Bill Easterly, professor of economics at New York University. Photo by:

The sustainable development goals, which will replace the U.N. Millennium Development Goals that expire this year, are gaining momentum. Post-2015 events are filling out the global development calendar, countries are lining up behind the agenda items they want to see included, and advocacy campaigns are in full swing.

Amid all the mounting energy, Devex decided it was time to touch base with a skeptic for a reality check on what the SDG process can truly be expected to achieve this year. So we reached out to Bill Easterly, eminent economist and noted critic of large-scale aid plans.

Easterly, for his part, did not disappoint.

“I think [the SGDs] illustrate powerfully the limits of the development community's fetish with action plans,” the New York University professor told Devex in an email.

Easterly likewise criticized the process that is giving rise to the post-2015 development agenda, noting that creating an action plan by “consensus” leads to an “empty” final product.

He pointed derisively to a goal included in U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s synthesis report released late last year that would seek to ensure “people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

Easterly also derided the redundant use of the word “sustainable” in development circles — and in the post-2015 discussion — saying it appears “so often and in so many different contexts” that it has become almost meaningless.

The SDGs, according to Easterly, are a case in point. Describing them as “sustainable” adds little descriptive value. “You would not lose much if you replaced ‘sustainable development goals’ with ‘some good development goals,’” he quipped.

Easterly is known to be a harsh critic of top-down approaches to foreign aid. His writings take particular issue with a category of development thinkers he refers to as “planners,” who “already know the answer,” and who risk underappreciating the complex significance of local contexts.

“You would not lose much if you replaced ‘sustainable development goals’ with ‘some good development goals.’”

— Bill Easterly, professor of economics at New York University

Easterly has been criticized by — and engaged in an ongoing battle with — fellow economists like Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs for being excessively pessimistic and refusing to acknowledge advancements in the global fight against poverty.

But even within the SDGs, there could be some reason for hope.

The ambitious poverty goal that’s so far been articulated — end poverty in all its forms, everywhere — might hold promise, Easterly said. He added that it’s not because the goal confronts the complex challenge of boosting low incomes and well-being in the developing world, but because of its potential to spur “advocacy and motivation” toward a global conversation about poverty — in the same way the MDGs were helpful.

For Easterly, a “big public policy debate on development” must move beyond “politically neutral” positions that don’t offend anyone. In response to a Devex question about Bill Gates’ role in the global development conversation, Easterly noted that Gates maintains a “technocratic” and “benevolent autocrat vision,” which has even led him to praise “autocratic rulers by name in countries like Ethiopia.”

“I think this disrespect for the rights of poor people is bad as a set of moral values, and bad as a story for how development really happens,” Easterly added.

Many have lobbied for the post-2015 agenda to tackle thorny issues like good governance and accountability, despite the challenge of building political will and sufficient consensus to include them.

An “outcome statement” from the U.N. post-2015 meeting in Chisinau, Moldova, last week emphasized the importance of strengthened institutions and bolstered institutional capacity. But it remains to be seen whether “good governance” will find its way as an explicit goal into the SDG framework that countries are expected to adopt at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September.

Where do you stand in the sustainable development goals debate? Is the post-2015 process a useful exercise that can spur conversation — and action — or is it all just lofty rhetoric? Let us know in the comments section below.

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About the authors

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.
  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.