For the SDGs, let’s pay attention to country starting points

This piece is written by Emma Samman, Research Fellow for ODI’s Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme, and Elizabeth Stuart, Sustainable Development Goals Team Leader in ODI’s Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme and initially appeared on the Development Progress blog.

Call it what you like (differentiation, common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), special and differential treatment – each nomenclature has its own political context or baggage, depending on how you see it) but somehow the blindingly obvious fact that different countries are at different stages of development, and that this needs to be acknowledged, has been caught up in a political quagmire.

The issue remains one of the last on the table in the Post-2015 negotiations.

During the latest government talks in New York, India put out a paper debunking six myths on this most contentious of areas , citing the physicist Neils Bohr, perhaps for the first time in the SDG negotiations. It said ‘the opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth…universality of relevance does not correspond to uniformity in application’. To be meaningful, a universal agenda can and indeed must be a differentiated one.

Polemics aside, a new ODI paper shows the evidence that could help un-stick the CBDR debate , proving that, in fact, unless the country level is taken as the starting point in setting targets and assessing progress, we risk creating a set of perverse incentives.

The paper argues that a country lens matters for at least three reasons.

First, it matters because progress trajectories are usually not linear , meaning that country starting points influence subsequent performance. Having a target that specifies a universal outcome could unduly penalise many countries while overstating the accomplishments of others. Up to 46% of poor countries managed a significant improvement in performance, but still failed to meet MDG targets, meaning that national effort was not recognised by the international community This time round as the zero draft of the SDGs makes clear: ‘Targets are defined as aspirational and global, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances.’

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