The SDGs – now what?

Published in Future United Nations Development System blog.

by Stephen Browne

Following the publication of the outcome of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals this July (see pdf of OWG outcome document and proposed SDGs), the UN Foundation said: “when the OWG began its work, many observers were doubtful that a committee of 70 members occupying 30 seats, some in a troika arrangement with associated political complexity, would be able to agree on a concise set of goals and targets.”

Well, they were right, and I wonder how many people are really surprised by the result: 17 goals and 169 targets and indicators. Of course, the process is not yet over because this “outcome” is to be forwarded to the UN General Assembly for further deliberation. However, the prospect of that even more unwieldy body producing a genuinely concise and meaningful result is a distant one.

What really happened? To make an assessment, we need to go back to the last lot of goals.

When the MDGs were agreed in the year following the outcome of the UN Millennium Summit of 2000, they were founded on a solid pedigree of earlier UN summits that were held throughout the 1990s. The MDGs were based on statistically measurable, uncontroversial, indicators which were considered central surrogates of development progress. We now know better. They don’t measure all the right things. Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia were some of the best performers in the Arab region in terms of MDGs, but they overlooked the factors which generated long-standing grievances of the poor prompting violent uprisings (United Nations, A Regional Perspective on the post-2015 UN Development Agenda, UN publication E/ESCWA/OES/2013/2, New York, 2013).  So lesson number one: there are other goals more important than the MDGs.

Second lesson: the MDGs were not even appropriate for the UN’s operations. More funds for the UN to tackle the goals have yielded poor results. Indeed, there is no clear causal relationship between aid flows and MDG achievement. Total aid has increased markedly since 2000, yet many of those countries which have received substantial and increasing amounts of aid over long periods are still amongst the poorest MDG performers. The biggest successes have been in health (especially HIV and TB infections), but that is mainly the result of substantial new resources flowing through non-UN mechanisms such as the Global Fund. In other areas such as undernourishment of children, completion of primary school, access to clean water and the share of urban populations living in slums, the MDGs have not resulted in a significant acceleration in progress towards the goals since the Millennium Declaration, in spite of more aid (Paul Callan, “Replacing the MDGs: a better agenda is needed for the world’s poor”, Devex).

The importance of other goals than the MDGs was acknowledged by the OWG in its desire to expand the agenda into more political, and thus more controversial, areas.  In fact, the UN already had in hand more comprehensive development agendas – the full declarations of its summits of 2000 and 2005. But these had been frog-marched through the inter-governmental process with little deliberation. The OWG at least had the merit of allowing for a full debate on the issues.

But in keeping its “ends open”, the OWG succumbed to the sterile practices of all unsteered UN negotiating sessions. The co-chairs were content (and narrowly empowered) to keep the debate going, writing up the consensus periodically. So we now have layer upon layer of paragraphs sponsored by different parties, mostly government foreign ministry reps with some egging on by UN agencies. The criterion of success is to include as many consensual views as possible, only eliminating text where there is obvious superfluity, but still not excluding huge areas of duplication.

The result is a long rambling statement of intent, but not an agenda. If it were, it would have the following, as a minimum:

1.     Some analysis of how the world has changed and is expected to evolve over the life of the goals, highlighting the main global challenges amenable to action by the world body. What we have instead is a preamble, leavened with frequent references to the environment, as a reminder that the whole process was originally inspired by a global environment meeting.
2.     An outline of the sine qua non conditions for successful development. What we have instead are general invocations about rights and freedom. The hugely complex challenges of conflict is given one sentence: “countries in situations of conflict also need special attention”. Whose attention? What attention?
3.     Unambiguity: the goals overlap with no explanation, especially when it comes to sustainability of resources. There are 169 numbered paragraphs following each generally stated goal. These are the targets, and they are sub-divided into 126 first targets and 45 other paragraphs – secondary targets? Some of these targets use words like “build resilience”, “ensure significant mobilization of resources”, “create sound policy frameworks” etc….lots of indefinable UN-speak.
4.     Coherence: but what are the dynamics, the policies and strategies implied, for example, by “eradicating extreme poverty everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 per day” (Goal 1) and “by 2030 progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average.”  (Goal 10)
5.     A set of core goals: an example would be related to governance and the responsible management of resources. Since most development experts agree that total resources for development are not lacking, taking all sources into account (FDI, remittances, royalties, export receipts, domestic taxes, most much larger than aid itself) a core goal would relate to their responsible management. Many possible measurable numerical targets are possible.
6.     Strong independent monitoring arrangements: there is a statement in the preamble about “a robust mechanism of implementation review” through the same inter-governmental channels, which sounds like folding the jury in with the judge. No mention of the monitoring role of third parties – including NGOs and civil society.

But let’s look on the optimistic side. While this convoluted journey has yielded a less satisfactory and impractical outcome than the 2000 and 2005 summits, two tasks could still be taken up after the 2015 GA. As with the MDGs, the UN development system should define and refine the approved goals to make them more meaningful and measurable. Equally important will be the role which the UN affords to civil society in both implementation and monitoring. Hopefully the UN organizations will have learnt something from recent experience about the need for governments to meet people’s aspirations.

Through non-governmental organizations the intended beneficiaries of the development process should be the ones who have a say – preferably a critical one – in monitoring progress, and holding the governments of both South and North to their commitments.

Stephen Browne is co-Director of the FUNDS Project.


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