The Impending Failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

| September 2014
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Krystian Olszanski / Flickr

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) suffered from serious design flaws, but these flaws were perhaps understandable given the haste with which the goals were created. The folks putting together the successor to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, have no such excuse for the draft document they released in July 2014.

In the late 1990s, Kofi Annan sought a way to keep development and poverty eradication on the agenda in an era of declining concern for global issues. His answer was the Millennium Declaration, a striking document ratified by the world’s governments that declared a set of shared values and commitments to a range of goals, which themselves built on previous international summits. Lacking the force of international law or the enforcement mechanism of an international treaty, Annan and his colleagues sought a way to maintain support for what came to be known as the “world’s biggest promise.”

The result was the Millennium Development Goals. Drafted in the backrooms of the UN by a small number of high level bureaucrats from several multilateral organizations, the MDGs were a set of eight goals, each with specific targets and indicators against which to track the world’s progress.

As a result of the somewhat undemocratic and opaque process by which the MDGs were drafted, the goals and targets were poorly designed, and beset by a number of flaws that were readily apparent to anyone who gave them careful scrutiny following their adoption. Among the most serious flaws were the following:

1. For many of the targets, reliable data collection did not exist, was of poor quality, or had incomplete coverage. Furthermore, by backdating the goals to 1990, the problems of data collection were exacerbated, because statistical quality was even worse a decade earlier.

2. Even indicators for which data collection was more reliable were highly suspect. For example, the World Bank’s International Poverty Line of USD $1.25 2005 purchasing power parity (PPP) per day is widely understood to be set by an unjustified method, to be based on uncertain purchasing power conversions, and to be highly dependent upon the base year which is selected for converting the domestic currency into U.S. dollars.

3. By selecting reduction targets that took no account of a country’s starting point, resources available, or capacity for change, national level assessment of the MDGs made it hardest for the worst off countries to be successful. For example, consider a country that is tasked to cut poverty by half. If poverty is currently at 10 percent of the population, 5 percent of the population needs to move above the poverty line during the 15 year time period, a manageable task. For a country with a poverty rate of 70 percent, the task is monumentally harder, needing to reduce poverty by 35 percent of the total population over 15 years, with far fewer resources to devote to the task.

4. As all decisions to address problems in global development must face trade-offs between competing priorities, it was unclear why some problems were selected as goals and others were not.

5. Many of the indicators to measure progress were revised during the MDG process, such as the indicator for measuring progress against hunger. The impact of these revisions has been to drastically alter the degree to which it appears that global progress is being made.

6. No discussion was included of the mechanisms by which these goals were to be achieved or how states and international organizations would be held to account for their failure to deliver on established promises.

One hoped that a new set of global development goals would avoid at least some of these pitfalls, in part because the successors to the MDGs have been years in the making, and in part because it is an effort in which nearly all of the major development and civil society organizations were focusing their attention.

But if the last set of goals suffered from hasty design, the next set suffers from the opposite—intense political lobbying by every interest group that wants their issue represented on the international agenda. The result is a long and entirely unattainable wish-list of development targets that utterly fails to prioritize those areas on which international coordination and goal setting is both desirable and feasible. Worse yet, the proposed goals and targets replay many of the flaws of the original MDGs.

1. The SDGs include goals and targets for which reliable data is not available or could not be available. For example, target 2.5 states that by 2020 the world should “maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed.” Are there any quantitative indicators against which development actors can be judged on this target?

2. The SDGs endorse indicators that are known to be deeply flawed. For example, the global poverty eradication target continues to be $1.25 USD 2005 PPP.

3. The SDGs appear to arbitrarily select the rate at which progress is to be made. For example, under Goal 3, ensuring healthy lives and well-being for everyone, maternal mortality is to be cut to 70 per 100,000 births, and child mortality is to be eliminated. AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are to be eliminated, while hepatitis, water borne diseases, and other communicable diseases are to be combated. Pre-mature mortality from non-communicable diseases are to be cut by 1/3, while road accidents are to be cut by 1/2. Were these numbers pulled out of a hat, or are they based on rigorous assessments of what might actually be achieved over the next 15 years? And does anyone anywhere seriously think malaria can be eliminated by 2030?

4. The SDGs include admirable but decidedly second and third tier issues. For example, target 1.4 of the poverty eradication goal includes a guarantee that everyone should have access to microfinance, despite the fact that the best available evidence suggests microfinance does not contribute to poverty alleviation. The education goal, number 4, includes promoting life-long learning opportunities for all. This is certainly an admirable task, but hardly one that should be prioritized over more pressing needs.

As currently drafted, the Sustainable Development Goals will represent a rhetorical tool that every government official and international aid worker will have to pay homage to while failing to hold accountable the appropriate actors in international development. The participants in the SDG process need to go back to the drawing board. State what the goals are for. Reduce the number of goals, targets, and indicators, focusing on those areas that should be prioritized on the international agenda. Set ambitious targets based on feasible rates of progress. Define key terms. And stop acting like this is a utopian document. If it remains so, it will be as meaningless as the many international proclamations which have preceded it.


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  1. Séamus Boland says:

    The failure of the sustainable goals is unquestionably linked to the failure to tackle poverty. The disconnect between the two great problems of our time is alarming and is demonstrated by the lack of poverty expertise used in the creation of these goals.Opposition to these goals, which is largely political is based on the fears and worries of poorer families, of which there are many millions, is the reason why political populism has weakened the resolve of the few governments and civic leaders who want to bring people towards the achievemnt of sustainable goals.