Blog: Sustainable Development Goals for all countries

Does this signal a paradigm shift in how we have to conceive of ‘development’?

This article was originally published by SPERI

2015 is a major year for international development – or so we’re told.  I’ve written before about the UN’s bold new development programme, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be agreed in New York in September.  This ambitious new development agenda calls on all governments – by 2030 – to end extreme poverty and hunger, achieve gender equality, reduce domestic inequality, improve health and education, combat climate change, make production and consumption sustainable, conserve our natural resources and ensure peaceful societies, among many other areas.  Heads of State will convene in Addis Ababa in July to work out how to pay for it all.

What’s new this time around is that the SDGs are intended to be ‘global in nature and universally applicable’. This is a significant change from the preceding commitment, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which applied only to so-called ‘underdeveloped’ countries.

Tony Payne and Graham Harrison have both recently weighed in to the debate as to whether dividing the world up into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries is useful or accurate.  Tony argued that all countries face a ‘universal problematic’ of development – countries exist along a continuum and no country is ever fully developed.  Indeed, some so-called ‘developed’ countries face highly visible and deep-seated social and economic problems. In his words, ‘we’re all developing now!’  Graham offered a dissenting view: that the typeand order of development challenges are of an entirely different kind when one compares chiefly agrarian societies with industrial or post-industrial countries.

This debate throws up some interesting questions for the new Sustainable Development Goals. On the one hand, they are supposed to be ‘universal’ in nature in that they are meant to apply to all countries.  On the other, it’s clear that each country’s starting point – and historical responsibilities – are extremely different.  How do the SDGs tackle this?  And does a universal agenda make sense?

Personally, I am divided on this.  To my mind, it’s positive that the problems of ‘development’ are not seen as belonging to only one group of countries.  The new agenda acknowledges that national realities, capacities and levels of development are different, but asserts that all countries can take steps – within their means – to reduce poverty and inequality, improve health and education outcomes, create more jobs, make infrastructure more sustainable and take better care of our planet.  In other words, it accepts that some countries have more responsibilities than others.  Thus the SDGs are intended to be both universal and differentiated.

The new agenda also tries to capture issues more specific to low-income countries (such as infant and maternal mortality, full primary education and infrastructure development), as well as those more applicable to higher income countries (e.g. sustainable consumption and production).  It attempts to move us away, at least in theory, from a world in which some countries claim to be fully ‘developed’.

But I also wonder how far many high-income countries really see this agenda as applying to them at home (beyond simply providing the finance).  It’s also clear that the new agenda will require major economic transformations in all countries, regardless of income levels, if the planet’s natural limits are to be respected.  Arguably, this bears most of all on industrialised countries and large fast-growing economies.  What realistically are the prospects for this?   They may be bright, or brighter, over the long term as many countries continue to scale up investments in areas such as renewable energy and research.  But, over the short term, this conversation remains decidedly difficult.

For example, in UN negotiations, we often hear the words ‘policy space’ echo through the chambers.  This is not unusual or new for low- and middle-income countries, many of which have used this argument to complain about the structural adjustment conditions imposed on them by major international financial institutions and aid donors.  But it’s also being used by several middle- and high-income countries heavily dependent on natural resource extraction, such as oil.  They’re worried that the new sustainable development agenda could be used as a tool to restrict their opportunities to extract fossil fuel resources and accordingly they cite ‘policy space’ and ‘national flexibility’ as key principles to be respected (essentially using them as code-words for saying ‘we want to continue doing what we are already doing’).   Yet it’s absolutely clear that ‘business as usual’ will mean the SDGs will not be met and climate change will worsen.

To complicate matters, there are also differing interpretations of ‘universality’.  For example, many high-income donor countries – while keen to insist upon their support for the SDGs and the role that development aid will play in delivering them – want growing middle-income economies to play a greater role in funding the new agenda.  ‘Universality’, for them, is about everyone paying a ‘fair share’.  By 2030, which is the SDG deadline, many middle-income countries will be high-income, they argue.

The response of poorer countries is typically that ‘economically advanced’ countries have consistently failed to meet the UN target of allocating 0.7% of GNI to ODA (a target established in 1970).  After all, last year, donor countries allocated, on average, just 0.29% of GNI to ODA (although the UK hit this target for the first time ever).  Developing countries also cite historical responsibilities for climate change and colonialism as reasons to reject this argument and instead emphasise the ‘voluntary’ and ‘complementary’ nature of ‘South-South Cooperation’, as it has become known.

These examples are indicative of the many challenges and contradictions which surround the implementation of the world’s new and universal ‘sustainable development vision’. To come back to the Payne-Harrison debate – are we all developing now? – the SDGs are ultimately about ending the fossil-fuel era and transitioning the world towards sustainable models of economic growth.  Most of the burden will inevitably fall on already-industrialised and rapidly-industrialising economies (and some are already doing more than others to move in this direction, albeit very much on an ad hoc and piecemeal basis).  For less ‘developed’ countries, there may be opportunities to move away from fossil fuels more quickly, but, of course, they can only do this if ‘enabled’ through finance, technology transfer, skills development and other such measures.

At the same time, we mustn’t forget that, even as they are pressed to deploy new more sustainable growth models, challenges that we have come to describe as ‘development’ still persist.  For the moment, then, Payne and Harrison are both right for different reasons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: