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Sustainable Development Goals risk being unworkable

Written by Andrew Norton

​At this week’s UN General Assembly, states will debate the proposed goals and targets for the post-2015 development agenda. The main text they will draw on is the goal and target set proposed by the Open Working Group (OWG) on the SDGs. 

The first thing that strikes you about the proposals is that they are big – very big. The OWG draft proposal outlines 17 goals and 169 targets. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that end next year have just eight goals and 21 targets. Various commentators have argued that this is a problem – that if you propose everything as a priority, then nothing is a priority, as the saying goes.

But aside from the question of whether the goal set has enough focus, there is also a real challenge about converting the agenda into something that actually works in practice. If we don’t address this now, the entire project risks being unworkable.

Take the scope of the goal framework – it’s not just bigger than the MDGs in terms of crude numbers of targets but in other ways too.

Firstly, it has more substantive reach. The MDGs were predominantly focused on human development outcomes. By contrast, the SDG set goes into a whole range of other territories including sustainable growth, reducing inequality, climate action, peace promotion and responsive governance.

Then there is a whole new game in terms of universal country coverage: the ‘absolute deprivation’ spin of the MDGs implied a focus on monitoring outcomes mostly in the poorest countries. Now we are looking at lots of stuff (in every goal) which is designed to apply to all countries, rich and poor. 

Finally there is the notion that while goals are universal, targets should be set at the country level. There was a unified global target set for the MDGs, so measurement could be done by anyone with access to the data without reference to national planning and policy frameworks. By contrast the OWG set is a mix of targets which could function just as the old MDG set – but also a large number of targets that would need to be defined through national policy processes before any measurement could take place. 

The huge scope of the SDG goal framework – if adopted – is going to make the whole thing really hard to actually do successfully.  At the global level capacity would be required to do a range of things:

  • Provoking action by national governments. Many of the goals and targets would imply that specific countries should move into new areas of national policy and legislation. The sheer task load of setting national targets in possibly around 100 policy areas would be intimidating – and there is a risk of ‘overload’ for fragile national policy systems. 
  • Negotiating acceptable ‘offers’ of national targets. If any proposal is automatically accepted for a national target under a given goal then the process will rapidly lose credibility. In areas such as natural resource conservation or inequality, powerful national interests are likely to seek to influence processes to produce a low level of ambition in the targets. But multilateral structures are rarely empowered to ‘push back’ when national governments produce their proposals – so this will be a significant challenge to the workability of the system as a whole.
  • Collating targets and synthesising results. The complexity of the database of targets could be intimidating. To move from that to producing a picture of progress (whether yearly or at greater intervals) will require some complex processes of aggregation and synthesis – in terms of both data and narratives of national performance. 

There is a risk that the whole thing will turn out to be unworkable – which would be a tragedy. The process of thinking through the SDGs has already produced powerful changes in global norms which it would be bad to lose. Few imagined when the OWG was convened that a set of governmental representatives representing 69 countries could agree a goal and targets around inequality, for example. 

To make it all work two things need to happen.

Firstly, simplification. An effort to consolidate and combine some of the goals would be welcome.  But at least as important is a simplification of the target set. And beyond the simplification of the overall framework there is also a need to align expectations of what countries will produce with a realistic view of their capacity. 

Secondly we need to get real about what will be needed to deliver. This is a much more challenging agenda than the UN faced for the MDGs. There will be a need for considerable institutional capacity to be in place by the end of 2015 at some kind of global policy centre to work to deliver these ambitions – a universal development agenda addressing exclusion, inequality, climate action and the eradication of extreme poverty.