Why 17 goals and 169 targets are not enough – your chance to vote

Time for a little (non-Oxfam) contrarianism, and a new poll (see right). In September, the UN will agree the new framework for global development for the 15 years to 2030. This week the 43 page ‘zero draft of the outcome document‘ was published and

Why are you confused; it's perfectly complex.....
Why are you confused; it’s perfectly complex…..

the interwebs will rapidly fill with aid wonks and politicians scoffing at the ‘christmas tree’ of goals and targets  (17 of the former, breaking down into 169 of the latter). Earlier drafts were ‘overwrought and obese’ says CGD’s Charles Kenny, who thinks we have ‘lost the plot’. How on earth can we prioritise 17 goals?

But then I got to thinking about Charles’ CGD colleague Owen Barder, and his excellent recent post on complexity and development. If development is indeed the outcome of a complex adaptive system, as Owen argues, what does that imply for the discussion on goals and targets?

Because goals and targets belong squarely in the linear, planners’ camp; they fit with the kind of system epitomised by Stalin but, according to Bill Easterly, still dear to the heart of many aid agencies. We have goals and targets, a budget, we devise big linear plans (logframes etc), roll them out, monitor, evaluate and voila – development!

But an increasing number of aid wonks (including Owen) think this is deeply mistaken – both morally and practically. Development doesn’t work like this; it’s messy, unpredictable, context specific. What works in one place doesn’t work in another. Rather than grand plans, we need to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.

And who is this ‘we’ anyway? The MDGs should really have been called the MAGs – the Millennium Aid Goals, because as Charles recognizes, there is far more evidence that they influenced the quantity and quality of aid than that they directly affected development, or developing country government policy. But we know that even if aid volumes hold up (a big if) it is falling fast as a percentage of government revenues in poor countries. So disciplining aid through global goals and targets will deliver diminishing returns.

In a complex adaptive system, where governments are in the driving seat, what kinds of structure make sense for the post 2015 system? I think there is at least a case for saying, the more goals and targets the better:

King John signs Medieval Development Goals
King John signs Medieval Development Goals

That means they are more likely to be relevant to national context: national politicians, civil society organizations, public intellectuals etc will latch onto those goals that are most useful and make a big fuss about them, ignoring the rest. Sounds good to me, and a lot more democratic than some externally imposed shopping list.

They can evolve with time: Magna Carta is getting bigged up this year on its 800th anniversary, but understandably, some of its clauses (‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land’) have withstood the time more than others (all that stuff about fish weirs in the Thames). A greater variety of goals and targets will ensure that some remain relevant over the full 15 year period and beyond.

One of the many weirdnesses of the post-2015 discussion is how little it references other international instruments, many of
which have had considerable influence over national decision-making, for example by being enshrined in national law (honourable exception here). Look at some of the better known, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Both have 30 articles (is that some kind of rule in UN conventions?), lots of goals and no targets (tsk tsk, say the Planners). And I would argue they have worked pretty well.

I have long tried to avoid talking about the SDGs, because so much of the discussion struck me as deeply futile (here’s a 2012 paper explaining why I wasn’t going to be working on the SDGs. Oh, wait.). But in many ways, now the Christmas tree phase is ending, we are getting to the interesting bit – what will determine whether the new arrangement makes any difference on the ground? Issues such as how the SDGs are monitored and reported are going to be crucial – will there be regional league tables every year that name and shame the laggards compared to their neighbours, and provide a hook for activism, or just some bland five yearly number crunching in New York? If you care about politics, development and reality, now is the time to pay attention.

I sent this over to Owen and here’s his reply:

‘I’m torn between thinking that complexity implies many targets (your point) and thinking it implies just one or two big hairy

panel of experts cartoon

ones, to which there are many possible paths.   Something in between seems to be the worst of all worlds.

I guess it depends what you think the goals and targets actually do. I suspect there is some international norming, which is useful; and some establishment of a common language, which is also useful.  So they are useful for “framing” rather than changing incentives or behaviour directly. This can be important in defining the space within which the complex adaptation occurs

If you are trying to “frame” then you need something that people can get their arms around. I’m not sure how you do that with 17 goals and 169 targets.  So I’m more inclined to think that complexity suggests a small number of big targets rather than many targets.’

As it’s been ages since you voted on anything, here’s a very geeky poll on Owen’s comment and this post:

Q: If development is indeed a property of a complex adaptive system, are 17 goals and 169 targets

a) too few?

b) too many?

c) about right?

Cast your vote over there on the right

And here’s my 2012 rant on the topic

[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjlKI7nh0vI[/youtube]


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14 Responses to “Why 17 goals and 169 targets are not enough – your chance to vote”
  1. Andrew Mawson

    I’m definitely in the too many camp. Working in child protection, we struggle with this issue at a somewhat lower level all the time. Too many objectives leads to lack of focus. While in theory it needn’t lead to lack of synergy and good cross-sectoral work, in practice it does. Narratives become confusing and disjointed–which does not help policymakers, IGO, INGOs and above all the public understand what can be done. I’m with Owen on fewer clear goals and multiple routes to get there. In essence the issues–ending poverty or reducing violence against children, for example–are clear and visionary and can be captured by relatively few indicators. But how to get there is context-dependent and that, in my view, is where embracing complexity is the key.

  2. Glen Tarman

    This is the wrong question, or at least too far too late. There is 17 goals. There is 169 targets (actually over 300 outcomes in those targets). This is a reality. Wake up to it. The question is how to leverage this and the wider Post 2015 Development Framework for progress? OK, it’s helpful to assess pros and cons. But let’s move on now please to what matters such as the related national targets in the frame of the SDGs!

  3. Glen Tarman

    Where there is still a window to influence is number of indicators. Surely that is months of wonk heaven?! Get in there. The UN Stats / IEAG-SDGs process could end up with an arbitrary cut off (100) which undermines high quality productive monitoring. The need for a limited number of indicators overall should not jeopardise having the BEST indicator set. So on what and how many (place you vote soon) and on what?

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Glen, but that is absolutely the wrong thing to get stuck in on, IMO. As I argue in the post, now is the time to forget about the Christmas tree, and focus on what types of reporting will have most impact on national governments’ accountability to their own people, will be of most use to civil society and other activists pressing for progressive policy change etc etc. More wonkery on indicators is a massive distraction.

      • Claire Hickson

        Can you separate indicators and reporting, Duncan? Surely they’re an integral part of how the goals are monitored… Or are you just objecting to the idea of wonks being in charge?

        • Duncan Green

          Probably not, but my feeling is that the focus should shift from the technical merits of this or that indicator to how the process of implementation and reporting can strengthen efforts to improve the work of national governments and other actors, for example through regional league tables that identify leaders and laggards, creating annual moments when civil society and media can praise or condemn etc. That so far doesn’t seem to have happened.

          • Glen Tarman

            I certainly agree on the focus you describe Duncan, but global indicators do deserve some attention and effort at both technical and political levels before they are formally agreed, not least because they will inform national targets, measures and frameworks. Roberto Bissio also reminds us of reasons to not take our eye off the Indicators process (see Lost in indicators: How the “experts” are rewriting the #SDGs and deleting responsibilities of the rich https://www.globalpolicywatch.org/blog/2015/06/02/lost-in-indicators-how-the-experts-are-rewriting-the-sdgs/ and SDGs: Goals and targets left behind

          • Thomas Wheeler

            Hi Duncan,

            I think the indicators are pretty crucial, and it is important that for every target (169 at the moment – too many in my opinion) we have a good global indicator. The reason is that the SDG architecture is premised around setting numerical targets that the world either meets or does not meet by 2030. We need indicators to make this function. All the political pressure for action, at global or national level, will be focused on this question – how much progress has my country made on representation of women compared to the global target? How much inequality have we addressed globally? How many people report paying a bribe in my country compared to neighbors?. In this way, the indicators underpin how the whole thing comes together. Getting them right is crucial – and we should not ignore that what we choose to measure, and how we choose to measure it, is often as much a political as a technical question.

            (NB: one of the problems is that many of the targets are not quantified, meaning that it is still not clear when they will be considered “met”, whether at national or global level).

            As per wider debate: A short list of goals and targets would likely focus more attention on those key issues; the 17 and 169 we have means that we’ll be more prone to picking and choosing issues we like, throwing the universality assumption out the window. But we’re pretty much stuck with 17 goals, and more or less 100+ targets. There are benefits: not only is development complex, but so too is our increasingly multi-polar and poly-centric world. Perhaps that the SDGs have something for everyone means that it can act as a common thread to bind us together and also a common reference point for multi-stakeholder groups to come around for work on specific issues.

  4. Lucy Stevens

    Thanks for this analysis Duncan. I think the debate goes beyond just goals and targets to indicators. I’ve recently seen WaterAid’s paper on ‘Measuring What Matters’ on WASH and the SDGs here: http://www.wateraid.org/~/media/Publications/Measuring-what-matters-Indicators-WASH-in-the-post-2015-framework.pdf

    They are not arguing for more or fewer goals or targets, but are definitely arguing for more indicators: that we should not limit ourselves to one core indicator per target.

    It seems to me that the fewer targets (or goals) you have, the more the tendency is to stick a lot of different clauses into each one. So you stick sanitation and hygiene together in one target. And you use lots of words such as ‘adequate, equitable, safe, affordable’.

    WaterAid points out that (in the WASH sector anyway), we are already measuring what is being required by the proposed indicators and more. So there won’t be any additional burden. Secondly they raise the interesting point about the LEVEL at which ambition should be set. In WASH this translates to wanting to make sure everyone has a basic level of provision, while having the ambition to move everyone up to better levels of provision. This may need MORE indicators…

    The same applies in energy where, in cooking for example, it would be good to recognise any level of progress away from cooking on an open fire, but at the same time (because of the enormous health benefits from reduced indoor air pollution) you want to move people up to really clean forms of stoves and fuels. The World Bank with the IEA and others have already proposed a ladder of access (the Global Tracking Framework). I think we’d like to see a minimum level, and progress beyond that up the ladder. Some more thoughts here in a joint paper from 23 NGOs working in the energy access space (including Practical Action). http://cdn1.practicalaction.org/e/n/5486eb7a-00c8-4dd0-bcc6-64e20a0000be.pdf

    Thanks for an interesting blog!

  5. Charles

    I *knew* this was Owen’s fault 🙂 Thanks for the shout-out, and I guess my horror at your proposal is based on the following:

    (i) the process of development is surely complex, that’s different from saying the ends of development require X hundred different measures to reasonably track…
    (ii) …that said, the SDG list definitely fails as a vision of utopia –rights are pretty much absent, for eg….
    (iii) …in the SDG’s defense defense, not everyone we want is a perfect world is well represented by a target and goal model (rights are a prime example).

    Which leads to the underlying question: what are the SDGs actually for? Until we know that it is a bit hard to know how many there should be.

    What we do know: if they are meant to provide focus and set priorities for development outcomes we want, 167 targets in so many areas is pretty much useless.

    If instead they are meant to provide an ‘authorizing environment’ for work on every possible topic in development –sure, let’s have one for every ‘good’ cause in the world. Maybe we could start with setting a legal age for marriage in every country of at least 18, for example (I’m looking at you, Saudi Arabia, with no legal age at all).

    But good luck getting that through a consensus process of world governments.

    • Duncan Green

      Think you’ve put your finger on it Charles, what are they for? My feeling has always been that the MDGs were really about aid, but masquerading as being about something bigger, whereas SDGs are much more confused on this point.

  6. Takumo

    I think it is perfectly fine for one such as yourself not to have been too enthused about the Christmas tree phase but then get now engaged with the current phase of building accountability into the system (although someone had to do the Christmas bits).

    The way I see it is this (and sorry for being random):
    – Like you, I also think that what matters most is what happens at the national level. Although I see a lot of negative aspects of the post-war development path that my country Japan took, I still think it was right for the government to set the targets to “double the income of the population” and “make healthcare universal”, at the start of the rapid growth period (gave a purpose to the economic growth). Any good government would set some kind of goals and targets that matter to them.

    – It is only because we are doing this multilaterally that there end up being so many goals and targets. Once you decide to set global goals and targets, and do so democratically like we are doing now compared to the MDGs, then we are bound to have many. And we should. That is how many problems that this world has created and are confronted with.

    – A plus side of multilateral setting of goals and targets may lie in the possibility that we may use the new framework to influence countries’ development strategies to be considerate of others – e.g. the decision to become a tax haven was a sound economic strategy for the country itself, but it has caused enormous harm to others. Europe introduced agricultural subsidies for a reason, but they have detrimental effects on other countries’ development. In a globalised economy, we may need some kind of pre-determined principles to be applied to national strategy process.

    – I don’t like the way the MDGs were created, but I think the then-western-dominated world has been better off with them than would have been without. The Cold War had ended, the Western aid went down, lots of international momentum on social and human development building up, rightly so given the mess Structural Adjustment Programs created. The MDGs gave Western donors a rather noble raison d’etre.
    – The MDGs were also useful for Aids activists who were rocking the world in the 1990s and early 2000s. They were trying to force political leaders to change the definition of what was possible (Africa’s Aids pandemic had been abandoned, as too big a problem to to do anything about). They got the MDGs, and they got the Global Fund, and they got to sit on its board. The money really helped (although the fund has recently been reformed to please the donors more and compromised the demand-driven principle).

    – The other side of the same coin is that although the SDGs’ designing process has been much more open and participatory INSIDE the UN system, I am worried that there aren’t enough scary social movements OUTSIDE, pushing leaders to change course, in the way the Aids movements indirectly influenced the MDGs. Feels like the conversations are too domesticated.

    – Therefore, I am less concerned about what aid wonks think of the SDGs (they are less relevant as you say), and more about whether and how people can own them in all societies.

    – The SDGs are not narrowly focused on bringing change to the lives of people living in poverty like the MDGs, which pretended as if the rest of the society was fine. The SDGs are supposed to be about creating a changed society. They are about everyone. They are about the way economy is run. They are more about chronic problems than emergencies. I think they would be really useful for education. Oxfam GB’s global citizenship education department for example should integrate them in their toolkit. Some governments, including in the Global North, have already started conversations among ministries and with civil society about how to implement the SDGs at home. This should happen everywhere. The media is key.

    – The biggest cause of pessimism in the implementation would be how the negotiations are going in the FfD track. The rich countries are weakening all the verbs, basically refusing to commit to anything, and trying to open the whole thing to private sector scavengers. We risk seeing less public money agreed than necessary to meet the MDGs, let alone the SDGs. I hope they will see that agreeing to create a democratic forum on global tax reform (an intergovernmental body on tax = IGBT) as a cost-free offer they can make to let the conference conclude, given that they so don’t want to commit on aid. The EU is thinking about it. For developing countries, winning an IGBT over the OECD BEPS would be like getting the WTO over GATT.

    – Would be nice to have a global accountability mechanism resembling, or actually integrated with, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

  7. Simon Maxwell

    The issue, Duncan, is not the number, but the incoherence. Why, for example, is growth a ‘goal’ rather than a means to an end? I’ve argued many times (www.simonmaxwell.eu) that we could get away with four or five goals. This is from an earlier post:

    ‘I want to make the point, not for the first time, that the authors of all these documents seem to me to have struggled with the difference between ends and means, or intrinsic and instrumental goods. For example, I can perfectly well accept that the elimination of poverty, hunger, ill-health, and ignorance are intrinsic components of human development, and that full and fair citizenship for all, as well as a sustainable environment, should be at the same level. However, it seems to me that growth, industrialisation, energy, infrastructure, cities, trade regimes and finance are means to the overall goals, not ends in their own right. It follows that the OWG has made the post-2015 framework far too complicated and difficult. ‘ (See http://www.simonmaxwell.eu/blog/post-2015-arriving-or-departing.html).