This week, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted by the UN General Assembly. This represents the culmination of a great deal of consultation over the past few years, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world, along with governments, civil society and international organisations, and business leaders. Phew!
For International Alert, this journey more or less began with our publication in 2010 – the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Declaration – of Working with the grain to change the grain: Moving beyond the MDGs. I feel somewhat proud that we – along with the Lancet – were more or less the only organisation who came out clearly at that time to say the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were inadequate, and that a far better model was needed, to frame, encourage and cajole the right sustainable development efforts.
Our critique was that the MDGs were too narrow and too technical, and thus failed to take account either of the politics of change, nor the need for politics to change. They were unstrategic (and statistically illiterate), in that they assumed goals could usefully be created and measured globally, for phenomena that occur (and change) mainly locally and nationally. As such, they created perverse incentives in terms of measurement and resource allocation. And – though this was probably never intended – they also unfortunately created the impression that 'development' could be reduced to a small and exclusive set of goals, rather than being the result of a complex, messy, mainly organic web of societal processes that resist intentionality, and certainly cannot be controlled. Thus the MDGs undermined the accuracy of the development discourse. Finally, as a peacebuilding organisation, we felt the MDGs ignored too many of the factors that determine whether societies can co-exist and manage their inevitable conflicts without recourse to violence. Since publishing our 2010 report, we have continued to argue for a more appropriate way to frame development aims and strategies as part of the SDGs.
So we welcome the arrival of the SDGs this week. No one can complain they are too narrow this time. (Indeed, many people are concerned that this new smorgasbord of 17 goals and over 160 accompanying targets is too broad and unwieldy – though we are not.) Strategy for peaceful development obviously cannot be defined globally, as it has to be based on specificities of each context. But if one were to do so, one would certainly emphasise the need for progress towards more fairness, participatory and responsive governance, inclusive economic development, access to justice, safety for all, and increased personal and family wellbeing. All of these, one way or another, feature in the SDGs, and so does peace itself, which is a great way to celebrate the International Day of Peace today.
There remains a risk, however, of the SDGs being misused in the way the MDGs often were: as a strategic framework to be applied to specific nations and circumstances, rather than as a set of interconnected aspirations that, taken as a whole, paints a kind of impressionist picture of the better human society the world’s leaders are voting for this week. This would not only be dumb – reflecting the absurd idea that national goals can be set globally – but also profoundly anti-democratic, as very few of the world’s citizens are even aware of the SDGs, much less have they voted for them. Indeed, far too many of the world’s citizens still live under governments that pay little attention to their needs and interests in any case.
Fortunately, this risk of SDG-abuse is mitigated – perhaps almost removed – by the vast spread of issues specifically referred to in the SDGs. This list runs from high-level public goods expressed in broad terms (peace, security, gender equality, poverty, sustainability, accountable institutions, resilience, innovation, seeds diversity, etc.) to more concrete elements (fewer hungry people, more children educated, reduced numbers of people living on low incomes, greater access to land, reduced numbers of children stunted and wasted, improved numbers of people with access to market information, reduced mortality rates including of violent deaths, strengthened controls of tobacco and other drugs, improved national and international systems for a variety of purposes, full numeracy and literacy, an end to human trafficking, more people with access to safe drinking water, sanitation, decent housing and urban parks, less waste, less carbon pollution, less overfishing, less corruption, etc.).
It’s a very long list, but not a bad list: any of us could find important issues that are missing, under-emphasised or poorly framed. For example, in Alert’s view the targets that have been agreed under goal 16 (Just, peaceful societies…) fail to make the link between peace and service delivery, livelihoods, or inclusive politics as well as the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals do. But on the whole, the SDGs do cover most of the right things. The important point to make here, though, is that the SDGs are so comprehensive and diverse, that nobody could pretend that every, or any country, ought to try and prioritise everything on the list equally, at the same time. This is why it will be hard for people to misuse and abuse the SDGs in the way they did with the MDGs.
Another advantage is that the list is so long and unwieldy that it automatically becomes a political list, since politics is largely the art of negotiating and agreeing priorities. So rather than being primarily a device through which the 'international community' can force or hold individual governments, states or nations accountable to adopt goals, targets and strategies parachuted in from outside, it becomes a kind of menu of ‘what the world wants over the long term’, from which politicians and citizens in civil society in a particular context can point to the issues each sees as important, and argue their case. This represents a considerable step forward, compared with the MDGs.
So, we extend a very warm welcome indeed to the SDGs, and we will be paying attention in particular during the next year or so to how they are being used: whether or not those in positions of power are using them intelligently as a device to encourage debate about the best pathway to peaceful development; and whether those in positions of less power, who might be able to use the SDGs to argue for or against pernicious policies and programmes, have the information, opportunity and capacity to do so. In the end, all development is political, and the SDGs by their nature should lend themselves to the kinds of debates about choices and priorities that are not only needed to determine the best way forward in specific circumstances, but also provide an experience of the kind of political debate that characterises a more 'developed' society anyway. A win-win!