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Will SDGs lofty ambition undermine advocacy to achieve them?

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The SDGs are certainly more comprehensive, and inclusive of human rights concerns and all relevant actors, than the previous development goals, but this may make it harder to hold anyone accountable if they aren’t met. Español

Charles F. MacCormack Sarah Stroup
25 September 2015

This month, the United Nations (UN) will formally launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of pledges that aim to build on the progress in global development since the millennium.  Coming from a human rights perspective, the SDGs offer both reasons for hope and concern. On one hand, the SDGs are being set not by a small group of Northern elites but by a wide range of actors—rich and poor countries, public and private actors—who were able construct in the SDGs a complex philosophy of development. This participatory approach to setting development goals may have been “complex and convoluted,” but the hope is that the inclusive negotiations, over several years, increase the chances that developing countries will feel ownership of the new SDGs.

On the other hand, if everyone is included, and, as the UN puts it, “everyone and every country should be regarded as having a common responsibility,” then no one actor can be held accountable for development failures. Provided with so many options, donor governments and developing states will do what they would have done anyway, and the time needed to forge real cooperation will be spread quite thin.  

Successful human rights advocacy carries lessons for how best to realize development targets like the SDGs.  These lessons become increasingly relevant as the development community embraces the language of human rights.  In 2000, the Millennium Declaration laid out a vague commitment to “making the right to development a reality for everyone.”  Despite this claim, the development and human rights communities remained largely disconnected under that declaration’s set of targets – the MDGs.  The new SDGs offer the chance to bring these two communities closer together.  The new agenda for the period 2015-30 states that the goal of the 17 SDGs and their 169 targets is to “realize the human rights of all.” 

Inclusiveness – in development or in human rights – risks diluting the political will necessary to achieve anything at all. But, unfortunately, this goal is unlikely to be realized if the development community fails to focus on implementation from the outset, a lesson with which rights activists are familiar. Rights protection requires not just ambitious commitments but specific plans for achieving those goals.  In the words of Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, rights are best protected when there is clarity around the violation, the violator, and the remedy. Poverty may be clearly evident, but who caused it, and who has the responsibility to act?  With the SDGs, rich donor governments and poor countries pursue development goals alongside civil society groups, corporations, the United Nations, mega-philanthropists, and others.  If targets are not met, who is to blame?

We have been here before.  The final goal of the MDGs, Goal 8, called for a “global partnership for development.”  The six targets of Goal 8 focused on the rules of global trade and finance, debt relief for a range of developing countries, higher levels of foreign aid, and the facilitation of greater access to medicines and technology.  This MDG goal was the only one that required action by wealthy countries and private actors. The UN’s 2003 Human Development Report argued that the other 7 MDGs would be difficult to achieve without progress on goal 8.  But most of these targets were not achieved.  A 2014 review panel identified a number of “disappointing shortfalls” in meeting goal 8 targets, including the pretty clear target of having donor states allocate 0.7& of their gross national income to foreign aid.

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Flickr/TED Conference (Some rights reserved)

A Liberian women participates in an NGO-run agricultural development program.


Like the MDGs, the SDGs are built on the recognition that implementation rests on a “revitalized global partnership” for development.  One wonders whether that partnership was ever truly seen as vital.  Granted, multi-stakeholder partnerships have seen highly effective collaboration in malaria prevention, for example, but this is the exception rather than the rule.  In other issue areas, there is a mismatch between who should lead and who can lead.  Thus, the World Bank has been an agenda-setter in global education, but has brought a narrow and contested set of priorities with them. In yet other settings, no mechanism for collaboration among disparate actors exists. In addition, the wide range of goals and targets makes the formation of an adequate number of successful coalitions almost impossible.

In the words of Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, non-state actors are today “duty-bearers” that share with states the responsibility to progressively realize the right to development.  Traditionally, development assistance flowed from donor states to recipient governments, with a few multilateral organizations as intermediaries.  In the past twenty years or so, however, the development landscape has been transformed.  In this new phase, “Global Development 2.0”, there are more players, new specialized agencies, more sources of funding, and new rules.  The problem of coordination is qualitatively different, as more players bring their divergent interests to a negotiating table where responsibility for progress is diffuse. The protection of the right to development will required coordinated action among a vast array of different actors who all have an impact on the health, income, and education of people around the globe.  

With the MDGs, there was at least the potential to measure whether governments and donors were rearranging their priorities to achieve common global goals (we were part of a fascinating discussion last spring on these specific goals).  Some actually did.  But part of this was because the MDGs offered a comparatively short list of only 8 specific goals and 18 targets.  The SDGS are much more numerous and in many cases the targets quite vague (one study found that only 29% of the 169 targets are well-defined and scientifically rigorous).  

The fundamental issue that has always impeded development is the absence of political will.  This problem is made more severe in an age of “hyper-collective action”  working on a long list of SDG targets.  If we are lucky, a few – but only a few – of these targets will actually get attention.   If the momentum from the MDGs is to be maintained, the development community must explicitly address the political dynamics that have created poverty in the first place.  To realize the right to development, we must focus on the responsibilities of specific public and private actors for creating the problem and then assign particular duties on a narrow range of goals. As it stands, the SDGs are a philosophy of development rather than a decision-making framework for improving development outcomes.  That type of inclusiveness – in development or in human rights – may be representative, but it risks diluting the political will necessary to achieve anything at all.

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