Hello SDGs, what’s your theory of change?

September 29, 2015 14 By Duncan Green

As Jed Bartlett would say, what’s next? Now the SDGs are official, there will be big discussions on financing and a SDGs summitgeekfest on metrics and indicators. Both are important. But to my mind the big task is to collectively think through what the SDGs are meant to change and how they can best do so – in other words a theory(ies) of change. Here are some initial thoughts:

Targets: Who/what are the SDGs supposed to influence? There are at least four:

  • Developing country budgets and policies
  • Wider social norms about rights and the duties of governments and others
  • Aid volumes and priorities (i.e. a re-run of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were mainly effective as an aid lobbying tool)
  • Developed country budgets and policies

Of these I think the first two are the most promising: aid is falling as a percentage of government revenue, while I do not think the SDGs are likely to have much influence on the policies of developed countries (hope I’m wrong of course).

Channels: for each of these, we need to think through how the SDGs could exert real traction. In the case of developing country budgets and policies, this could be through

  • Peer pressure – already in New York, some ‘vanguard governments’ (Colombia, Gabon, Indonesia) were taking about internalising the SDGs in domestic processes. They could be effective sources of pressure on their neighbours and others to follow suit. What kind of platform or reporting process could help them do so?
  • National media: always a good source of pressure on decision makers. What sort of data and media operation around the SDGs is likely to grab their interest at regular intervals over the next 15 years?
  • Civil Society: what do national CSOs need in order to make the SDGs an effective part of their advocacy repertoire?
  • Private Sector: how can the SDGs be relevant to progressive national and international companies and their business associations, so that they become part of the dialogue between them and government, or influence their operations directly?

SDGsDynamics: Will SDGs have a steady drip-drip effect, or will their main impact be around ‘critical junctures’, such as scandals, crises or changes of political leadership? What does that imply for the design of the SDG system, eg if critical junctures are important, what kind of rapid response is needed so that researchers or advocates can respond quickly with a timely summary of the case for change? If, however, the SDGs are most likely to be effective via long term osmosis eg on social norms  around inequality and exclusion, a different reporting and follow up process is likely to be preferable.

Complexity: According to ODI’s Claire Melamed  ‘there won’t be one way the SDGs affect outcomes, there will be loads, and most are unpredictable at this point. For some governments, it will be comparison with others (so league tables) for others it will be domestic pressure (so whether SDGs are useful for domestic campaigners) for others more of a management tool. All are likely, and which it is will change with country/administration (and most countries will have several governments over the next 15 years) and goal (governments are likely to treat education differently to climate change, for example). As Craig Valters argues, that means taking a theory of change approach, rather than trying to settle on a single ToC for the whole SDG system. We could of course say ‘we have no idea how this will all pan out, so let’s just let a thousand flowers bloom and not bother with ToCs.’ But the system does have to agree on a bunch of procedures on monitoring, reporting, follow up etc, so it would surely help to make sure these procedures recognize and work with the messiness of how the SDGs are likely to be used in practice.

Review: For example, let’s assume that whatever initial conclusions those designing the SDG system arrive at are at best only partly right. How/when will everyone sit down, review what has/hasn’t worked, and make the necessary adjustments?

Where to start in answering these questions?

It would have been better to have had this discussion from the beginning of the process (as I said in this 2012 paper), but it hasn’t happened. Never mind. If people are serious about the SDGs having impact, I think some quick and smart research is required along at least two lines:

First we need a good literature review: what can we learn from the hundreds of international instruments that seek

If I cd photoshop, it wd read 'SDGs agreed' on the left and 'world a better place' on the right.....

If I could photoshop, this would read ‘SDGs agreed’ on the left and ‘world a better place’ on the right…..

to influence governments, change norms etc: 190 ILO Conventions, dozens of UN Conventions, the WTO, Regional Trade Agreements, Bilateral Investment Treaties etc. Which of them have gained traction on governments or norms, and how?  See May-Miller Dawkins’ excellent ODI paper on what the SDG crew can learn from other international agreements.

Second, can someone finally go out and do some decent research with developing country decision makers? By that I mean well designed interviews (no leading questions, please!) to find out what international instruments actually influence them, how and why. As a start, the ODI (what would we do without them?) has an excellent study by Moizza Sarwar coming out in the next week or so, exploring the implementation of the MDGs by interviewing senior planning ministry staff in five developing countries. (What took them so long?!)

Why would this help?

Armed with this kind of analysis, people in different contexts (UN, bilateral, national, civil society) would be better placed to think through how to implement the SDGs just agreed in New York. For example:

  • How should target institutions like developing country governments be involved in the governance of the SDGs?
  • Should reporting be national, regional or global? By governments only, with non-government inputs, or with right to reply from other bodies?
  • Would annual league tables make sense?
  • What is the best trade off between countries adapting the SDGs to their local context, and having global or regional comparability?
  • Who are the best messengers to report back on SDG performance (ex presidents? Nobel prize winners? Fading pop stars?)

What do you think? A futile attempt to impose order on chaos, or a useful exercise?