New development goals need to be ambitious, actionable and accountable
Jonathan Glennie from the Guardian ~
The post-2015 sustainable development goals are comprehensive and visionary – now they must be translated into a workable action plan at national level
The great strength of the millennium development goals was their ability to focus the minds of the development industry and, to some extent, governments on a handful of key priorities, such as child survival, basic education and women’s rights.
But that was also their weakness. It inevitably meant that equally important themes were excluded, and, by extension, it meant the exclusion of those countries and constituencies for which these other themes were the main concerns.
So the oft-expressed critique that the sustainable development goals are too broad, and that we need a kind of MDG-plus agenda, is misplaced. We need this SDG agenda precisely because it brings in other issues, most obviously links to global environmental problems but also the economic and structural causes of the social issues emphasised by the MDGs.
Most important, perhaps, as I have argued, is that the SDGs overturn an embedded but old-fashioned paradigm: the idea that there are developing and developed countries. The SDGs will apply to all countries, not just a sub-group.
This inclusivity is one of the reasons that the SDGs could be a success. While the MDGs were resented by some countries as “someone else’s agenda”, the SDGs are explicitly fully negotiated and agreed across the board.
If you wanted a list of priorities, then the SDGs are not for you. It is hard to think of a statement of intent by the world’s nations that is as comprehensive and visionary as the SDG agenda set to be acclaimed in New York in September. In a sense, it is more from the family of grand UN visions than a specific action plan.
Certainly, there are 17 goals. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948) has 30 articles, none of which carry an action plan or indicators to monitor progress. Smart targets did not yet exist. But it sets out a vision, justifying and supporting progressive attitudes everywhere. It has since been translated into more than 300 languages, a world record. Insofar as documents signed many miles away can be useful to ordinary people struggling to fulfil their rights and potential, it does its job.
So I am broadly an SDG fan, because I hope it will do something similar. Having said that, there is no doubt that it is actions that matter, not just words. We need to set the SDG negotiators, and the governments they work for, a “triple A challenge”: the SDG agenda needs to be ambitious, actionable and accountable.
Ambition will not be a problem. It is the other two As we need to work on.
In a new paper bringing together lessons from conversations held between a number of governments about how to implement the SDGs, David Steven, senior fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, emphasises two things: the need to integrate the most important aspects of the agenda into national plans, and the need to improve data.
Steven makes clear that countries are not yet ready to deliver, and that prioritisation, even within this explicitly holistic and universal agenda, is not a dirty word – as long as the toughest challenges are not shunned.
Of data, there is already a great deal written – here is my tuppence worth. But there is no doubt that the international community must help countries improve evidence and information as they seek to meet the SDGs.
So much for actioning the SDGs. What about accountability? Of course, this is intimately related with action. If civil society, along with more formal accountability bodies, does not hold government to account with both political pressure and solid evidence, then we can’t expect much action.
The vision of a world in which human rights are respected is still an inspiration to read, almost 70 years since it was first put on paper.
The SDG agenda is also visionary and inspiring. As the long process of drawing up the next set of global goals reaches its final straight, its ambition is assured. It is time to turn our attention to action and accountability in the hope of giving the whole process a triple A rating.