Some cautionary thoughts on this week’s SDGs summit

September 22, 2015 4 By Duncan Green

SDGs summitThe crescendo of discussion and debate over the successor to the Millennium Development Goals reaches its climax this weekend in New York, with the Sustainable Development Summit. The Guardian has a good scene setter.

I’ve ploughed a contrarian furrow on the SDGs so far, so why stop now? Here are some things you might want to keep in mind over the next few days, with links to past FP2P posts on the issue.

First, who is ‘we’? You will hear hundreds of statements along the lines of ‘we can end poverty’. Great aim, but who, exactly is we? This from a great 2013 post  by French development guru Pierre Jacquet:

‘It is altogether amazing how wishful and incantatory discussions on global issues have become. We seem to be content with passionate statements about what “we should”, “we need”, “we must” consider and do. Have we reached a sort of “end-of-History” development approach in which we believe that everyone agrees on some final objectives and we collectively know how to get there? Or is it, rather, that we try to exorcize our impotence and helplessness, while buying ourselves a conscience?’

correlation v causation cartoonSecond, there is remarkably little evidence that the MDGs achieved very much at national level, although globally they made the case for more aid and better data. This is probably the most ubiquitous example in international development of confusing correlation with causation – poverty has halved, well done MDGs! But most of that is down to China – are you really saying that Chinese decision makers leap out of bed every morning asking themselves ‘how can I achieve the MDGs’?

What is particularly baffling is that almost no serious research has been done to establish the truth about causation, for example, by a rigorous survey of developing country decision makers on which aspects of the international system influence their policies (asking ’are the MDGs a good thing?’ really doesn’t count). When Columbia University’s Elham Seyedsayamdost did so she got, from the UN’s point of view, the wrong answer. Surveying 50 countries’ implemention of the MDGs, she found that whether the goals were reflected in plans or not, they did not have any apparent influence on how governments spent their money.

Third, moving on to the SDGs, I have become increasingly alarmed over the last few years and wrote a bah humbug paper on this back in 2012. The discussion has been Sustainable-Development-Goals-United-Nationsdominated by a large group of UN technocrats debating metrics and indicators, and a huge panoply of NGO and other lobbyists, trying to shoehorn ‘their’ issue onto an ever-expanding agenda. At no point did anyone ask what kind of design might enable the SDGs to exert traction at national level – the acid test for me is ‘will a decision maker in Bihar or Dhaka or Kampala do anything differently because of the SDGs?’.

Nor is anyone asking what lessons could be learned from the success or failure of hundreds of other global conventions and agreements (the ILO alone has 190 of them). One honourable exception is an ODI paper by Exfammer May Miller Dawkins on what lessons can be drawn from international human rights and environmental agreements.

It may be that once the goals are agreed, the discussion on implementation will fully address this problem, which would be great. But my fear is that the technocratic approach thus far will continue – lots of discussion on metrics and indicators, but not much attention to getting traction on national governments. Will, for example, each government sign up to report on their progress (or lack of it) every few years to a UN Committee, which (to prevent whitewash reporting ) is allowed to collect information from other sources such as UN bodies or NGOs, as in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? Nothing that I’ve heard suggests that will happen. See what I mean about learning from other instruments?

I hope I’m wrong. As Claire Melamed argues, the SDG process has generated a massive global conversation on our shared future and maybe that will continue. But I worry that ignoring power, politics and (dare I say it?) How Change Happens in New York this weekend will mean a global moment will not produce the long term impact we need. There’s that ‘we’ again. Sorry.