Hello SDGs, what’s your theory of change?

As Jed Bartlett would say, what’s next? Now the SDGs are official, there will be big discussions on financing and a SDGs summitgeekfest on metrics and indicators. Both are important. But to my mind the big task is to collectively think through what the SDGs are meant to change and how they can best do so – in other words a theory(ies) of change. Here are some initial thoughts:

Targets: Who/what are the SDGs supposed to influence? There are at least four:

  • Developing country budgets and policies
  • Wider social norms about rights and the duties of governments and others
  • Aid volumes and priorities (i.e. a re-run of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were mainly effective as an aid lobbying tool)
  • Developed country budgets and policies

Of these I think the first two are the most promising: aid is falling as a percentage of government revenue, while I do not think the SDGs are likely to have much influence on the policies of developed countries (hope I’m wrong of course).

Channels: for each of these, we need to think through how the SDGs could exert real traction. In the case of developing country budgets and policies, this could be through

  • Peer pressure – already in New York, some ‘vanguard governments’ (Colombia, Gabon, Indonesia) were taking about internalising the SDGs in domestic processes. They could be effective sources of pressure on their neighbours and others to follow suit. What kind of platform or reporting process could help them do so?
  • National media: always a good source of pressure on decision makers. What sort of data and media operation around the SDGs is likely to grab their interest at regular intervals over the next 15 years?
  • Civil Society: what do national CSOs need in order to make the SDGs an effective part of their advocacy repertoire?
  • Private Sector: how can the SDGs be relevant to progressive national and international companies and their business associations, so that they become part of the dialogue between them and government, or influence their operations directly?

SDGsDynamics: Will SDGs have a steady drip-drip effect, or will their main impact be around ‘critical junctures’, such as scandals, crises or changes of political leadership? What does that imply for the design of the SDG system, eg if critical junctures are important, what kind of rapid response is needed so that researchers or advocates can respond quickly with a timely summary of the case for change? If, however, the SDGs are most likely to be effective via long term osmosis eg on social norms  around inequality and exclusion, a different reporting and follow up process is likely to be preferable.

Complexity: According to ODI’s Claire Melamed  ‘there won’t be one way the SDGs affect outcomes, there will be loads, and most are unpredictable at this point. For some governments, it will be comparison with others (so league tables) for others it will be domestic pressure (so whether SDGs are useful for domestic campaigners) for others more of a management tool. All are likely, and which it is will change with country/administration (and most countries will have several governments over the next 15 years) and goal (governments are likely to treat education differently to climate change, for example). As Craig Valters argues, that means taking a theory of change approach, rather than trying to settle on a single ToC for the whole SDG system. We could of course say ‘we have no idea how this will all pan out, so let’s just let a thousand flowers bloom and not bother with ToCs.’ But the system does have to agree on a bunch of procedures on monitoring, reporting, follow up etc, so it would surely help to make sure these procedures recognize and work with the messiness of how the SDGs are likely to be used in practice.

Review: For example, let’s assume that whatever initial conclusions those designing the SDG system arrive at are at best only partly right. How/when will everyone sit down, review what has/hasn’t worked, and make the necessary adjustments?

Where to start in answering these questions?

It would have been better to have had this discussion from the beginning of the process (as I said in this 2012 paper), but it hasn’t happened. Never mind. If people are serious about the SDGs having impact, I think some quick and smart research is required along at least two lines:

First we need a good literature review: what can we learn from the hundreds of international instruments that seek

If I cd photoshop, it wd read 'SDGs agreed' on the left and 'world a better place' on the right.....
If I could photoshop, this would read ‘SDGs agreed’ on the left and ‘world a better place’ on the right…..

to influence governments, change norms etc: 190 ILO Conventions, dozens of UN Conventions, the WTO, Regional Trade Agreements, Bilateral Investment Treaties etc. Which of them have gained traction on governments or norms, and how?  See May-Miller Dawkins’ excellent ODI paper on what the SDG crew can learn from other international agreements.

Second, can someone finally go out and do some decent research with developing country decision makers? By that I mean well designed interviews (no leading questions, please!) to find out what international instruments actually influence them, how and why. As a start, the ODI (what would we do without them?) has an excellent study by Moizza Sarwar coming out in the next week or so, exploring the implementation of the MDGs by interviewing senior planning ministry staff in five developing countries. (What took them so long?!)

Why would this help?

Armed with this kind of analysis, people in different contexts (UN, bilateral, national, civil society) would be better placed to think through how to implement the SDGs just agreed in New York. For example:

  • How should target institutions like developing country governments be involved in the governance of the SDGs?
  • Should reporting be national, regional or global? By governments only, with non-government inputs, or with right to reply from other bodies?
  • Would annual league tables make sense?
  • What is the best trade off between countries adapting the SDGs to their local context, and having global or regional comparability?
  • Who are the best messengers to report back on SDG performance (ex presidents? Nobel prize winners? Fading pop stars?)

What do you think? A futile attempt to impose order on chaos, or a useful exercise?

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15 Responses to “Hello SDGs, what’s your theory of change?”
  1. Mano Demeure

    Whatever number of MDGs, SDGs, Indicators are set to measure whatever Results, Outputs or Outcomes, with whatever Jargons, is not so important.
    The real issue is that there should and will be improvement of people’s conditions, at micro, meso , macro and planetary levels.
    The more we are involved and committed, the more things will change and move towards a better world.
    One way to improve these change processes, would be to accept with more humility that the outcomes will never be as we want them to be…
    Hence spend less time talking and writing, but more time DOING. Partnerships and dialogue for action should prevail amongst all stakeholders.
    I’ve spent more than 35 years of my life doing development work in the field, but still can’t come to terms with our bureaucratic syndrome.
    That being said, I want to congratulate you for a wonderful job you’re doing in this blog.
    Looking forward to read more of it.

    • Kieran

      But surely we improve doing by reflecting and learning? I think Duncan is “bang on” when he talks about the need to understand what influences local decision makers. Too often the development aparatchik is having an internal debate and forgetting the complex world of politics and power we operate in?

  2. Luke Pye

    Great analysis and discussion as usual! Once the ‘hype’ has died down hopefully these discussions can be had with a broader international audience of stakeholders from all sectors. Quick couple of points: I think for the agenda/framework/goals to be successful, and truly universal, we need disaggregated follow-up and review which in its very nature will seem chaotic. Follow-up and review must also happen at all levels and build on existing mechanisms such as the AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism, we in the development community must not accept lackluster global reporting that masked the failures of the MDGs. Finally, you touched on the role of civil society and the private sector these actors involvement in the implementation and follow-up will be a defining feature of an agenda that has acknowledged and built on the failures of the MDGs.
    Looking forward to hearing more of your commentary on the SDGs.

  3. Alan Hudson

    Many thanks Duncan for persistently asking questions about the impact that the MDGs had and the mechanisms through which the SDGs are expected to make a difference. I’ve tried to do the same – e.g. https://www.globalintegrity.org/posts/post-2015-whats-the-story/ and https://www.globalintegrity.org/posts/open-goals/ – but you’ve been much more effective!

    Asking these sorts of questions opens up the space for reflection and learning at multiple levels – within organizations such as Oxfam and Global Integrity, in donor governments, and most importantly, at country level – and will help to improve the impact of the SDGs.

    As for your proposed way forward, it’s definitely worth a shot. And I’m in, if that would be useful. SDGs through an adaptive development lens perhaps? Doing SDGs Differently? Thinking and Working on the SDGs Politically? But definitely with theories of change – multiple, tentative, iterative and used as frameworks for learning – centre-stage.

  4. Peter Chowla

    “Of these I think the first two are the most promising: aid is falling as a percentage of government revenue, while I do not think the SDGs are likely to have much influence on the policies of developed countries (hope I’m wrong of course).”

    Duncan, I think you’ve missed the point about the SDGs, particularly the ‘S’ part, and how they are supposed to be different from the MDGs. In my view if there is no influence on the policies of developed countries than the SDGs are a massive failure. This has been the entire fight about whether the SDGs are “universal” or not. Sure they contain the kernel of the MDGs in that developing country budget priorities need to emphasise some of the goals, but lets be clear that there are 3 types of goals:

    1) Goals where MOST of the action has to happen in developed countries: I am thinking goals 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 (that is inequality, sustainable consumption/production, climate change, land ecosystems, and the ocean for normal people). If civil society and peer pressure and any other agent of change you can think of cannot change developed country policy – then on 5 of the 17 there will be failure.

    2) Goals where action is going to be diffuse: these are the goals where single actors and govt policies are less important and there are too many stakeholders to have a grand plan for change. Think goals 5, 8, 9, 11, 16 (gender, growth/employment, infrastructure, cities, peace/justice/institutions). In this area I think the UN and other can in most areas only hope for long term osmosis through influencing social norms. Of course on specific policies there are things to change (e.g. legal restrictions on women’s equality) but the causality is so diffuse and difficult for the overarching goal it will be difficult. In my mind the thing to do is to pick out the indicators/montiroing framework for the things that could be got at policy wise and go for it on those. Let social movements and politics handle the big picture.

    3) Goals where financing in the key: these are largely the MDG successor goals on health, education, water sanitation. The goals are so ambitious, that actually achieving them will require unbelievable transformation in the financing environment. Domestic level action in developing countries will help, but only get you so far (maybe to finally realising all the MDG targets??). Real change is going to require changing the rules of the finance game (think international tax norms that undermine domestic revenue mobilisation in developing countries) – and guess what, developed countries’ policies are going to be crucial again.

    I don’t say to let developing countries off the hook for delivering on commitments. But only in some cases (e.g. some conflict states, but not all – think Iraq and where some accountability has to be directed elsewhere) are their leaders really where the bottleneck will occur in the next 15 years.

  5. There is the top down and bottom op theory of change.

    In most cases of change, pressure from the bottom leads to change. Rights are not given, but taken.

    You need a dedicated team and a budget. In development speak: there is a silo.

    The army of activists, UNIADS once they had the Global Fund, fought the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This is why for every important issue, the world community needed to create a dedicated (UN) agency to keep it on the agenda. On the agenda of everyone. This is not fragmentation, it is recognising that e.g. Human rights are not negotiated amongst each other.

    With the SDGs, nearly every group on earth is now vindicated that their cause is a high level priority, and it helps them to put more pressure. I wonder if this will lead to priority setting. However, if the agenda is hijacked by the groups discussing SDGs as a whole (e.g. the “donor community”, UNDP, Oxfam? surely academics) there will be more high level meetings, better data and research. Perhaps even more five year plans and legislation.

    • Ian

      Surely if everything is a priority the danger is nothing will be prioritised? I am reminded of the Minister here in the UK who wanted every school to have higher than average results!

  6. Peter Devereux

    Im not clear with universal SDGs why we need research only on what influences developing country decision makers-specially when we know that structural injustices are globally instituted by the most powerful.

    • Duncan Green

      Agree in theory Peter – obviously it would be preferable if all governments were influenced by the SDGs, but do you honestly think the big players (US, Europe and China) will do things differently because of non-binding international accords of this kind? If so, I would love to be convinced!

      • Md Rafizul Islam

        Yes! That’s why I was demanding legal accord for providing % of GDP share to LDCs and Developing Countries (DCs) as compensation for over exploitation. Indeed, LDCs and DCs shall have right to use technologies for increasing productivity and economic prosperity up to certain years as equity basis.

  7. I think you could have reasonablyasked what is the theory of change for having a global set of goals i.e. what is the expected benefit of going through all the work to create global goals and how does their existence and the road it took to get there help achieve a better world. This would have been an interesting discussion but is academic now since the goals have been agreed – although if we remember in 2030 it might be good to look back to see how well it worked.
    I don’t think you can answer the question about a theory of change for the content of the SDGs – since the SDGs do not by themselves constitute a plan- its a set of goals and targets, but a plan is now needed to get there and a lot of that is still to be worked out.
    Achieving the SDGs won’t be a matter of having a single plan and theory though it will be the intersection of many plans and activities and initiatives many of which have no direct connection to the SDGs as an international agreement. I think therefore that the high level plan might be more about putting some of the infrastructure in place that will create an enabling environment for progress such as monitoring and reporting, nationally adapted SDG plans, accountability mechanisms, global financing agreements, global standards and agreements (e.g. on emissions) – but then in getting out of the way and letting people do whatever they are doing that is contributing to human progress, rather than coming up with a master plan of strategies and interventions – for me that’s a big lesson from the MDGs.

    • Duncan Green

      Spot on, Ian, I guess what I’m thinking about is precisely a theory of change for creating an enabling environment that will allow different SDGs to gain traction in different ways in different contexts.

  8. Michael Longhurst

    “Second ; can someone finally go out and do some decent research with developing country decision makers?”

    Getting close. But now go to the next step and get out of their lives altogether and stop treating other countries as idiots or a Samaritan lying on the side of the road. After sixty years of tut tutting, interference, strategic plans, modernisation, structural adjustments, dependency theories and neo-liberalism all that you have to show is a bloated set of seventeen SDGs pitched fifteen years away? Are you and your industry proud of that? I am tempted to say fix up your own countries before ‘advising’ and helping others. As Bauer once quoted an Egyptian ambassador to England when reporting to Parliament: ‘Thank you for your help – but please no more. Your good has done us too much harm already’. At least the Chinese heard the message and have managed to look after themselves without the World Bank, foreign aid, NGOs and MDGs. Anyone else heard the message?