A dispassionate look at the Sustainable Development Goals

This post is written by Jan Vandemoortele, PhD, formerly with the UN, co-architect of the MDGs and a critical friend of the SDGs

Post2015– Almost two years in the making, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) were agreed in early August. By late September, they will be formally adopted by member states at a UN summit in New York. Before the usual hype is set in motion that call the agreement ‘ground breaking’, ‘momentous’ and ‘historic’, this is a good time to have a dispassionate look at the SDGs.

Grouped under 17 goals, the SDGs comprise 169 targets, although this is a misnomer. According to the dictionary, a target is a precise result to be achieved by a specific date. It requires that the aim is clear, that the level of achievement is specific, and that the deadline is well-defined.

On that count, most of the SDGs fail the test. Indeed, the majority of them do not contain a numerical outcome but use language such as ‘substantially reduce/increase, support and strengthen, progressively improve, upgrade, promote, achieve higher levels of, take urgent action to, ensure’. In addition, many fail to set a specific deadline. When they do, it is mostly for the year 2030 although, bizarrely, the years 2020 and 2025 apply for some targets. As such, they are not fit to be called ‘targets’.

When we eliminate those that lack either a clear deadline or a specific level of outcome, we are left with only 45 of the 169 items. Still, several of the 45 fail the first condition, namely conceptual clarity. Take target 4.7, for instance, which aims to ‘ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development’. Or target 7.1 that says, ‘ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services’. Target 16.1 reads, ‘significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere’. Compared with target 3.1, which stipulates, ‘by 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births’, the above-mentioned examples do not quite cut it as targets. When we eliminate those with fuzzy objectives, we are left with only 29.

Therefore, a truthful description of the SDGs is that they contain 169 items, but less than 30 genuine targets. Indeed, the SDGs are a mixture of ideals and generalities, sprinkled with some concrete targets. For example, item 1.4 aims to ‘ensure that all men and women have equal rights to economic resources’. This is laudable but it is not about reaching a precise outcome for a clear objective by a specific date. Several other examples could be added here. Suffice to mention one more: item 16.5 says to ‘substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms’. Joseph Stiglitz calls campaign contributions and lobbying “corruption, American style”. It is not clear whether item 16.5 implies campaign finance reform in the US. In sum, when it comes to the SDGs, it is important not to confuse general items with specific targets.

Moreover, some targets are putting the bar exceedingly high. It is unrealistic to expect that malnutrition, for example, will be zero by 2030. Over the past 25 years, child malnutrition has been cut from 25 to 14 per cent, which is a respectable achievement. One wonders, however, how this rate of progress will be more than twice as high over the next 15 years. The target set for maternal mortality is ambitious too, yet not unrealistic. The target for child mortality seems doable globally, but not in all countries. It is here that some of the targets really get problematic.

The SDGs contain some collective targets while others are country-specific. The target ‘to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births’ is obviously a collective target. It can be achieved, globally, even if several countries still end up with a ratio above 70, because others will have a ratio below that level. But the target to reduce under-5 mortality to at least 25 per 1,000 live births ‘by all countries’ is clearly country-specific; for it has to be achieved by each and every country. It is not clear why the SDGs include both collective and country-specific targets. Country-specific targets are not only harder to achieve, they also violate the principle of national ownership and due cognizance of local contexts.

Furthermore, it is remarkable that (almost) all SDG-targets use absolute benchmarks, whereas the MDGs mostly used relative benchmarks. Both relative and absolute targets have particular shortcomings. Arguably, a combination of the two can best overcome these. Yet, the SDGs ignore that counsel and adopt only absolute benchmarks. This is likely to yield unfair assessments, especially for the least developed countries. As with the MDGs, the narrative will persist that Africa is missing the targets; when in reality we are missing the point.

Finally, the SDGs contain two surprising targets. First, target 1.2 aims to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. This is perhaps the sole SDG-target that is truly universal in nature (with obesity being the big absentee from an otherwise non-universal agenda). The second surprise is target 10.c which states, ‘reduce to less than 3 per cent the transaction costs of migrant remittances and eliminate remittance corridors with costs higher than 5 per cent’. Both targets are clear and tangible. If they are taken seriously, the SDGs may still make a difference by 2030.

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