Sounding off on Bill Easterly’s take on the SDGs

    A child with his mother and a hospital nurse. Devex readers weigh in on Bill Easterly’s criticisms on the SDGs. Photo by: Dominic Sansoni / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND 

    If you are familiar with Bill Easterly and his philosophy, you’d know that he’s a huge critic of large-scale development assistance. And so when Devex reporters Michael Igoe and Claire Luke sought his view of the sustainable development goals, discussions on which are in full swing, his opinions offered little surprise.

    The SDGs, according to Easterly, “illustrate powerfully the limits of the development community's fetish with action plans.” The New York University professor also questioned the use of “sustainable” in the term because you could easily replace “sustainable development goals’ with ‘some good development goals’. That said, he felt the SDGs could lead to “advocacy and motivation” to a global conversation around poverty but urged that any “big public policy debate on development” should go beyond “politically neutral” positions.

    His comments prompted a lively discussion among Devex readers.

    Paul Cadario, a former senior manager at the World Bank, said Easterly is “very kind” for calling the SDGs an action plan.

    “Without country-level action plans, the goals can't be met. And I mean details, not vague statements of support,” Cadario wrote, pointing to the Brookings argument from senior fellow Homi Kharas.

    Thomas O'Connell, a senior health adviser at UNICEF and has written about the universal health care for the Lancet, said he found it interesting that Easterly “does seemingly appreciate that while UHC must have some core norms and standards to ensure it can motivate change, each country will have to come up with its own interpretation of what UHC means for its unique context.”

    He added: “For UHC to be more than a slogan, it will have to balance adherence to a core set of globally defined benchmarks, with being defined in a manner relevant and appropriate for each country's context. We suggest sustained involvement of communities, [civil society organizations] and other partners will be needed, and not just the typical donor-recipient one-way communications around performance and results.”

    Although agreeing with Easterly's comment about making giving a more the “sustainable” more meaningful to those at the community level, David Ateti Teaabo, who mentioned his involvement in the post-2015 development agenda setting both at the national and regional levels in the Pacific, said he also supports U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s assertion on having a framework to work for all people at all levels.

    Felipe P. Manteiga, meanwhile, argued that Easterly’s “brilliant mind … benefit all of us, if it were to engage, just once, in a grass-root project dealing with illiterate populations, women treated almost as slaves, no access to knowledge or financial instruments, and at the mercy of corrupt petty bureaucrats and barrio politicos.” Although he noted that the economist is “theoretical.” That way, “you would appreciate the dialogue engaged by global leaders and their priorities in setting clear goals. Not because top down works any better than bottom up (no intrinsic merit on either one), or because sustainable, viable, or capable are words with their own magic ... But because they bring up subjects that then can be discussed by those with the power to be heard, with those who destroy the institutions required to pull the dirt poor up and out of their horrible, hopeless poverty traps.”

    How can we ensure the SDGs are meaningful? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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    The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

    About the author

    • Ma. Eliza Villarino

      Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.