Embracing the global goals as a new model for development cooperation

A star-studded lineup opened the sixth Social Good Summit with a launch ceremony for the Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by the world leaders at the United Nations. Photo by: Dylan Lowthian / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

Last Friday, the United Nations adopted the global goals for sustainable development. The new goals are intended to be a global roadmap to growth and prosperity over the next 15 years, providing guidance for countries rich and poor alike to prioritize investments in poverty alleviation and economic development.

The global goals replace the Millennium Development Goals, launched in 2000 and expiring at the end of this year. The eight MDGs were an elegant representation of the most pressing issues in global poverty at the time. Concise and readable, they singled out hunger, education, gender equality, health, environmental sustainability, and partnerships as the building blocks of development.

The MDGs did not seek to capture every problem or placate every constituency, and featured generic, feel-good language. “They envelop you in a cloud of soft words and good intentions and moral comfort,” described Dr. Ashwani Saith, a professor at the International Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands in 2008. “They are gentle, there is nothing conflictual in them; they are kind, they offer only good things to the deprived.”

This gentleness and kindness is precisely what made the MDGs effective as a tool for global advocacy: The eight anti-poverty goals were easy to share and hard to oppose.

At the time, however, the MDGs were criticized for not representing the priorities of aid-recipient countries, for being too difficult to measure and for failing to generate the resources necessary to achieve them. This time around, the U.N. sought to avoid these pitfalls.

The drafting process prioritized inclusion and consultation. A U.N. secretary-general report issued in December of last year cited more than 25 specific conferences, surveys and papers contributing to the global goals. Hundreds of additional working group meetings and stakeholder consultations were carried out at the U.N. and around the world during the drafting process.

Perhaps predictably, the result has been a goal-setting process mired in bilateral spats, indecision, and compromise. The final 17 global goals are neither concise, nor particularly readable. The goals are often redundant and simultaneously generic (Goal 1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”) and specific (Goal 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”). As they range through the world’s myriad ills and problems, the goals cover hunger, health, education, water and sanitation, energy, infrastructure, livelihoods, urban development, climate change, land degradation, marine resources, and peace building.

In July, U.S. President Barack Obama’s representative to the U.N. lamented the labored negotiation process, declaring: “We believe that we could have advanced further in prioritizing cutting-edge issues.” This may be true. Yet, for all their failings, these goals represent something more important than pithiness or innovation. They represent a political process that embraces participation and diversity. They represent a negotiation that gives voice to poor countries too often ignored in international debates. And they represent the ambitions of the entire global community, not only those of powerful governments and Western foreign aid agencies.

In the development field, the principle of “country ownership,” in which aid-recipient countries take the lead in setting their own agendas for growth, is espoused as the new paradigm for effective foreign aid. Ownership was the buzzword du jour at the fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, in 2011, and the main principle of the forum’s outcome document.

Well, folks, here it is. These 17 goals are the product of country ownership in all of its complex, politically awkward, and untidy glory. Each country’s true ownership over the agenda will be critical to developing political support, resources and accountability — all essential for success.

These global goals aren’t neatly packaged, and it won’t be easy to monitor or evaluate their progress. But they are our goals: They belong to the United States, Uganda, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and the other 189 U.N. member countries too.

An inclusive process of this scale was a first for the U.N. And when it’s time to negotiate a new set of goals in 2030, we’ll all be better at it. But for now, as we look ahead to a new era of development cooperation, we should be proud of what we’ve accomplished — together.

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About the author

  • Eliza Keller

    Eliza Keller is the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journal of International Affairs and a partner at the Truman National Security Project. She is currently an MPA candidate at Columbia University, where her research focuses on governance in fragile states. Prior to Columbia, Eliza worked in public affairs at the Millennium Challenge Corp. The views expressed here are her own, and not those of current or previous employers.