The promises made in and about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are grandiloquent: no less than abolishing global poverty, hunger, and disease by 2030, while remaking international donor assistance and investment to pay for it all. Not surprisingly, reality checking began even before the goals were adopted, and statistically definable demographic projections of social, economic, and political trends suggested a different future.
When the UN’s member states gave final approval at a special General Assembly session on 25 September to the new global development policy, they were making a commitment to the most wide-ranging and ambitious plan ever attempted by the organization. Now the hard part begins as experts struggle to decide how to measure the success or failure over the coming 15 years of a staggeringly large number of goals and targets.
The opening declaration of the Sustainable Development Agenda is lofty in the extreme: In these Goals and targets, we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want, where all life can thrive.
The difference in scale between the MDGs and the SDGs is enormous. The MDGs had only 8 goals, 19 targets, and 44 indicators to measure those targets. The SDGs have 17 goals and 169 targets, which would suggest that measurement indicators could number in the paralyzing hundreds. The SDGs are universal, applying to all countries from the least to the most highly developed.
The UN’s search for the holy grail of a successful development policy is as old as the organization itself. Huge hopes now rest on the SDGS. “This is an Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance,” the declaration says. “It is accepted by all countries and is applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. These are universal goals...integrated and indivisible.”
Universal? Hardly. The new goals are the synthesized products of compromises. For many in the global South as well as the North, they fall short of political vision, tolerance of other opinions, and perceptions of current global realities. For poor countries, the agenda for financing development that emerged from an international conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 appears inadequate, and the intransigence of wealthy nations is blamed. Moreover, the goals do not rise to the human rights standards of the United Nations, where agencies have been uncompromising in declaring that all programs must be constructed with the rights and dignity of every individual foremost, without sinking to the lowest common denominator of what all governments, some of them violators in the extreme, can accept.
“First, whatever progress has been made in, for example, alleviating poverty since the adoption of the MDGs, the state of human rights worldwide has not improved in the past 15 years,” former deputy high commissioner for human rights Bertrand G. Ramcharan wrote in this series, pointing to the “profound disconnect” between the introductory declaration and the goals themselves, where human rights are not mentioned.
An important contrast between the MDGs and SDGs is evident in the divergent stories of their creations. The MDGs were a top-down plan delivered whole by the UN, a brainchild of Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his team. The SDGs had a fundamentally different provenance. From the beginning, the SDGs were planned to be written from the bottom up, based on the proposals and priorities of national governments, a very wide range of civil society organizations, and the General Assembly’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. Over two years of discussion and sometimes heated debate the SDGs strengthened national ownership and interpretation, but this has led to some ominous potential shortcomings. The SDG Declaration in essence warns of the big potholes ahead when it says: Targets are defined as aspirational and global, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances.
In other words, governments have the right to pick and choose from the menu according to their cultural, economic, and political environments and persuasions.
Off the table is any mention, even obliquely, of the profound changes going on globally in definitions of a family or the protection of rights and freedom from persecution of people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other gender-identity movements who are waging legal battles for same-sex marriage, or just the right to stay out of jail. These are no longer issues confined to highly developed countries.
There are other deviations from UN policy. No direct mention is made of women’s rights in controlling or ending pregnancies, although abortion has been accepted as a sometimes necessary procedure where safe and legal (though never as a means of birth control) by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Abortion and emergency contraception have been endorsed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in cases of women and girls raped in conflict.
Ensuring universal access to family planning is not linked directly in the SDGs to reducing poverty, ending hunger, or eliminating malnutrition. Yet there are endlessly repeated declarations from within the UN system that women are key to development and the hope of ending poverty. Africa, the world’s poorest region, with the world’s highest fertility rates, stands out as a stark example of predictable tragedy as its population, now at 1.1 billion, rises toward estimated 1.7 billion in the 2030s, and 2.5 billion in the 2050s.
Skittishness among governments about appearing to endorse “population control” continues to be strong, though that coercive policy was formally abandoned once and for all at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 countries endorsed a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices. The policy decision was reaffirmed at the Fourth World Conference on Women a year later in Beijing. Using population control as a scare tactic almost always camouflages a refusal to grant and uphold the rights of women and girls.
There are advances on women’s issues in the SDGs. Among the targets covering women are “equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.” Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, though not spelled out, is a target and, more important, it is linked to implementation “in accordance with the Program of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences.”
More broadly, the SDGs make little or no effort to present a trenchant global analysis of the enormous cross-border problems that will continue and perhaps worsen in the coming decade-and-a-half. There are no pointers on dealing with weakening cyber security, which has been shown to affect economic and political relations between and among governments. On an individual level, millions of people using the Internet have suffered destructive personal online attacks or fallen to propaganda that recruits young people for terrorism.
The SDG Declaration heralds the goals as “integrated and indivisible,” but they lack unifying themes and priorities. Refugee resettlement and asylum criteria are in shambles, and there are no creative suggestions on how to integrate by international consensus the talents and professional skills of people who will never be able to return home but who could contribute greatly to places where they are finding new lives. Yet countries that bemoan falling birthrates and aging populations are now often among the places trying hardest to keep newcomers out. Corruption and good governance have also proved too touchy for the goals, except by inference or in the vaguest of terms.
Now the world moves on to the critical task of creating the indicators to measure the goals and monitor progress or the lack thereof. While many organizations and NGOs will have a voice in the process, huge responsibility rests with the statisticians in national capitals and at the UN Statistical Commission, whose membership is drawn from national offices. The quality of data comes into play.
The SDGs reliance on national statistical offices is a major shift away from the MDG system, where monitoring of the goals and data analysis in developing countries was done mostly by experienced UNDP representatives or consultants to other UN organizations. Turning over monitoring to governments—which many would argue are the source of many problems—diminishes the independent role of the United Nations and the likelihood of any significant naming and blaming.
How the goals will be financed remains a large question still to be decided concretely. The SDG Declaration assumes a close link between the goals and the outcome of the July 2015 Addis Ababa conference on financing for development. The declaration says: “We recognize that the full implementation of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda is critical for the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets.”
SDG 17—“Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”—seems to accept a cooperative framework, though this concept is interpreted in differing ways in poor, rich, and middle-income countries. It carries no fewer than 19 targets.
Barry Herman of the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at the New School University said that from the beginning it was clear that the wealthier countries saw financing as a cooperative effort, but on their terms.
Many developing countries wanted promises of expanding aid and an international body for tax collection and sharing to help pay for implementation. Neither was ever seriously considered by richer nations and the OECD, which stressed that the major burden of raising tax revenues should rest with national governments. The large emerging economies that have refused to join an OECD consensus, calling it “imperial,” were expected to play a South-South development role. That has now been cast into doubt as China works its way through a rocky economic period, Russia faces a tightening economy, Brazil is embroiled in official corruption charges, and India has seen its plans for increased industrialization and job creation stalled in parliament.
In short, the SDGs have for the most part ratcheted up and expanded the MDGs. What formulators of the new goals have not done — because it would be too much for many governments to accept — is look ahead to coming years of continued political and demographic flux, and go boldly into that future with new ideas and prescriptions.
Barbara Crossette, a former New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations, is a contributing writer and editor at PassBlue.com and a fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Photo on homepage: Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks with Angela Merkel and Bono at a special lunch meeting on the role of the private sector in implementing the SDGs, New York, 26 September 2015. UN Photo/Kim Haughton