The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – Laudable, but how Realistic?

10.06.15
Mindy McAdams
World News /06 Oct 2015
10.06.15

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – Laudable, but how Realistic?

On Friday September 25th the United Nations General Assembly passed what could prove to be amongst its most significant resolutions of the century, unanimously adopting a new global economic, social and environmental agenda for the coming 15 years – the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs build on the organization’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative established in 2000 and which is due to conclude at the end of this year.

The 15 year MDGs era has seen some remarkable improvements in human well-being around the world – significant reductions in extreme poverty, in the proportion of people undernourished, in levels of child and maternal mortality, and in HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis incidence, along with rising primary education enrolment rates, improved gender equality in schooling and parliamentary representation, and wider access to improved sanitation and drinking water.

Not all of the quantitative goals set up were met, either globally or nationally, nor could all gains be totally sheeted home to the MDGs initiative. However, it is generally accepted that the global action of the MDGs agenda was highly successful.

The challenge now for the SDGs is to build upon these successes. There is good reason for optimism in this regard but at the same time there are some problems inherent in the SDG framework that are inevitably going to cause difficulties.

With the worldwide positive emotion generated by the General Assembly’s vote these problems have, however, largely gone uncommented upon in the media.

First is the sheer scale and complexity of the framework. The new SDGs that come into play on 1 January 2016 are the result of a wide-ranging three year consultative process and this time around, in place of the 8 goals/21 targets MDGs agenda, a far wider framework of 17 goals and 169 targets has been produced. How this will work out when it comes to actually getting down to action remains to be seen. With so many goals and targets, across the board implementation will be an enormous challenge, particularly for poorer nations. The size and complexity of the SDG package will also make public understanding and support of it more difficult than would have been the case with a smaller, tighter set of goals.

All the goals and associated targets are in themselves intrinsically worth pursuing, but whether such a diverse set of specified areas for action can be done justice is uncertain. Making this difficult will be the fact that many of the goals are very broad and the associated targets quite vague.

For example, the second target of Goal 8 (‘economic growth’) is specified as “Achieve higher levels of economic productivity through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation, including through a focus on high-value-added and labor-intensive sectors.” Target 3a of Goal 3 (‘healthy lives’) meanwhile reads “Strengthen the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries, as appropriate.” Finance targets under Goal 17 similarly do not give much specific directional guidance, simply urging “Strengthen domestic resource mobilization…” and “Adopt and implement investment promotion regimes for least developed countries.”

These and the many other unquantified targets are certainly going to exercise the skills of monitoring and evaluation teams over the next 15 years.

One of the problems of the MDGs was that for individual countries some of the targets were patently impossible to attain. The same idealistic/aspirational (and almost certainly unrealistic) perspective is apparent in some of the SDG ones. Several of the Goal 3 (‘healthy lives’) targets are good illustrations.

Target 3.1, for instance, is “By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.” According to the UN’s own agencies the global MMR in 2013 was 210 per 1,000 live births, thus requiring a two thirds reduction in the ratio in less than two decades for the target to be achieved. Not even the World Health Organization (WHO) seems to believe this is feasible, its latest cause of death projections for 2030 indicating no such prospect.

Even more unlikely is Target 3.6 “to halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents” by 2020! Again, the WHO’s latest mortality projections show no signs that this is a realistic target.

Other targets could arguably do with more teeth. To give just one example, under Goal 10 (‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’) the first target listed is “By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.” The concern for redressing income equality is to be applauded, but the yardstick to be employed is pretty feeble. The real issue in income inequality is the gap between the rich and poor ends of the income spectrum. Several UN publications publish data on the ratio of the average income of the richest x% to the poorest x%, so the opting for a weak, less pertinent target measure is disappointing. However, it is not difficult to imagine how any proposal for a target that formally specified a substantial reduction in this ratio would have been less than welcomed by quite a few Member States in negotiations.

Another uncertainty hanging over the whole SDGs agenda is the problem of slowing global economic growth. If this continues over the next few years SDG success will clearly be held back. While the SDGs are seen as going beyond aid, donor funding is inevitably going to be critical and closely dependent on the donor countries’ domestic budgetary circumstances. The savage cuts made to foreign aid budgets by Australia, France, Spain, Japan and a range of other advanced nations in recent years serve as an all too clear illustration of this politico-budgetary reality.

With the SDGs however now set in UN stone we can only hope that the aspirational vision of 2030 is in large measure achieved and the pledge that “no one will be left behind” is indeed met.

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