‘Messy’ Sustainable Development Goals Irritate Economists

The Economist pooh-poohs the post-2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) process in a series of related articles in March 2015.

Why are they so pessimistic?

1. The scope is too broad.

3The first piece, “169 commandments,” refers to the number of targets associated with the 17 proposed SDGs. Proponents of the expanded mandate for the SDGs — addressing environmental issues, sustainable food systems, and good governance — argue the wider scope of the SDGs, when compared to the predecessor eight Millennium Development Goals, reflects an improved understanding by the UN of the complexity of poverty and poor health.

The Economist agrees about the intricacies of poverty, BUT:

“There is truth in that argument, but the SDGs are still a mess.”

2. Everyone wants their favorite flavor of ice cream.

Supporters of the current draft of the SDGs cite its messiness as a benign byproduct of robust democratic participation. In “Unsustainable GoalsThe Economist elaborates on what it views as the downside of multi-stakeholder negotiations.

“It also shows what happens when a bureaucratic process runs out of control. The organizers sought to consult as widely as possible, with the result that each country and aid lobbyist got a target for its particular bugbear and is now unwilling to give it up unless others give up theirs. Something for everyone has produced too much for anyone. All attempts to chop down the list have failed: last year negotiators cut the number of proposals from 212 to 169, but largely by running separate targets together into one.”


3. The politics are global, not local.

I grew up in the Tip O’Neill–land of “all politics are local.” As Cokie Roberts observed of the iconic former speaker of the US House of Representatives, “Saying ‘all politics is local’ is a way of saying you are of your people and you have a responsibility to your people.”

In contrast to O’Neill’s focus on what was good for Massachusetts, The Economist laments how the SDGs seek a global panacea for poverty.

The SDG drafters also flout one of the most important lessons of development: that everywhere is different.”

Of course there are other economists besides THE economist who challenge aspects of international development. Marc F. Bellemere writes in Foreign Affairs (and, before that, on his blog) about “development bloat” and the downside of “scattershot” international development policies and programs. William Easterly derides the tyranny of experts who dominate the global international development agenda.

Why am I optimistic?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are meant to be a comprehensive framework for improving global development and health and eradicating poverty in the next 15 years. Everyone, critics and supporters alike, agree that causes and consequences of poverty and poor health are complicated. Yes, the current draft is ambitious. It needs to be.

Easterly also writes about “Searchers” versus “Planners.” Searchers seek to understand the needs of intended beneficiaries, and then—drawing on local knowledge as well as rigorous trial and error—identify ways to meet those needs. “A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.” A trial-and-error search for what works led nutritionists to conclude in the 2013 Lancet series that nutrition-specific interventions were insufficient in improving all forms of undernutrition (stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies). Where possible, nutrition strategies need to be integrated with other sectors such as agriculture, education, natural resources, water, sanitation, land rights, markets…an expansive list.

So, my optimism comes with a caveat: the Sulis Health blog focuses on nutrition, health, and agriculture. (Or SDG Goals 1-3, 6, and 12.) Measurements to track progress in building health outcomes into agriculture and nutrition policies are neither simple to agree upon nor to implement. But I see evidence of “Searchers” participating alongside “Planners” in the ongoing SDG negotiations.

One person’s “scattershot” is another person’s “integrated.” ❖

About Amanda Pearson

Editing & writing @HarvardWCFIA on global politics, people, history, and health. Alumna @GWpublichealth @LSEGovernment
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