Blog: From MDGs to … SDGs

The world has drafted a spectacular new ‘to-do’ list of Sustainable Development Goals

This article was originally published by SPERI

Following two years of deliberations at the UN in New York, UN ambassadors have proposed seventeen ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (or SDGs) to replace the old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) when they expire at the end of 2015.  The final agreement will come next year.

So what’s in there?  Here’s a quick snapshot.  Between 2015 and 2030 (the deadline for achieving the SDGs), the world should aim to: end poverty and hunger; achieve gender equality; improve health; educate everyone; reduce inequality within and among countries; build modern resilient infrastructure; ensure access to affordable and sustainable energy for all; make production and consumption patterns more sustainable; make cities and human settlements safe and ‘green’; ensure peaceful societies and accountable institutions; and take measures to combat climate change as well as preserve and restore key ecosystems (for the full list, see here).

Easy, then?  Whereas the MDGs were fairly limited in their ambitions, the SDGs are manifestly a different ball-game.  Perhaps the most important change is that the new goals are supposed to apply to all countries at allincome levels; this is everyone’s agenda.

Inevitably, the internet is replete with discussions over the extent to which this new ‘shared vision’ for the future should be seen as ‘aspirational’ versus ‘achievable’.  In particular, one question is repeatedly asked: what influence, if any, will the SDGs really have over complex government decision-making at the national and local levels?

Sitting in the UN in New York, I’ve had the opportunity to follow some of these debates.  In one sense, the SDGs exercise has been an extraordinary example of international collaboration (and goodwill) at a time when many believe multilateralism is under severe strain.  There’s also a clear recognition that the world’s most pressing challenges, especially climate change, can only be solved through collective action.  On the other hand, entrenched positions on many issues have meant that some of the proposed SDGs are much vaguer than others, with little sense as to how progress will be measured in practical terms.  It’s also plain that very few countries want to put any new money on the table to fund the new agreement.

So, if there’s no new money on offer, what factors could ensure the difference between success and failure for the new Sustainable Development Goals?  And should we be optimistic?  It’s difficult to say as yet, but here are a few thoughts on some of the factors that will influence – for better or worse – progress on the new agenda.

First, it’s obvious that some goals will be easier to achieve than others.  For example, progress on poverty reduction and expanding access to quality healthcare and education is eminently achievable based on sustained – and inclusive – economic growth in the developing world.  Other goals, however, are likely to be more difficult.  Action on climate change and the implementation of policies to make consumption and production patterns more sustainable (all linked of course) may be harder.  The MDG experience showed us that progress on each goal will inevitably be uneven and this is also likely ‘second time around’.

Second, the new agenda will be much more about so-called ‘policy coherence for development’. That doesn’t sound particularly sexy, but it’s all about the policies ‘in the background’ which either support or undermine sustainable development efforts.  First time around, the MDGs became mired in endless discussions over international development aid, and the complaint that very few rich countries provide as much aid as they promise.  This time, the biggest gains will come from coordinated government action in areas such as: the removal of perverse subsidies on, for example, fossil fuels (estimated at over US$544 billion in 2012) and their redirection, at least in part, towards new technologies and renewable energy; the implementation of carbon taxes; international cooperation in tax matters to stem tax avoidance and evasion; improved environmental and social regulation of large and small companies; fairer international trade; and the implementation of measures to promote international financial stability.  Progress in these different areas is also likely to be uneven.

Third, technological innovation has led to a massive increase in the availability and use of data. The so-called ‘data revolution’ provides unprecedented opportunities to chart progress towards the SDGs and provide citizens with the tools they need to hold their governments (and the international community) to account.  New technologies and social media also provide the world with creative outlets to debate the SDGs and ‘keep them alive’.  This is positive.

Fourth, money does matter, of course!  But it also depends how well that money is spent. International public finance in the post-2015 era needs to be about much more than development aid.  As UNDP and ODI argue in a recent paper, major changes in investment priorities will be needed in the post-2015 era, with a much bigger role assigned to longer-term and riskier expenditures, such as investments in ‘green’ infrastructure and new technologies.  International public finance for research, science and innovation will be essential – and will need to be scaled up – to drive the economic transformation that is needed.  A coherent approach to the financing of Global Public Goods (GPGs) is also needed.

Finally (and perhaps most important), it will all in the end be about political will.  Governments have displayed an extraordinary commitment to elaborating a new vision for the future.  But will they display the same enthusiasm for the ‘implementation’ agenda?  Leadership from the large emerging economies will be especially important since it is these countries which will play an increasingly important role in driving forward – or thwarting – progress on the new agenda.

The MDGs helped refocus international attention on ‘development’ at a time when aid levels were on the decline.  This was incredibly important.  The SDGs, however, are about much more than this.  They are focused not on simple transfers of resources from ‘North’ to ‘South’, but on the core dynamics of development in all countries in the context of so-called ‘planetary boundaries’.

We know that business as usual is no longer an option.  Love them or hate them, the SDGs are also here to stay.  If they represent our best chance for transformational change, then I say ‘embrace them and make them work’.  The peoples of the world will be watching.

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