This post is by Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children UK
How do you take your Sustainable Development Goals? With a generous sprinkle of motherhood, apple pie and good intentions? If so, the chances are you’re an enthusiast for the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ in the pursuit of the 2030 development targets. Me too. It’s tough to think of a more elevated test of fairness. Yet we are in danger of allowing a hard-won commitment to equity that could – and should – guide policy design to become an empty slogan.
The SDGs define the international community’s global ambition for poverty eradication, shared prosperity and sustainability. Tucked away in the preamble ahead of the 17 headline goals and shopping list of 169 targets are the following words: “We wish to see the Goals and targets met…. for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.”
Press the pause button and reflect on that commitment. In effect, the SDG pledge is a commitment to ensure that progress happens first and fastest for those starting furthest away from the 2030 targets. This is a marked departure from Millennium Development Goals, which focussed attention on national average progress and turned a blind eye to rising social disparities. The SDGs establish progress with equity, or the pace of social convergence towards the 2030 goals, as the benchmark for measuring national performance.
Underpinning the SDG agenda are two simple but compelling propositions. The first is rooted in ethics. The idea that the circumstances of a child’s parents, or the gender of the child, should determine their life-chances in education, health or employment is an affront to basic concepts of fairness, equality of opportunity, and social justice. The second proposition is rooted in more mundane arithmetic. Unless the rate of progress among those left behind exceeds the rate of progress for more advantaged groups, the SDGs are unattainable.
Consider the 2030 ambition of ‘ending preventable deaths’ among newborns and under-fives.
On average, death rates among children in the poorest households are twice the level for the wealthiest. The arithmetic corollary is that they will have to fall twice as fast to achieve the goal of ‘ending preventable child deaths’. Social gradients in child survival also mean that convergence is a powerful motor for saving lives. Eliminating the wealth gap in child survival in 2016 would have saved 2 million lives according to UNICEF.
The arithmetic of convergence can be illustrated by reference to the SDG threshold for child survival, which is 25
deaths for every 1000 live births (25/1000). Figures 1 and 2 looks at the trajectories required for the wealthiest and poorest 20 per cent in Nigeria and India, to achieve the 2030 target.
In the case of Nigeria, one of six countries with death rates in excess of 100/1000 live births, the simple convergence headline is that death rates for the poorest children must fall all at twice times the annualised rate for the wealthiest. In the case of India (Figure 2) the wealthiest 20 per cent have already hit the SDG target. Average child mortality rate is falling at a rate that will bring the target within reach. However, the poorest 20 per cent will not achieve the SDGs without a marked acceleration in progress relative both to the wealthy and the national average.
These are simple arithmetic exercises that draw on just one aspect of disparity. In the real world, wealth disparities intersect with regional, ethnic and wider markers for disadvantage. In the case of Nigeria, children born in the north-east face far higher death rates than those in the south. In India, marked disparities between states are reinforced by disadvantages associated with scheduled castes and tribes. But differential convergence pathways can help turn the spotlight on the public policy challenge at the heart of the SDG enterprise.
Accelerated social convergence towards the 2030 goals will require an unrelenting focus on the most disadvantaged. This has to go beyond the rhetorical flourishes that governments like to serve up at UN summits to the strategies they apply to combat poverty and extreme inequalities. Ensuring that public spending plays a role in equalising opportunity by allocating more resources to the less advantaged is an obvious starting point.
The time has come to translate the pledge to leave no one behind into a guide for policy design. Governments around the world should be putting in place national convergence plans consistent with their SDG commitments. These plans could include simple but credible targets like halving the wealth disparity in child survival or school attendance over a five-year period, linked to strategies for translating the targets into outcomes.
Of course, setting targets is not enough. In the absence of credible data to track progress among the most marginalised, ambitious targets can provide a smokescreen for complacency. One of the most disturbing findings to emerge from an excellent UNICEF report is that 520 million children are living in countries lacking data on at least two-thirds of the SDG indicators. Moreover, much of the data that is available from large-scale surveys and census documents is published intermittently – and survey samples often attach insufficient weight to the most disadvantaged.
Data deficits hide disadvantage and hamper genuine accountability for delivering on the SDG commitments. The annual UN SDG report could set a standard both through systematic monitoring of progress for the world’s most deprived and marginalised people, and by identifying data gaps. But while global reporting serves a useful purpose national reporting to a country’s citizens is what will drive change. UN agencies and the World Bank should be doing far more to develop the data collection and reporting capabilities of national statistical bodies, and to support the generation of real-time digital data from health facilities, schools and communities in disadvantaged areas.
Here at Save the Children we have developed a Group Inequality Database that draws on a range of disaggregated sources. My colleagues are now developing convergence indicators that can be used to track national performance. which we hope will contribute to the wider debate. You can see a preview of our new data tools on our GRID website.
In the last analysis social convergence is an intensely political exercise. Translating SDG commitments into transformative outcomes for the most marginalised will require a sustained attack on inequalities that are underpinned by unequal power relationships, the skewing of resources towards the most advantaged, and overwhelming political indifference. Let’s face it, this is not an age marked by a drive to achieve greater equity.
All of which makes the SDG commitment something worth fighting for. Getting agreement on the cutting edge principle of ‘reaching the furthest behind first’ was not easy – and we should not allow that principle to join the crowded graveyard of development slogans recalled today primarily for their overwhelming irrelevance. (Remember ‘pro-poor growth’ anyone?)
Monitoring the pace of social convergence won’t change the world. But it’s an essential part of the tool-kit and not a bad place to start.