This post is written by Jan Vandemoortele, formerly with the UN and co-architect of the MDGs.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012), Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate in economics, describes two aspects of the human brain through which we process information and make associations and decisions. He speaks of two systems: System 1 and System 2. The former is intuitive, quick and easy; the latter is analytical, slow, arduous and often lazy.
Although quick, System 1 is prone to make us jump to conclusions on the basis of what seems familiar, often without realising it. Kahneman writes, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth”. Indeed, sheer repetition can make any idea ring true; as we easily default to well-established associations. In order to avoid such mistakes, System 2 kicks in to check our intuitions against facts and logic. But System 2 is arduous; it requires effort and a constant awareness of disruptive influences. Kahneman writes, “Our thoughts and our behaviour are influenced much more than we know or want by the environment of the moment”. He describes a series of experiments that illustrate how external factors and events influence our internal thinking and behaviour.
The distinction between System 1 and 2 is relevant to the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This, because the human brain processes quite differently different types of global targets. Therefore, the way the SDGs get formulated matters a great deal.
In order to avoid systemic errors associated with System 1, the negotiators of the SDGs must apply System 2 thinking; because sustainable human development is complicated and complex. It is, therefore, no wonder that the SDGs include 169 targets, covering 17 different areas, in an attempt to gauge the complexity of development. Yet, the fact is that people seldom take the time or use their cognitive skills to engage in System 2 thinking. Most of the time, we rely on System 1, which is intuitive, quick and easy.
The implication is that if the SDGs are to resonate and inspire the global citizenry, their design will have to be anchored in System 1 thinking, instead of asking people to engage their lazy and arduous System 2. This requires language that is easily understood. Ideally, the SDGs should mirror our intuitive thought process instead of needing a dull instruction manual. If the negotiators want the SDGs to have the same staying power as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they must use System 2 thinking to translate the complexities about sustainable development into targets that people’s System 1 can grasp and embrace. Thus, the formulation of the SDGs must seek a more judicious balance between people’s intuitive and rational thinking so that the list of targets has practical meaning for everyone; teachers to explain to students, journalists to convey to the public at large, and political leaders to promise to their electorate. That has been the strength of the MDGs.
Yet, the proposed SDGs include targets that are mostly unclear, unfocussed and unmeasurable. Researchers from the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council found them lacking in many ways; with more than half of the 169 objectives falling short of specifics, and some 29 of them being so vague or redundant that they are best discarded. Why are the negotiations not producing a list of targets that appeals to our System 1 thinking – sweet, short and sharp?
The answer does not lay in psychology but in inauspicious international politics. The SDG negotiations are testing multilateralism. The MDGs were agreed in a more conducive setting. They emerged immediately after the end of the Cold War, when the world was unipolar, and characterised by optimism about the free market. Multilateralism was strong. Today’s context is totally different. The world is no longer mono-polar. Acronyms such as G20, BRICS, and NDB are testimony to the emergence of new powers in the international arena. The dominance of the West is being challenged. The financial crisis in 2008 not only affected optimism (at least in the West), it also weakened the credibility of the prevailing development narrative.
In other words, the East-West wall has been replaced by a North-South divide. The UN member states fall increasingly into these two groups – the ‘B-group’ and the ‘G77 plus China’ in UN lexicon. The negotiations are increasingly resembling trench warfare, whereby one group tries to capture a small concession from the other group (mostly in the form of ‘agreed’ language) and then tries to hold on to it at all costs; sometimes against logic itself.
In this context, it is no surprise that the negotiations produce 169, mostly fuzzy, targets. The proposed SDGs aim for three C’s: they want to be comprehensive, complex and complete. Yet, the staying power of the MDGs was due to another set of three C’s: they were clear, concise and computable. It would be naïve to believe that the SDGs can be formulated independent of international politics; but it would be equally unwise to ignore that the way the SDGs are formulated will determine their durability. If the new targets are to reach beyond the small world of diplomacy and development, the diplomats who are finalising the SDG negotiations would be well advised to heed some basic findings about how the human brain works.