Some cautionary thoughts on this week’s SDGs summit

SDGs summitThe crescendo of discussion and debate over the successor to the Millennium Development Goals reaches its climax this weekend in New York, with the Sustainable Development Summit. The Guardian has a good scene setter.

I’ve ploughed a contrarian furrow on the SDGs so far, so why stop now? Here are some things you might want to keep in mind over the next few days, with links to past FP2P posts on the issue.

First, who is ‘we’? You will hear hundreds of statements along the lines of ‘we can end poverty’. Great aim, but who, exactly is we? This from a great 2013 post  by French development guru Pierre Jacquet:

‘It is altogether amazing how wishful and incantatory discussions on global issues have become. We seem to be content with passionate statements about what “we should”, “we need”, “we must” consider and do. Have we reached a sort of “end-of-History” development approach in which we believe that everyone agrees on some final objectives and we collectively know how to get there? Or is it, rather, that we try to exorcize our impotence and helplessness, while buying ourselves a conscience?’

correlation v causation cartoonSecond, there is remarkably little evidence that the MDGs achieved very much at national level, although globally they made the case for more aid and better data. This is probably the most ubiquitous example in international development of confusing correlation with causation – poverty has halved, well done MDGs! But most of that is down to China – are you really saying that Chinese decision makers leap out of bed every morning asking themselves ‘how can I achieve the MDGs’?

What is particularly baffling is that almost no serious research has been done to establish the truth about causation, for example, by a rigorous survey of developing country decision makers on which aspects of the international system influence their policies (asking ’are the MDGs a good thing?’ really doesn’t count). When Columbia University’s Elham Seyedsayamdost did so she got, from the UN’s point of view, the wrong answer. Surveying 50 countries’ implemention of the MDGs, she found that whether the goals were reflected in plans or not, they did not have any apparent influence on how governments spent their money.

Third, moving on to the SDGs, I have become increasingly alarmed over the last few years and wrote a bah humbug paper on this back in 2012. The discussion has been Sustainable-Development-Goals-United-Nationsdominated by a large group of UN technocrats debating metrics and indicators, and a huge panoply of NGO and other lobbyists, trying to shoehorn ‘their’ issue onto an ever-expanding agenda. At no point did anyone ask what kind of design might enable the SDGs to exert traction at national level – the acid test for me is ‘will a decision maker in Bihar or Dhaka or Kampala do anything differently because of the SDGs?’.

Nor is anyone asking what lessons could be learned from the success or failure of hundreds of other global conventions and agreements (the ILO alone has 190 of them). One honourable exception is an ODI paper by Exfammer May Miller Dawkins on what lessons can be drawn from international human rights and environmental agreements.

It may be that once the goals are agreed, the discussion on implementation will fully address this problem, which would be great. But my fear is that the technocratic approach thus far will continue – lots of discussion on metrics and indicators, but not much attention to getting traction on national governments. Will, for example, each government sign up to report on their progress (or lack of it) every few years to a UN Committee, which (to prevent whitewash reporting ) is allowed to collect information from other sources such as UN bodies or NGOs, as in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? Nothing that I’ve heard suggests that will happen. See what I mean about learning from other instruments?

I hope I’m wrong. As Claire Melamed argues, the SDG process has generated a massive global conversation on our shared future and maybe that will continue. But I worry that ignoring power, politics and (dare I say it?) How Change Happens in New York this weekend will mean a global moment will not produce the long term impact we need. There’s that ‘we’ again. Sorry.

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4 Responses to “Some cautionary thoughts on this week’s SDGs summit”
  1. Penny Lawrence

    I think its your last sentence that matters Duncan. With an acceptable set of inclusive goals…its the ‘now what?’ ‘How do we implement?’ ‘what happens if (when) they are not met?’ that matters. Having seen/heard of 2 national development plans over the last few weeks (Pakistan and Uganda) the ‘we’ may at least include more Southern Government ambition than last time round. Both Governments are also open that the challenge is how to make them real, and that’s where power and politics and ‘how change happens’ matters…..

  2. Hello Duncan, nice reading your blogs and thanks for such insights. Well, of course I agree with you though I must register my optimism too. Where government is unwilling to deliver, the SDGs will aid our struggles at the grassroots by giving a reference point. Here in Kenya, like in many places where children are born into poverty, grew up in poverty until they were socialised to think that this is the normal state of affairs, we can now use governments’ own language in confronting this socialisation.

    The SDGs must not be judged merely by the content of the 17 goals and 169 indicators. The process that was followed is as important as the outcome of the negotiations. We emerge from this process not only with this set of goals but also with a political realisation from the rich countries that we are not happy about the state of affairs: we are not happy with the global institutions of governance, we are not happy with the international tax system and that the rich and powerful countries have more to do with poverty in Africa than giving us handouts. Momentum is building towards a transformational shift- from treating the symptoms to fixing the causes.

    Coming under the wave of decentralisations, Africa governments too want the SDGs taken to the devolved units. They see an opportunity to build people accountability in areas where they have been struggling to see devolved units use resources well. At least, that is what I am seeing in Kenya.

    The scope and level ambition presented is such that the SDGs will not be easy to achieve. But, my believe is that a good framework does not have to be an easy one. A good plan may present challenges but we are equal to the task. As an activist I know for example that to realise the vision, there are businesses that were not included and unless I become smarter in the way I work, they will not be addressed and SDGs will not be achieved.

    I also know that to achieve SDGs, we shall require actions of millions of people. Volunteering is one way of mobilising this phenomenal participation and ownership. That is why I have my sleeves rolled up to tell governments to elaborate how it will be done. Adoption of the SDGs is not the end of game, it is the beginning. It is not the SDGs that will make the difference, it is what we do with the SDGs that will.

    Finally brother, I concur that we do not have empirical evidence to attribute much to MDGs. But I have experiential evidence that Kenya attempted to invest in MDG areas in a way she would never have done if MDGs were never there. MDGs helped set priorities and that is powerful too. Ireful, lack of empirical evidence on causality is neither a equal to empirical evidence for lack of causality.