Proposed SDGs won't capture the imagination

A view of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe ministerial consultation on accountability for post-2015 development agenda on Sept. 15, 2014 in Geneva. The current draft Sustainable Development Goals include 17 goals and 169 targets. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

Last week, leaders of U.N. member states began talks on the Sustainable Development Goals. Beginning 2016, the SDGs will guide the efforts of governments, international organizations, nongovernment organizations and others on some of our largest collective challenges — reducing poverty and disease, and protecting our natural resources and environment.

However, the current draft SDGs are not fit for their purpose: to influence future decisions and mobilize actions. In September 2015, the 70th U.N. General Assembly will approve the final set of goals. We have one year to fix the SDGs — and we must.

The SDGs are the next generation of global goals that began with the Millennium Development Goals, which political leaders agreed upon in 2000. The MDGs quickly became a rallying cry. Governments, NGOs, the United Nations, the World Bank and many others focused their work on the goals, and the MDGs made a difference. Foreign aid from developed countries increased by 5.4 percent per year between 2000 and 2008, after adjusting for inflation. More importantly, our research at Dalberg shows that there was acceleration in progress on several important goals, following the adoption and promotion of the MDGs. Numbers of tuberculosis and HIV cases were escalating prior to 2000, and now are declining rapidly. Maternal mortality rates have declined at faster rates since 2000, as have deaths of young children.

The MDGs succeeded because they mobilized collective action. And they mobilized action because they were simple and understandable: eight goals and 21 specific targets.

The current draft SDGs are not simple. They include 17 goals and 169 targets. While the new goals do need to fill some glaring gaps in the MDGs, which did not address hunger and nutrition, peace and security, or threats to the global environment, they do not need to be so complicated.

In May 2013, the U.N. High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, chaired by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and David Cameron, proposed that there should be 12 goals (a reasonable number) and 54 targets — already too many.

Since that time, an open working group including diplomats from 70 countries has worked on successive drafts of the SDGs. The voices of many governments — with balanced representation across regions of the world — as well as inputs from many organizations and the general public, are reflected in the SDGs. This is very healthy. All of the proposed goals are important, and all the targets reflect issues that the world needs to address. It is a remarkable achievement that so many countries have reached agreement on such an ambitious and comprehensive agenda to improve all our lives.

But the sheer number of goals and targets rob the draft SDGs of the simplicity that made the MDGs so powerful. The MDGs spoke to political leaders and to people around the world; the draft SDGs will speak only to experts and activists.

Without denying the achievement of the work to date, it is hard to conclude that the current draft goals comply with the collective declaration of all countries at the Rio+20 Summit.  The Rio+20 outcome document The Future We Want, which launched the OWG, “underscore[d] that sustainable development goals should be action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, [and] limited in number.”

Leaders will adopt the final set of SDGs at next year’s UNGA. Before then, they need to refocus the goals and reduce dramatically the number of targets. Ideally, the committees drafting the SDGs will concentrate on the most vital issues — poverty, growth, education, health, environmental sustainability — and on the targets that will generate the most impact from investments made.

Beyond the goals themselves, the post-2015 development agenda will require accountability mechanisms to guide decisions and actions towards achieving the goals. These mechanisms should influence domestic spending by governments in least-developed countries, and not just foreign aid flows. Government actions must align with public interests and needs.

There are ways to build accountability. Governments could enlist local communities to track progress: Ubiquitous mobile phones permit data to be gathered from vast numbers of people, and evidence shows that citizen monitoring of public spending and service delivery improves performance and reduces corruption. More radically, pay for government leaders and senior officials could be made dependent on their success in improving living standards for their citizens, as Singapore already does today.

The SDGs do get one aspect very right: They emphasize an important global shared responsibility. Whereas the MDGs only addressed developing countries, the SDGs apply to all, highlighting profound changes that need to take place — on the environment and inequality among other areas — in both “global north” and “global south.” As they are universally applicable, the SDGs move beyond a donor-recipient divide. To make good on this potential and ensure these new goals can be propel impact, we must prime the SDGs for success.

Let’s view these draft SDGs as a starting point. The full intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda will start early next year. Hopefully, everybody will return to the Rio+20 intention that the SDGs be “concise” and “limited in number,” and build accountability mechanisms to ensure that all countries take the goals seriously. Only then will the SDGs capture the world’s attention and mobilize effective action.

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About the author

  • Paul callan%2520%25281%2529

    Paul Callan

    Paul Callan is Dalberg’s regional director of the Middle East and North Africa region, based in Abu Dhabi. He also co-leads Dalberg Advisors' Strategy and Performance practice area. Paul has provided advice on strategy, organizational development, design of new initiatives, and change management to many United Nations agencies, the World Bank, regional development banks, nongovernmental organizations, donors, and governments.