Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals: Five Key Questions

SDGs
Aug. 31, 2015 – Heads of state will gather at the United Nations from Sept. 25-27 to adopt a new set of development goals to replace the MDGs which expire at the end of the year.

The new set of goals go beyond the poverty reduction, hunger and infectious diseases focus of the MDGs and include goals on climate, peace and non-communicable diseases. They are also universal – unlike the MDGs, which focused only on developing countries.

UN Tribune asked three experts to respond to five key questions about the future goals.

Martin Edwards is an associate professor and director of the Center for United Nations and Global Governance Studies at Seton Hall University @MartinSEdwards

Shannon Kindornay is an adjunct research professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University @SKindornay

Angel Hsu is an assistant professor and director of the Data-driven Environmental Group at Yale University @ecoangelhsu

1) What are the main positives in the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals?

Martin Edwards: One of the strengths of the goals is their comprehensiveness. They’re no longer just about the developing world – as many of the concerns in them – education, health, conservation, and rule of law, are shared across the globe. The authors of the SDGs realized that we can’t combat poverty globally without making states stronger and reducing the likelihood of civil wars, and thus a new focus in goal 16 on building effective and accountable institutions.

Shannon Kindornay: The goals represent an integrated vision for sustainable development taking into consideration the three pillars (economy, society and environment) as well as peace and partnership. Given the historic separation of the development and environment communities, this is an important gain – not just in terms of the types of goals included for each are, but the integration of elements of the three pillars within goal areas.

The goals are also the product of inter-governmental negotiations with inputs from citizens, civil society, academia, private sector, local and regional govt, etc. They form an important consensus going forward, even if detractors argue they are not ‘neat enough’ and there are ‘too many.’ Sustainable development is complex. The world we live in is complex. The goals go a long way towards reflecting this reality.

Angel Hsu: The SDGs will set the development agenda for the next few decades, so there is a real opportunity to shape global political agendas. Although there are critics that may gripe that some issues were left out of the goals, it was a Herculean task to narrow the list of SDGs from thousands of proposals to the eventual 17 goals. The UNCSD can be lauded for attempting to make the process of determining the SDGs inclusive, through multiple campaigns (ie myWorld) to allow for people to register which issues are most important to them. In terms of environment, which is the area I study most closely in relation to the SDGs, I was happy to see cross-cutting indicators and goals (ie, a goal for cities, which are becoming increasingly important units of environmental policy) included.

2) What are the main omissions in the 17 proposed SDGs?

ME: With this many goals, targets, and indicators, it’s really hard to make the claim that we’ve missed something important. Some issues, like the status of the global LGBT community, are important, but sadly politically tricky, and this never became a goal in its own right.

The bigger challenges that we’re going to face are dealing with trade-offs between the goals. I worry about promising action on climate while promising sustained economic growth and full employment while increasing access to energy all at the same time. We might not be able to get everything here, so our attempts to advance some goals might come at the expense of others. This might be a difficult concept for the public to grasp.

SK: Certainly one of the critiques of Transforming our World is around the use of rights language and international human rights frameworks. The SDGs (and their follow-up and review) could have been strengthened by explicit reference to international human rights law though this was likely impossible from the outset given the preferences of any number of states.

AH: What I along with others have been saying is that 17 goals, 169 proposed indicators are too many. The same process that aimed to be inclusive may ultimately thwart their success. 17 goals and 169 indicators are too many issues for policymakers to track. It is also unclear how many governments will be able to sufficiently monitor and track progress towards the SDGs. Even though the UN called for a “data revolution” to aid in future SDG monitoring, so far the proposals put forth are not revolutionary. They speak to the need to build statistical capacity in national governments instead of looking to the potential for big data, the private sector, and citizens to help source needed data (see my Nature commentary).

Many also criticize SDG goal 13 on climate for lacking specificity and clear indicators, instead pegging the SDG goal to the UNFCCC and upcoming Paris talks. But it’s a larger reflection of the global community and countries’ inability to agree on specific targets and indicators. Returning to the measurement question, on which I work most closely, there are serious concerns about the ability of governments to actually measure many of the goals concerning social equity, inclusivity, etc.

3) Are the goals and targets specific enough? Are they universal enough?

ME: We learned one thing from the MDG experience: measurement matters. So the conversations about moving to specific indicators is still underway (and will be until next year) and this is not necessarily a bad thing. But, this having been said: universality is a problem. A review of the proposed indicators in March of this year found that only 16% of them met the “gold standard” of being feasible, suitable, and relevant. The barrier here is not finding measures. The barrier is about capacity to ensure that national statistical offices survey what we need. With the advent of the goals requires many developing countries to put new efforts into improving their statistical offices so that they can actually measure at a disaggregated level what we need to know.

SK: The goals are likely fine. The targets would have benefitted greatly from technical proofing (to make them SMART so to speak) and this is a missed opportunity – though again, I understand the politics of why they were not opened up (states did not want to risk agreement from the OWG, particularly that a target they support might be removed for technical reasons).

On the universality side, in my opinion the goals are certainly universal. As a vision for the world we want to see and an framework for measuring global progress, the targets are again fine (notwithstanding comments above). But, do all targets make sense in all countries and should we worry about monitoring them in all countries? I am not convinced of this. As I argued in a paper with Sarah Twigg, I believe we need a differentiated approach to how the targets are applied, and correspondingly, who measures them to support global monitoring.

The big question still out there, in my opinion, is how all of this will be adapted to country context. We know states will be encouraged to identify national level targets. How this is done, whether room exists to go beyond identifying the level of national ambition on global targets to include more specialized targets at the country level – that remains to be seen.

AHI’ve spoken a lot about the goals and targets – I think they are meant as a starting point but they obviously represent political compromise. Same goes for the universality question – the SDGs are meant to be universal in the way MDGs were primarily aimed at developing countries. But developing countries say that they need financing to implement them, so I think there could be a real challenge in implementation because the previous model of having developed countries finance the MDG implementation and measurement may not work for the SDGs. In looking at the UNFCCC negotiations, the issue of finance and payment for loss and damages is one of the most intractable issues.

4) How should the implementation of the SDGs be measured?

ME: It’s going to be measured at the national, regional, and global levels, which is certainly fine. While we might have issues with the specifics, this is a strong improvement over the MDGs. The global level will be led by the soon to be formed High Level Political Forum, and the regional level will incorporate peer review.

It’s the national level that we need to pay the most attention to, though. If countries don’t publicly assess their progress in meeting the goals, civil society will have a hard time pressuring governments. Civil society is the glue between the goals and their successful implementation.

SK: Implementation will need to be measured in a number of ways  – global and national progress understood in terms of broad macro level trends (will use official statistics in all likelihood with few exceptions) but also making use of real-time information and unofficial data sources to inform day-to-day decision making, interventions, etc. Citizen generated data for example, has the potential to improve accountabilities at local to national levels, as well as feed into global follow-up processes. The devil will be figuring out how to best use these different sources of information and for what purpose, particularly at country level.

AH: I’ve written about the measurement question before, see here and here.

5) How should the SDGs be financed?

ME: This is a challenge. The Addis Summit was to be all about financing the SDGs, but the Eurozone economic crisis coupled with political dysfunction in the US has reduced the generosity of the OECD countries. In its place, there was a greater impetus on domestic revenue generation – meaning tax increases. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some developing countries are at a stage where moving from excise taxes to income taxes makes sense, but there is a danger that developing countries might find it harder to spend the money they need to make the SDGs work.

The SDGs will be financed differently across countries. HICs and many MICs will use domestic public finance. LDCs and other states with limited capacity will rely more greatly on external public finance. Obviously private investment is also important, however I think we need to be smart about our expectations and our approach. We need to worry about the quality of private finance as much as the quantity, and where it goes to whose benefit.

SK: Perhaps more importantly than above, is how we address systemic issues that limit resources available to finance the SDGs and how we support the capacity of developing countries to raise their own domestic resources. Advancements on trade, taxation and illicit capital flight would greatly expand resources available for development. Concrete commitments and support to domestic resource mobilization and institutional strengthening in developing countries would help increase capacities to raise and use domestic resources – which should be our end game as far as the financing discussion is concerned.

– Denis Fitzgerald @denisfitz

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