17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets? Here’s a suggestion for the Secretary-General

Written by Andrew Norton, Director of Research at ODI and Elizabeth Stuart, Research Fellow for the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at ODI.

One of the great successes of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was that they were brief. They fit on the back of a business card – one that could be slipped as readily into a pocket of a US aid official as that of an Indian farmer.

As well as being  an organising framework for donors and developing country governments, they were a new consensus for development that was easily communicated. And therein lay a large part of their effectiveness: they provided a focus for advocacy.

If we stick with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) currently agreed, this is clearly not going to be the case after 2015. Even if you can remember all 17, there are still too many for civil society groups and other stakeholders to rally around all of them.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. They are goals written for a different age. Although we still haven’t clarified precisely the purpose of the SDGs, as some have pointed out, it’s clear that they cannot just be conceptualised as MDGs with extra ambition and a new timeline.

The successor goals are something quite different. They bring together two frontiers – development and the environment/climate – and they tackle global public goods problems as well as national obstacles. They also apply universally – to all countries rich and poor, which has major implications. So it’s obvious that they are going to be much more complex to describe, implement, and monitor.

In short, they’re going to have to function quite differently from the MDGs.

The theory of change around the MDGs was clear: a set of outcome goals would focus stakeholder action on achieving the specified targets.  For northern advocates of development (famously UK International Development Minister Clare Short) a big part of this was enabling the case for aid to be made in a compelling way to developed-country publics. But just as we haven’t nailed precisely what the SDGs are for, nor do we yet have a fully articulated theory of change for them.

However, a forthcoming paper from May Miller-Dawkins poses some good starting ideas. She argues that we shouldn’t let concerns about practicality and achievability blunt the ambition of SDGs. The high ambition and non-binding nature of the SDGs could increase rather than diminish their overall long-term impact, she says, pointing out that in human rights and other agreements, high ambition has allowed domestic groups to use international norms and frameworks for leverage to generate change.

A key critique of the MDGs was that they were agreed in smoke-filled rooms. Actually the reality is more complex, and they were based on the conclusions of a series of international meetings. But still the point remains that developing countries were not brought in at the start of the millennium and, in places, 2000-2005 was wasted because countries were not on board.

Obviously, the process of generating the SDGs has been far more inclusive. They were agreed by an extensive global consultation and negotiation, meaning that ownership and buy-in should be far less problematic this time around. Yes, it also means they are rather unwieldy. Butif there were a process to reopen and reduce the 17, key wins which were only included as part of a grand bargain – issue areas such as governance – would be likely to be the first to be discarded.

But even if having 17 goals has some pros as well as cons, then the 169 targets risk being un-implementable, to put to mildly. And this is too big a risk for the international community to take.

What’s the solution?

It may be possible to have a smaller set of normative statements or imperatives that would sit alongside (or above, chapeau-like) the official goals, acting as a summary of their vision and clustering issue areas. Easy to communicate and therefore inspire, the imperatives could act as a glue that brings together the sprawling narrative.

These would need to be the issues where there is internationally-comparable data to enable global measurement.  The initial findings from the Post-2015 Data Test studies indicate that there are possibilities in the education and health areas. A good question to ask would be ‘what are the five or six things that would need to have been achieved by 2030 in order for the SDGs to be judged as a success?’  Real progress for the very poorest and most marginalised could be one. They could also be areas where a global progressive norm is necessary to push country progress, such as gender and income inequality.

This might be a perfect diplomatic compromise for the Secretary General’s synthesis report, due some time in the next few weeks.

A compelling vision, with a comprehensive programme of work attached which retains the SDGs’ breadth of vision while still giving the memorable framework for global progress that was such a strength of the 2000 MDG framework.

2 Comments on "17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets? Here’s a suggestion for the Secretary-General"

  1. Why not re-arranging the actual set of goals and targets by identifying a long term (around 2050? ) shared vision that every country should aim at, a list of values that must be abided by as soon as possible, and a set of targets for 2030 and for everyone country.

    The first step would then be for each country to adjust her ongoing or already planned development programmes to integrate this and a first set of interim targets (2020?) nationally relevant for that time; thereafter successive programmes (5 years ?) would allow to progressively reach the country relevant 2030 SD targets, while adjusting courses when necessary.

    • Boikobo Bolowe | November 27, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply

      I strongly support the idea. There will be need for countries to prioritize their programmes and projects that are geared towards driving the achievement of the goals and resource them accordingly and implementation of such projects needs to be pushed up. we have a tendency as countries to do good planning and fail to implement the plans. In most cases we focus resources on fire fighting initiatives….

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