and dire predictions for the future that forms our daily media diet, they provide an alternative and positive vision of a possible future. A view that was built at least in part on a very large global conversation around “the future we want”.

Secondly it’s a view around which action can be galvanised. Duncan may well be correct in saying national policy makers don’t jump out of bed thinking about the MDG’s, but that doesn’t mean they have had no influence. Access to clean water supplies was included as a specific outcome for MDG 7 for example and my sense over the past 15 years has been that that increased focus on what progress was being made, which in turn influenced allocations made for rural water supply infrastructure by donors and national governments. Progress on addressing access to water over the past 15 years has been relatively good, albeit there is still some way to go. In contrast, access to energy was not included in the MDGs and consequently much less scrutiny of progress was visible (until the recent UN sustainable energy for all initiative). As a result of the lack of interest in the sector there was a relative dearth of funding for the comparable decentralised community managed infrastructure needed to provide rural communities with electricity.

Thirdly, however imperfect they are, the MDGs and now the SDGs can provide a handle for civil society to hold both national governments and the international community to account. They are a statement of intent that can be held up as a mirror to reflect back how actions have measured up to rhetoric. They are a tool for us to use should we choose to.

There remain reasons aplenty to be cynical about the SDGs. But I still welcome them. In a cynical world they are a statement not just of hope but of intent. And as such they have the potential to reflect back to us all on the effectiveness of our efforts to find a just and sustainable future for everyone on the planet.

Leave a reply