Sustainable Development is complicated – Are there really too many SDGs?

Written by Dominic White Head of International Development at WWF- UK and Bernadette Fischler, International Development Policy Adviser at WWF-UK.

Nobody would deny that it was a Herculean effort that brought us the outcome document of the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs. But demi-gods don’t tend to rest, at least not when the plans to deliver such transformative social change are as ambitious as described in Rio+20. While we are left to tread water until the process and its modalities are confirmed later this year, the debate about status of and further amendments to the current set of 17 goals and very many targets is running hot.

Apparently India, China, Brazil but also Colombia, Indonesia, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Bangladesh and many other G77 countries don’t want to re-open the discussion on the SDGs and rather move on to Means of Implementation, accountability mechanisms and other discussions. France, Germany, Switzerland and (depending whose intel to believe) also Italy and Ireland are of that opinion too. The EU is split on this since the UK and Sweden joined by the US, Canada and maybe also Norway have a clear preference for fewer goals and targets – for various reasons.  It is time to take stock of the arguments we have heard and share our reflections on it. This is a call for opening up this critical discussion.

Generally there are three stances we observe among governments and stakeholders:

1. “It’s the best we can get” – leave it as is

Two arguments to not re-open the outcome document are:

If you touch it, you break it

The OWG outcome represents a delicate balance of countries’ priorities and was agreed with a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ at the end. Many fear that any further changes will lead to issues being dropped and there is little hope that any improvement can be achieved. To get to a final agreement in September 2015, countries would have to move from a low common denominator to a lower common denominator and leave out the most controversial issues (governance, climate change) and those with the least vocal supporting constituencies (ecosystems, SCP).

Given how difficult it was for the OWG to come to an agreement, it is very possible that the UNGA would not come to an agreement at all, if they were to re-open the discussions. That would be a catastrophic outcome for post-2015 development with a knock-on effect on other multi-lateral processes, not least the UNFCCC COP21 in Paris a few weeks later. Not a great way to celebrate the UN’s 70th birthday.

Sustainable Development is complex and requires a breadth of issues to be addressed

That is an even more compelling reason to keep this wide range of SDGs as they are, accepting any shortcomings but acknowledging this variety exists and paves the way towards sustainable development.  Sustainable development is indeed complex and whilst poverty eradication is core to this ambition so too is addressing the underlying causes of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation that will allow for improved wellbeing into the long term.

2. “As long as my issue is in there” – do with the rest as you please

That is quite a lame stance to take. In some cases it reflects a lack of understanding of the inter-connected nature of systems and what the mutually reinforcing benefits are that arise from more systemic approaches.  There is growing pressure to reduce the number of goals.  Whatever the motivation to do so, the current breadth of issues will be disturbed. We have to consider carefully what that means for the overall purpose and vision of the SDGs.  After all, this is supposed to be a holistic approach to poverty eradication, a comprehensive agenda for sustainable development, isn’t it?

3. “There’s far too many” – let’s consider reducing

Here we find a whole range of arguments (David Cameron wants 10-12 goals to make it simple, for example) with a layer of ulterior motives that can be gleaned through the lines:

a) Countries will pick and choose what they want to implement

Yes, of course they will. But they will pick and choose from 10 or 12 or 17 goals, that doesn’t make a difference. In 2001, no country implemented all eight MDGs at the same time and logic dictates if there is more than one option, there is a choice. Granted, the chance that a goal is picked is lower the more goals there are to choose from but there will be zero chance if that goal isn’t there in the first place.

The question should be how countries decide what to pick: maybe they start with what will take the longest to implement? Those that are most transformative? Most urgent? Most relevant for their country’s context? All sorts of criteria could be considered.

b) 17 goals are difficult to communicate

No they are not! Everything can be communicated, that is not really an argument. Get the substance right first then let Comms and PR experts decide how to communicate it. Furthermore…

  • People cannot remember more than 3 things so 8, 10, 12, 15 or 17 are all too many anyway
  • If we talk about attractive to communicate: 15 is an attractive number (2015, 15 years running, etc.)
  • There are ways to communicate many goals: group or cluster them. There is precedence: the Aichi targets are 20 targets in five clusters (admittedly not the most compelling cluster titles but that can be dealt with). Just make sure you have some flashy headlines – job done.
  • How to group the goals? Around interlinkages, around systems (e.g. enabling or serving systems), around goods and services or around access? Let’s think about it a bit, we’re sure there are good suggestions out there. Just don’t group around the 3 dimensions of SD as that would create the very silos we are trying to get away from.

c) 17 goals are difficult to implement and there is only so much money

Yes, that is a good argument and would sort of defeat the point of this whole SDG exercise. However….

  • Everybody needs to start somewhere so the number of goals might not be so significant to get implementation going after all.
  • Surely implementation will stand and fall with the Means of Implementation (the clue is in the name!). They include finance but also capacity-building, technology transfer and participation. Maybe we would be better to focus on getting those right to support implementation than on fussing over the number of goals.
  • How about the following suggestion to ensure implementation: Each country needs to start on 1-3 goals from a goal cluster (to ensure balance) and they have to pick those which will be taking the longest to implement, or which might be the hardest to achieve. That would counter a dynamic seen in many other goal and target setting exercises: not much happens at the beginning, then stakeholders pick the low hanging fruit and then, towards the end, there is a rush to try to address the most difficult issues and have to declare failure because it was too much and too late (see MDGs!).

d) 17 goals are difficult to account for

The currently suggested goals and targets are not really easy to use for accountability purposes.  That’s true, and that’s why we need a strong and functioning accountability mechanism in place. No matter how many goals, if the accountability mechanism isn’t good enough, if it does not include a peer-review mechanism and a way for civil society to hold their politicians feet to the fire as well as other implementation values set out in the Beyond2015’s VPVC, it will not be working. Most importantly we need crunchy indicators.

e) We need fewer but better integrated goals that can deliver transformational change.

That is a good point. The SDGs need to stand for the bigger picture and not fall into the “MDG7” trap where everyone ignored the environment MDG.  At the moment goals 14 and 15 are weak because they do not communicate the social/economic benefit sufficiently (even though we know these are significant and implicit). Consequently, they are not good goals. It is true that climate change, SCP and other goals need to be (better) mainstreamed. But what is the likelihood of achieving mainstreaming at this stage? Maybe our choice at the moment is reduced to: covering a topic in a weak goal or not covering it at all?

f) Agencies will cut down this list to MDG+ goals anyway

Probably a very UK-centric worry, but development institutions with a long-standing tradition might think along those lines: “we’ll do the first 8 goals, it’s what we’re good at already”.  This means all new issues, particularly environmental issues, would lose out anyway, unless you view the goals on food, water and energy as sufficient to cover the environment.  We have to do what is needed, not what we are already good at.

g) Remove duplication and merge where there are synergies

Some reductions might be achieved by cutting duplication, looking for more synergies, removing the excess. Just be careful with your secateurs in this pruning exercise!

So where does that leave us?

Some of the arguments for cutting down the numbers are only justification for a business-as-usual development MDG+ agenda.  Transformational shifts are difficult to bring about.  We should jointly mitigate against losing what makes this agenda transformational using different tools, e.g. MOIs, accountability framework and creative communications.  Similar to the good the bad and the ugly there seems to be three ways this can go:

The ideal – we end up with a number of goals that can be implemented by all countries straight away and will definitely deliver the right kind of action: All goals are well integrated, there is a good balance of goal headlines, each goal lives up to the standards of environmental sustainability, for example set out in the Beyond 2015 UK paper on environmental sustainability and post-2015. Likely problem with this is feasibility – given the lack of appetite to better integrate the goals and the justifiable worry that things will only get worse, not better.

The acceptable – Agree on a slightly smaller number of goals, group them under ‘sexy’ headlines that are easy to remember and to communicate. Goals that make the entire agenda attractive for finance, ramp up the Means of Implementations to instil confidence in all countries that this is feasible, set up some rules how to implement and finally improve measurability of woolly targets to make them more suitable for accountability.

The failure – cut down numbers by taking out goals that are more disputed under the false pretext that they have less strong backing and that their targets are less measurable. We would end up with a warmed up MDG agenda or an MDG+ agenda at best if it includes energy and water as additional goals. It would not be transformational neither for societies nor for systems such as trade, aid or governance. It would also not put the world on a sustainable trajectory, would not end poverty in the medium or longer term, would not be universal. It would once again list ‘to-do’s’ for the developing world and ‘to-pay-for’s’ for the developed world and thereby thoroughly undermining the intention to overcome a dichotomist world view of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

There is a huge danger to aim for the ideal scenario and end up with failure. Maybe it would be better to aim for the acceptable? Otherwise the risk is that the S in SDGs does not stand for ‘Sustainable’ but for ‘Sorry-we-didn’t-get-our-act-together’.


4 Comments on "Sustainable Development is complicated – Are there really too many SDGs?"

  1. Ken Bluestone | October 1, 2014 at 9:19 pm | Reply

    Dear Dominic and Bernadette,

    Thank you very much for putting these very necessary thoughts out there. We really need to fully examine this push for a lesser number of goals. The current SDG-17 aren’t perfect and, in my view, could still benefit from a bit of polishing, but they are a far cry from the MDG-8. The current 8 did catalyze action (eventually – they weren’t too popular to begin with), but they also distorted development priorities and institutionalised marginalisation and discrimination. We fought hard (and won) to have an open debate on what the development priorities for the next framework should be. We cannot be satisfied with a result that is anything less ambitious than what this participatory process has been clamouring for. I can’t say what the perfect number of goals should be, but our reasons for choosing them need to be more compelling than the logic of an advertising campaign.

    – Ken

  2. Useful blog. Turn it into some advocacy points for campaigners.

    The “It’s hard to communicate” one in particular drives me crazy, because since everyone is calling for a people-centred, transformative agenda, the logic is wrong. It is not about what you can communicate to people, when this is essentially what people are asking for.

    And on “17 is too many,” isn’t it about maintaining the transformative substance, rather than worrying about the number. Did they say of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 30 articles? Forget it. Let’s go with ten. So ditch freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association…

  3. I really like that you have debunked the 2 arguments put forward by the UK Gov that 17 goals is too hard to communicate and that there will be picking and choosing. It’s also helpful you acknowledge the political reality that governments will have to prioritise no matter how many goals and even better you make concrete suggestions about how this prioritisation could be done – so as avoid a focus on non-ambitious low hanging fruit or a silo approach. I think we should develop these ideas further so we can begin to offer states some good solutions on how to deal with 17 goals in a manageable way while remaining true to the SDG vision and ambition, when we engage with them over the coming months.

    You end by supporting a pragmatic approach (which is sensible – the great can be the enemy of the good) – this includes a potential tweaking of goals and a potential reduction to 15. While I agree with this it’s difficult to see how you can open up part and not all of the OWG document. You make a really good point about the need to move onto Means of Implementation conversations and indicators- and I think this is a strong argument for not spending more time reopening the OWG doc. But my understanding is that no one wants the states to agree indicators through an intergovernmental process – this should be left to the UN agencies.

    So the confusion here as always it seems is about which forums have the mandate and skills to take forward the different dimensions that are still left to complete? Should the intergovernmental process be debating targets for finance, capacity-building, technology transfer and participation? Many states are unhappy with the way this was handled late in the OWG process – so I believe there is energy for this.

    Thanks for starting a very useful dialogue

  4. just caught up with this blog…..One of the best ones i have read so far on the state of play great work warmest regards felix

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