Why 17 goals and 169 targets are not enough – your chance to vote

June 4, 2015 14 By Duncan Green

Time for a little (non-Oxfam) contrarianism, and a new poll (see right). In September, the UN will agree the new framework for global development for the 15 years to 2030. This week the 43 page ‘zero draft of the outcome document‘ was published and

Why are you confused; it's perfectly complex.....

Why are you confused; it’s perfectly complex…..

the interwebs will rapidly fill with aid wonks and politicians scoffing at the ‘christmas tree’ of goals and targets  (17 of the former, breaking down into 169 of the latter). Earlier drafts were ‘overwrought and obese’ says CGD’s Charles Kenny, who thinks we have ‘lost the plot’. How on earth can we prioritise 17 goals?

But then I got to thinking about Charles’ CGD colleague Owen Barder, and his excellent recent post on complexity and development. If development is indeed the outcome of a complex adaptive system, as Owen argues, what does that imply for the discussion on goals and targets?

Because goals and targets belong squarely in the linear, planners’ camp; they fit with the kind of system epitomised by Stalin but, according to Bill Easterly, still dear to the heart of many aid agencies. We have goals and targets, a budget, we devise big linear plans (logframes etc), roll them out, monitor, evaluate and voila – development!

But an increasing number of aid wonks (including Owen) think this is deeply mistaken – both morally and practically. Development doesn’t work like this; it’s messy, unpredictable, context specific. What works in one place doesn’t work in another. Rather than grand plans, we need to ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’.

And who is this ‘we’ anyway? The MDGs should really have been called the MAGs – the Millennium Aid Goals, because as Charles recognizes, there is far more evidence that they influenced the quantity and quality of aid than that they directly affected development, or developing country government policy. But we know that even if aid volumes hold up (a big if) it is falling fast as a percentage of government revenues in poor countries. So disciplining aid through global goals and targets will deliver diminishing returns.

In a complex adaptive system, where governments are in the driving seat, what kinds of structure make sense for the post 2015 system? I think there is at least a case for saying, the more goals and targets the better:

King John signs Medieval Development Goals

King John signs Medieval Development Goals

That means they are more likely to be relevant to national context: national politicians, civil society organizations, public intellectuals etc will latch onto those goals that are most useful and make a big fuss about them, ignoring the rest. Sounds good to me, and a lot more democratic than some externally imposed shopping list.

They can evolve with time: Magna Carta is getting bigged up this year on its 800th anniversary, but understandably, some of its clauses (‘No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land’) have withstood the time more than others (all that stuff about fish weirs in the Thames). A greater variety of goals and targets will ensure that some remain relevant over the full 15 year period and beyond.

One of the many weirdnesses of the post-2015 discussion is how little it references other international instruments, many of
which have had considerable influence over national decision-making, for example by being enshrined in national law (honourable exception here). Look at some of the better known, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Both have 30 articles (is that some kind of rule in UN conventions?), lots of goals and no targets (tsk tsk, say the Planners). And I would argue they have worked pretty well.

I have long tried to avoid talking about the SDGs, because so much of the discussion struck me as deeply futile (here’s a 2012 paper explaining why I wasn’t going to be working on the SDGs. Oh, wait.). But in many ways, now the Christmas tree phase is ending, we are getting to the interesting bit – what will determine whether the new arrangement makes any difference on the ground? Issues such as how the SDGs are monitored and reported are going to be crucial – will there be regional league tables every year that name and shame the laggards compared to their neighbours, and provide a hook for activism, or just some bland five yearly number crunching in New York? If you care about politics, development and reality, now is the time to pay attention.

I sent this over to Owen and here’s his reply:

‘I’m torn between thinking that complexity implies many targets (your point) and thinking it implies just one or two big hairy

panel of experts cartoon

ones, to which there are many possible paths.   Something in between seems to be the worst of all worlds.

I guess it depends what you think the goals and targets actually do. I suspect there is some international norming, which is useful; and some establishment of a common language, which is also useful.  So they are useful for “framing” rather than changing incentives or behaviour directly. This can be important in defining the space within which the complex adaptation occurs

If you are trying to “frame” then you need something that people can get their arms around. I’m not sure how you do that with 17 goals and 169 targets.  So I’m more inclined to think that complexity suggests a small number of big targets rather than many targets.’

As it’s been ages since you voted on anything, here’s a very geeky poll on Owen’s comment and this post:

Q: If development is indeed a property of a complex adaptive system, are 17 goals and 169 targets

a) too few?

b) too many?

c) about right?

Cast your vote over there on the right

And here’s my 2012 rant on the topic