The Sustainable Development Goals and Chronic Poverty – a commentary on the Open Working Group’s report

Written by Andrew Shepherd, Director of Chronic Poverty Advisory Network at ODI.

If the SDGs are to pave the way for eradicating extreme poverty they need to facilitate: tackling chronic poverty, preventing impoverishment and sustain escapes from poverty, as argued in this year’s Chronic Poverty Report.

The latest recommendations of the Secretary-General’s Open Working Group are a fairly comprehensive effort to do this, keeping many good and relevant issues on the table. However, they lack both economy and ambition, and, as in many national anti-poverty strategies, addressing the key sources of impoverishment is under-emphasised. This risks undermining progress. All of these could be helped by the adoption of the three objectives: tackle chronic and inter-generational poverty, prevent impoverishment, and sustain escapes from poverty, and organising action under these headings.

Economy: 17 goals and 169 targets is simply too many for people to remember easily. This is a departure from the more memorable MDGs. Squeezing goals together is one option, but this risks creating unfocused headlines.

Impoverishment: the most important sources of impoverishment – ill-health, conflict and environmental disasters (and their intersections) are not yet adequately tackled. This means that progress tackling chronic poverty or sustaining escapes from poverty could be too easily undermined.

Ambition, especially in the direction of equity: there are too many targets expressed as averages – this was an acknowledged problem of the MDGs, and risks leaving out of consideration the most deprived. This is especially true in health. The phrase ‘access for all’ is a lazy substitute for something more demanding – access for the poorest, the most deprived 5, 10 or 20% of the population.

And the poverty and equality goals could recognise the significant  intersections with other deprivations – people suffer multiple disadvantages (‘intersecting inequalities’) need to be included in progress, which will often require special measures. It is these intersections which often lie behind chronic and inter-generational transmission of poverty. This is important because the kinds of measures required are not provided for as yet in the formulation of goals and targets. As documented in a forthcoming ODI report, these include: political settlements which are expressed in constitutions and affirmative action, supported by social and political mobilisation, and the capacity to implement challenging public actions against discrimination.

They also lack ambition in the direction of sustaining escapes from extreme poverty and deprivation. The world should not be satisfied with achieving and income of $1.26 unless it feels sure that those who cross that threshold are on an upward trajectory, and the risk of slipping back is not too great. So we need to know that previously poor people are progressing towards an upper poverty threshold and beyond. The same with other thresholds (years of education, access to basic services etc). And we need to know that their resilience is increasing. It is often the case that there are no discernible resilience thresholds. The ambition needs to be to put some in place, to prevent slipping back.

It is great to see an equality goal in the list. However, it does not quite work yet for the poorest people. We want to know that the incomes of the bottom 5, 10 and 20% are growing faster than the average as well as the bottom 40% (the World Bank’s own rather easier target, which has been inserted). We would suggest a more demanding formulation of any inequality target. The equality goals and targets (there is also a gender equality goal) need to be complemented in the next stage of thinking by cross-goal disaggregated indicators showing progress by group as well as quintile or decile. And then the Secretary-General will need to arrange a regular mechanism for reviewing progress on such challenging issues together with the General Assembly.

Some of the goals don’t really yet refer strongly to poverty or equity. Only one of the environmental targets does. To produce a truly integrated set of targets there is still more work to do here. Specifically there is nothing on the poverty of fisher folk the world over, despite a focus on the oceans and bio-diversity – this would be a nice point of intersection between the poverty and environmental agendas.

So, the OWG’s work will please many as few areas are left out, but the international community has a way to go in terms of developing coherence, memorability and ambition to include the poorest people.

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