The SDGs Should Stand for Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled

The SDGs Should Stand for Senseless, Dreamy, Garbled

Nothing better reflects the decline and fall of hopes for Western foreign aid than the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030, just launched at a summit this past weekend. The SDG manifesto is called the “[draft] outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda.” This not-quite-soaring rhetoric continues for 35 pages of 17 SDGs buried among phrases like: “Thematic reviews of progress,” “Implement the 10-Year Framework of Programmes,” and “Accelerated Modalities of Action.” The 17 goals in turn have 169 targets, a list that has both too many items and too little content for each one, such as target 12.8: “By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

As for foreign aid, it is barely mentioned. Has anybody else noticed the SDG emperor has a shortage of clothes? Well, the Economist called the SDGs “worse than useless.” Another commentator described them as “a high-school wish list on how to save the world,” which seems unfair to high schoolers. Even Pope Francis warned in his address to the SDG summit this past Friday against the risk to just “rest content” with a “bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals.” It is a sad result for the much-hyped SDGs. Yet hope remains: The “rise of the rest” — the economic growth of low- and middle-income countries — is causing increased respect for the poor, who are mostly achieving their own homegrown development, a welcome move away from the condescension of the old aid effort.

To be fair, the SDGs sometimes do break through with welcome idealism that is ahead of the curve: “We will cooperate internationally to ensure safe … migration involving full respect for human rights and the humane treatment of migrants … of refugees and of displaced persons.” Other inspirational rhetoric is available: “We envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity…. We resolve to build a better future for … the millions who have been denied the chance to lead decent, dignified and rewarding lives.” The SDGs might have worked, and I hope could possibly still work, as just idealistic rhetoric that will motivate more people in the rich and free countries to care about the world’s poor and shackled.

But the Sustainable Development Goals are not presented that way — they really are goals and targets. They want to be like their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), announced in 2000 with targets for 2015 — but they are not. The MDGs were so appealing because they were so precise and measurable. In just one paragraph in the 2000 U.N. Millennium Declaration, the U.N. announced goals to cut in half the proportion of the world’s population that was in extreme poverty, to cut in half the proportion who suffer from hunger, to cut in half the proportion without access to safe drinking water, to achieve universal primary schooling, to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters, and to reduce under-five child mortality by two-thirds — all by the year 2015. As a later U.N. document in 2005 made clear, the MDGs held everyone accountable for actually meeting these “quantified and time-bound” targets.

In the SDGs, it is hard to imagine what the time-bound and quantified target is for harmony with nature.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs are so encyclopedic that everything is top priority, which means nothing is a priority: “Sport is also an important enabler of sustainable development.” “Recognize and value … domestic work … and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household.” It’s unclear how the U.N. is going to get more women to play soccer and more men to do the dishes.

Beyond the unactionable, unquantifiable targets for the SDGs, there are also the unattainable ones: “ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions,” “universal health coverage,” “ending all … preventable deaths [related to newborn, child, and maternal mortality] before 2030,” “[end] all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere,” and “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men.” Again, these could have been great as ideals — I share such ideals with great enthusiasm. But the SDGs are not put forth as ideals but as “targets” for the year 2030. The rejoinder to a utopian target should be: Wow, if something that great is possible, why wait until 2030? Why didn’t it happen already?

It’s a mark of how the SDGs don’t take seriously their own utopian promises that they keep repeating them over and over again for different sub-groups. After promising full employment of everyone, the SDGs also ask more modestly for full employment of “young people,” having already mentioned even more modestly they are “promoting youth employment.” They don’t seem to get how following a big promise with a much smaller one weakens the big promise’s credibility. You have already won $1 million dollars — plus a free toaster.

As if the promises were not already weakened enough by being either unmeasurable or unattainable, there are still a lot of ways to opt out. The commitments “will be voluntary and country-led,” they can be modified upon demand for “different national realities, capacities and levels of development,” and they will defer to each nation’s “policy space and priorities.”

Part of the problem is the use of that word “sustainable” — the U.N. never defines it. “Sustainable” might have something to do with climate change, but the SDGs tell us that climate change will be negotiated in a different U.N. summit in Paris beginning in late November. “Sustainable” is so overused in so many different contexts that it means very little — we might as well call them the “Some-such Development Goals.”

The best chance the SDGs have at saying something with real meaning is the promise, by 2030, to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.” This is one of the few endings promised by the SDGs that could actually be possible, mostly because it is such an extreme definition of extreme poverty and the trend on this poverty has already been sloping downward for decades.

Unfortunately, the one and only official international custodian of the global poverty line, the World Bank, chose just this moment to increase the confusion on where the global poverty line should be. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced last week that the poverty line is not really $1.25; instead, it is about $1.90 — which might add a hundred million or so poor to the global rolls (not yet determined). Princeton University’s Angus Deaton, one of the world’s leading poverty experts, suggested this confusion is because “[you’ve] got a line that no one knows where to put it,” all based on “underlying data that is bad,” creating a “statistical problem from hell.” So the headline goal of the SDGs turns out to be almost as unmeasurable as the others.

What about foreign aid? President Barack Obama endorsed the SDGs in a speech to the U.N. summit on Sunday, but if there is to be any new U.S. aid for the SDGs, he forgot to mention it. While a price tag for SDGs of $3 trillion is mentioned (with no explanation) in U.N. discussions, there is no talks in the document itself of foreign aid increasing to pay for these targets. The rich countries are “to implement fully their official development assistance commitments” (see target 17.2) — in other words, to keep previous foreign aid promises already broken. A surge in foreign aid had been at the heart of the MDGs, but the SDGs just change the subject as fast as possible — the next target (see target 17.3) is to “mobilize additional financial resources for developing countries from multiple sources.” Nothing better exemplifies the decline and fall of the millennium goals’ transformational hopes for foreign aid than this no-show for the SDGs.

So the SDGs are to monitor the attainment of goals that cannot be monitored or attained, financed by unidentified financing.

How did it wind up like this? Part of the challenge of the SDGs was following a MDG program based on meeting precise targets in 2015, which was a great success. Well, except for meeting precise targets in 2015. As the SDG manifesto notes in a buried paragraph: “[Some] of the Millennium Development Goals remain off-track, in particular those related to maternal, newborn and child health and to reproductive health. We recommit ourselves to the full realization of all the Millennium Development Goals, including the off-track Millennium Development Goals.” No wonder the SDGs went all vague and utopian.

There is something deeper at work here — that there is today a much less confident West compared to the MDGs heyday. The rise of the rest is so much more evident now than in 2000. Per capita GDP growth in low- and middle-income countries since 2000 has been rising much faster than in the West, even in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa now has twice as many cell-phone subscribers as the United States, after remarkable growth that had nothing to do with Western development aid. Remittances from the diaspora and foreign direct investment are together twice as large for Africa as foreign aid. There are so many other long-term trends in these developing countries that are positive — from poverty to health, education to sanitation, and democratization to technology. Yes, the MDG campaign itself and foreign aid commitments do deserve some credit — even if the goals were not met. But the aid was too small to significantly explain these large accomplishments — and these trends began long before the MDGs and will continue long after 2015.

The MDGs gave far too much attention to middle-aged white male experts in the West debating what should be done for the rest of the world (including this author, but far more prominently Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, and Bill Gates). Thank goodness this patronizing direction from the West is no longer seen as so acceptable. People in low- and middle-income countries must now be recognized as equals, the authors of their own development. The surprisingly savvy Pope got this: He called upon leaders at the SDG summit to recognize “these real men and women” in poverty “to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

If there is something to salvage from the SDG debacle, perhaps it is the idealistic advocacy for “universal respect for human rights and human dignity,” not as a 2030 “target,” but just as an increasing recognition of poor people’s rights for self-determination. Similar language was there in the MDGs but ignored. Such advocacy is needed to accept and respect the mainly homegrown rise of the rest. Such advocacy is needed because there are still many aid programs that violate the rights of the poor (such as involuntary resettlement) or aid that supports others who callously violate the rights of the poor (such as autocratic allies of the United States in the war on terror). Such advocacy is needed, not only because the West itself is now far too prone to xenophobic insults of poor people over fears of migration.

For this generation of young idealists in rich countries, development should still be a cause worth fighting for. The many humanitarian programs that have been doing good things should continue, even if they are not quite the transformational things that the MDGs promised. But the decline and fall of the pretensions of foreign aid only tell us to not put our hopes in U.N. bureaucrats or Western experts. We can put our hopes instead in the poor people we support as dignified agents of their own destiny.

Photo credit: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images for Global Goals