The SDG glass: Is it half full or half empty?

Children at the North Okkalapa township in Yangon, Myanmar, sample water that has been made potable using purification packets. Hygiene and sanitation is one of the targets in the sustainable development goals framework. Photo by: Kelly Ramundo / USAID / CC BY-NC

The sustainable development goals that will guide the next 15 years of global development continue to inch toward finalization, following a multitude of advocacy campaigns, working group deliberations and widespread debate.

Yet prominent international development leaders are still raising serious concerns over goal variability, potential omissions and a disconnect between goal proposals and conditions on the ground. A barrage of such critiques isn’t surprising, considering the fast approaching U.N. summit to adopt the post-2015 development agenda in September.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders are speaking up to praise the SDGs' ambition. As critiques and applause volley back and forth, it's hard to determine whether the glass is half empty, half full or will continue to slosh between the two until September.

An arsenal of criticism

Questions surrounding the effectiveness of the SDGs have been swirling around development circles since the proposed 17 goals and 169 targets were presented by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon late last year. And much of the conversation has been critical.

Tony Pipa, U.S. special coordinator for the post-2015 development agenda, expressed concern over the “variability” of the goals, telling Devex that his team wants the United Nations to put in place a “standard level of achievability” for the SDGs. And Bill Easterly, prominent New York University economist, suggested that the SDG’s focus on “sustainability” lacks significant meaning.

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

Development organizations have also voiced their concerns about the goals and targets.

Following the release of the so-called zero draft of the sustainable development framework last week, Bond — the U.K. membership body for International NGOs — noted that despite emphasizing the need to address climate change, the draft fails to specify the need for renewable forms of energy, an omission that Bond called “disappointing” in an analysis sent to Devex.

The membership body also warned that if only 100 global indicators are adopted to measure 169 targets, as many U.N. member states are advocating, effective monitoring won’t be established. And finally, Bond lamented the lack of mechanisms designed to hold governments accountable to implementation of the goals and targets — what it called “the absence of commitment to accountability.”

Some aid groups worry that their own agenda is getting lost in a sea of targets and indicators.

Margaret Batty, director of global policy and campaigns at the international nonprofit WaterAid noted that while hygiene and sanitation feature as a broad target in the SDG framework, there are no indicators to meet specific and basic thresholds, such as ensuring that soap and water are accessible in homes and hospitals.

“Without these indicators, the sustainable development goals will not succeed in the goal of leaving no one behind,” Batty said.

President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband added another critique to the mix.

Miliband said he has “serious concern” about whether the SDGs will help civilians living in conflict zones — a group that makes up 43 percent of the world’s poor according to the politician turned humanitarian.

Miliband was speaking at an event at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., last week.

Among the SDGs — apart from goal 16 which focuses on supporting “peaceful and inclusive societies,” “access to justice” and “accountable and inclusive institutions” — civilians in conflict aren’t among the targets, Miliband explained.

“My fear — and this is born of experience in government — is that if you don’t have a specific target about priority groups, then the bureaucracy doesn’t follow,” Miliband said.

“So if 315,000 Syrian children in Lebanon today are not getting an education, are they going to get closer because of the way that the education goal is framed under the SDGs? My fear is not,” the IRC president added.

Miliband went on to criticise goal 16, which focuses on promoting peaceful societies and inclusive institutions, for being “aspirational” and “incredibly removed from the reality” of civilians in countries “consumed by conflict.”

A ‘glass half full’ approach to the SDGs

Despite the flurry of criticism surrounding the SDGs, others have taken a more optimistic view of the goals as they’re currently presented.

The inclusion of goal 16 at all in the SDG framework is “groundbreaking” for champions of justice, security and accountability, Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace noted in response to Miliband’s remarks.

“We need this goal. We need goal 16 as imperfect as it is, in order to advance on the overall agenda,” Lindborg said. “And it’s the opportunity to try to operationalize it in a useful and effective way that we all need to grasp.”

Elizabeth Cousens, deputy chief executive officer of the U.N. Foundation, is already looking ahead.

“For me, it’s a starting point… so the big question is what you do next,” Cousens said. “How do you think about implementation? … The World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations, big donors — how do they think about in practical terms what they want to do with their own tools?”

Indeed, the SDGs, regardless of how they are framed in September, won’t be achieved without the commitment of development actors both traditional and nontraditional. And it will be necessary for these actors as well as country governments to implement their own action plans with their own targets and methods of accountability.

By providing a “starting point” as Cousens suggests, the SDGs will at least serve as a guide book for action.

In addition to its critiques, the U.K. NGO membership body Bond credits the current SDG framework for being “universal and ambitious in scope” and for moving beyond development priorities traditionally set by large governing institutions.

While such an ambitious SDG framework will leave skeptics such as Miliband to call it “aspirational,” Cousens, Lindborg and others who’ve voiced optimism for the post-2015 goals feel that at least the development community — well-versed on the ground and in the board room — has the chance to fill the gaps with their own reality checks and practical plans for implementation.

What do you think about the current SDG framework? Do you take a ‘glass half full’ or a ‘glass half empty’ approach to the post-2015 development agenda? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.