Last month, the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) were launched at the UN in New York. This is the outcome of two years of consultations, lobbying, and debate about what the “post-2015” agenda should look like. This agenda is likely to have far-reaching implications both for development finance and for the promotion of social and economic rights. However, why adopt goals at all? Any systematic effort to answer this seemingly elementary conceptual question has been disturbingly absent. What’s more, not only has this basic question not been answered, what is most striking is that it has hardly been asked.
While the debate on what to include in the SDG has been raging, New School Professor Sanjay Reddy and I have been asking ourselves what reasons for adopting goals could be, what function they might serve, if any, and under what conditions they could do so successfully (see our full paper here). We imagine at least three good reasons to adopt goals. First, goals can have an epistemic role: they provide a framework for organizing information by fixing a reference point in relation to which achievements and shortfalls can be defined and compared. Second, goals can play a motivational role: a goal viewed as desirable may spur individual and collective efforts either because of the psychology of intrinsic motivation or because they become the object of external incentives. Third, goals can provide a focal point around which actors coordinate their actions, which in the case of interdependencies between different actors (for instance, aid donors) may lead to better outcomes than otherwise.
Instead of considering various roles for goals carefully, the public has been treated to a refrain from the global development bureaucracy that the outgoing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a huge success, and that we therefore must proceed with a new round. However, there is little justification for this claim. Whether the MDGs helped to advance development should ultimately be assessed in light of what would have happened without them. UN statistician Howard Friedman finds no statistically significant accelerations of global progress in the MDG indicators after the goals were introduced in 2000, except for on debt relief. Even here, the effect may be due to the fact large part of debt relief agreed in initiatives decided before 2000 were delivered during the implementation of the MDGs. The MDGs included them but one can hardly argue had anything to do with the political momentum that led to their adoption. Although poverty has fallen since 2000 according to the most widely used estimates, the global rate of poverty reduction has not increased (Fukuda-Parr and others find similar results).
An entirely different but crucial question concerns causality and attribution. Even if the rate of poverty reduction has accelerated in certain countries or regions, this does not mean that this is because of the MDGs. Low-income countries also experienced unprecedented growth since 2000 (and in particular between 2000 and 2009). The commodities and inward investment boom after 2000 resulting in part from robust Chinese development are likely to have played a much larger role in global income poverty reduction than did the MDGs.
Furthermore, the benefits that the global development goals may create by playing epistemic, motivational and coordination roles have to be compared with their cost. For instance, people and institutions focusing relentlessly on goal monitoring and related tasks may lead to crowding out more open-ended or process-centered understandings of what development is about and how it is to be achieved. Aside from questions of justification, there are also questions of specification. In any goal-setting exercise, there must be consistency between end-goals and intermediate goals as well as between means and ends. Some means contribute to multiple goals leading to complex empirical interdependencies that must be taken into account in order to increase the likelihood of achieving the goals and to avoid unnecessary tradeoffs.
In practice, a paradox of specification must be faced: On the one hand, highly abstract but agreeable goals such as to ‘improve one’s health’ may lack sufficient directive implication. In contrast, highly specific goals such as to ‘eat spinach at least twice a week’ may be too directive, offering insufficient room for variation across situations, and paying too little heed to the way in which the attainment of general aims results progressively and in difficult-to-anticipate ways from a sequence of specific steps that build on one another.
Notably, the goals in the SDG framework illustrate a marked move away from the basic needs approach of the MDGs, towards a stronger focus on broader and more structural issues (for example, whereas the MDG focused on quantitative aspects of education such as enrollment rates, the SDGs also address the quality of the education). Through goals 8, 9 and 17 of the SDGs, economic growth, infrastructure investment, job creation and global partnerships for development are addressed. This perspective makes the SDGs more transformative and potentially less depoliticizing than the MDGs. The SDGs reflect greater breadth than the MDGs as the framework encompasses issues of peace, stability, human rights and good governance. The SDGs offer a view of what is desirable to achieve in each dimension on a global scale and they are universal in intended application.
At the same time, the SDGs do not depart from the discourse of accountability through enumeration established in the MDGs, but rather intensify it. The number of targets has increased from 21 to 169 and the indicators are likely to proliferate accordingly. Note that even rich countries would struggle to keep up with data collection and monitoring for so many global indicators, in addition to national indicators (see for instance Jerven on the cost of data collection).
Furthermore, the obsession with counting may distract from important concerns that are less susceptible to measurement, although they may be monitored. For example, focusing on eliminating specific diseases without strengthening health systems can result in failure to achieve even the desired health goals (the Ebola crisis provides a case in point of the toll of such neglect).
What is more, the SDG framework fails to pay attention to the dynamics of development and the constraints faced by many developing economies. It also fails to give attention to the question of how wealth and power is produced and reproduced in the global economic system or within national economies. In effect, the view of poverty within the SDG framework appears to be one that abstracts from economic processes and systemic features that determine national growth prospects or individual circumstances.
There is a degree of recognition in the goals that structures matter insofar as there is a call to reduce inequality, strengthen labor rights, and eliminate agricultural subsidies in the North, but these are mere hints of a larger vista. The specific targets suggest an eviscerated causal analysis that shies away from challenging, or even identifying, the wider range of economic structures that may systematically reproduce wealth and deepen inequality. Instead, both the SDG framework and the Outcome Document of the Third Financing for Development (FfD3) Conference attribute a significant role for the private sector in development, without providing any mechanisms by which corporations can be held accountable (see also Adams and Martens 2015).
For example, although the issue of structural inequality might be thought to be addressed through Goal 10 (“Reduce inequality within and among countries”), none of the 7 targets listed under it refer in any substantial manner to the need to change class relations or economic processes that may perpetuate or even generate deprivation inequality. The targets are defined in terms of generalities (“To empower and promote inclusion”) or in terms of very minor adjustments to the existing order (“to reduce the transaction costs of migrant remittances”). The targets appear to involve little by way of rebalancing institutional arrangements that have produced historically unprecedented levels of inequality, in particular of income and wealth, in the era of financialized globalization.
Similarly, although it is laudable that there is a goal to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (Goal 12), the targets do not offer any way to actually ensure this. Instead, companies are “encouraged” to adopt sustainable practices (Target 12.6) and governments are asked to remove “market distortions” that encourage wasteful consumption, such as inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
By and large, the identified targets do not correspond in any realistic sense with the seventeen transformative and ambitious goals. The means and targets are not aligned with the end-goals, so even if strong motivation, coordination and effort were exercised in order to achieve the identified targets and implement the means, this would not necessarily lead to the achievement of the goals. This misalignment casts doubt not only over the SDG framework’s potential to be truly transformative but also over its seriousness.
However, if the goals are taken not as so many potatoes in a sack of potatoes (to echo Karl Marx in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte) but as providing a holistic vision of a better world, they could play an important epistemic role by expanding our understanding of development as concerned not only with poverty alleviation (as important as it is) but to development as a range of interlinked concerns gaining its ultimate purpose from a supervening normative vision and carrying a perspective of necessary structural transformations in the international system as well as in countries. This may, however, be rather optimistic, as the epistemic role they can play will depend on how they are communicated (worryingly, the Global Goals campaign has watered down the concept of sustainable development outlined in the SDG framework, as pointed out by Barbara Adams). What motivational and coordinating role the SDGs will play is difficult to say and will depend almost entirely on how they are approached in practice.
In short, there are serious inadequacies in the contemporary approach to development goals, particularly related to how the targets, goals, and constraints are identified and formulated, and how they relate to each other. In order for the goals to play a constructive role in global development, we therefore recommend that the higher-level goals are preserved and that quantitative targets de-emphasized or in some cases done away with altogether. Specific targets such as the reduction or elimination of particular causes of death or of poverty may retain their attractiveness but others will not. Global goals should be advanced through national plans that might not involve quantitative targets but that would specify strategies. Furthermore, focusing on the set of 17 goals, rather than the 169 targets, would open up much needed space for flexibility, innovation, and fuller democratic accountability, as learning what works and what does not in development requires experimentation, and the conscious sharing of experiences.
Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven is an Economics PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research in New York.