Will the Sustainable Development Goals lead to a more just, equal world?

The unanimity behind the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed recently by world leaders masks what has been a bruising battle over the past 15 years to put the parameters of ‘aid’ on a more mature footing, where rich and poor nations both have responsibility for the planet’s future. The glue that binds together these new global goals is urgent action on climate change and inequality – without which the universalism underpinning the goals would be hollow.

The SDGs have taken a long time to agree and to the layperson look like a string of single issues, not an integrated development thread or a priority order for what matters more, cash or food, health or education, or saving the planet? You may well ask why this is complex and why haven’t the leaders done a decent job of translating the complexity into a simple challenge – that’s after all, what the job of leadership is.

The SDGs do have stronger interconnections than ever before.

In 2000, when leaders last met to agree development targets, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were deliberated behind closed doors. The UN had a lesser role – some would say, token role.

There was a distinct lack of southern country voice and despite the best efforts of the likes of international NGOs like Oxfam and Action Aid to bring forward the marginalised voices, this was no substitute for either top-down or ground-level up developing country input. This was different for the SDGs as the UN process included many perspectives, including those of countries like Indonesia, Brazil and Liberia. Civil society played a more prominent role. The UN did a reasonable job of bringing together the many players and perspectives.

The MDGs were low-hanging fruits and while they largely galvanised the attention of donors, they neglected the key structural issues that keep poor people in poverty and restrict opportunities for long-term development. They worked, however, in galvanising the world’s attention behind a series of targets and goals and elevated global poverty to the world’s attention. They were never going to change the world however, as the vision started and ended with poverty in developing countries.

While the old MDG focus on hunger and traditional priorities like health, education and infrastructure were still burning issues, many were arguing in 2015 that the world’s pressing problems couldn’t be boxed into eight MDGs. The 2030 global goals needed to speak to the complex and messier challenges of sustaining the planet and strengthening the rights of people and their institutions to bring about lasting change. The MDGs appeared to be targeted to the ‘basket cases’ and ‘very poor’ nations as if poverty in such countries was an insulated issue, far removed from the global trade practices that prevent people from earning a living wage and keep them trapped in poverty.

‘We’re all in it together’

The SDGs, by contrast, are universal. The SDGs were going to express the sustainability challenges facing the whole world, including in the developed world. One of the driving forces behind the new SDGs is that no country should be left behind, anywhere in the planet. They contain important challenges for developed and developing countries alike. To coin a phrase, ‘we’re all in it together’.

This shift brings a much sharper focus on inequality and on containing the excesses of economic growth on people and the planet. Inequality is one of the biggest shortfalls of what we have achieved with the MDGs, according to Kevin Watkins, ODI. Oxfam estimate that 85 of the richest people own more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet, and according to the UN, 1 in 5 people live on less than US$1.25 a day . We’re in it together because excessive inequality is bad for sustainable economic growth, and the planet.

Income inequality is part a stand-alone goal (SDG10), along with some recognition of various other forms that inequality can take. Some argue, along with sustainability, this is the issue of the century and tackling rising inequality in countries like China, India and Brazil, will affect the likely settlement on the other SDGs.

SDG1 on extreme poverty and SDG10 on income inequality combine to commit governments to ‘leave no one behind’. It is quite a tall order, finishing the unfinished job and reaching the last 10% of the marginalised and vulnerable populations. The costs of reaching this population are much higher for this group that also exercises the least power. Making progress on the margins is different from the interventions we’ve made for addressing other challenges.

The money

The scale and the ambition behind the SDGs mean that developed countries must continue to assist the development process in developing countries, particularly in the least developed countries, and to deliver on their long-standing pledges to commit 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to official development assistance programmes. These commitments have come unstuck in a number of countries since the 2008 global economic downturn but the UK has led the way in maintaining the 0.7% commitment, whereas Canada, Australia have rebalanced their budgets.

The universality of the SDGs also hides another important reality of the new aid landscape – that of financing the new development agenda: tax. Pushing developing countries to raise more domestic revenue and also stumping out tax evasion of large multi-national companies. There is a more explicit drive to raise domestic resources in developing countries, in particular in middle-income countries, to meet the development targets.

Tax is linked to accountability and strengthening accountability in new middle-income countries where traditionally, democracy and rule of law have been weaker, or fragile. One way to build back accountability is through building institutions of governance (which was the concern of many donors in the last 10 years, with the rise of the ‘governance’ agenda within aid agencies). But another, more important way is simply to raise domestic tax revenues. A big parallel process alongside the SDGs has been the financing for development goals – fine to go universal, but who is going to finance it all? The Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 was tasked with this job, ahead of the historic UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015.

Can we move on from poverty labs?

Beyond financing, the SDGs also speak to a partnership between the developed world and the developing world. The definition of SDG1 refers specifically to a sustainable basis to ending poverty, and the new addition on energy (SDG7) which was missing from the MDGs, spells out the huge job of efficiency and renewal energy work to be done in the developed world. This forces us back to SDG1 on ending poverty on a sustainable basis. The SDGs are inter-connected in a better way, than ever before. The doubling down of poverty to meet the MDGs in 2015 has had a lot to do with spectacular economic growth of China. If we go with numbers alone, China has been unilaterally responsible for the world meeting MDG1; going forward, though, China’s growth is slowing down, and we cannot continue to rely on excessive economic growth in high-population countries to double down extreme hunger (SDG2).

The global partnership places the rights and responsibilities of all countries under the spotlight; what happens to climate change in China, Europe and Asia affects the rest of the world. This we all know. But it also moves us beyond poverty into a connected set of responsibilities, whereas the previous MDGs implied that poverty was ‘the’ challenge, a challenge for poor nations alone and that ‘fixing’ poverty would do the trick. The MDGs placed responsibility and blame onto poor countries. Developing nations were less content with the poverty discourse, but preferred to address the trade and growth constraints to their own economic growth. The more rights-aware organisations have long argued that poverty is not a micro concern but it fulfilled the tick box of grants, rather than fulfilling the more ambitious needs of sustainable, equitable and inclusive economic growth.

Leaving no one behind

The breadth of the SDGs also raises questions on what and where development assistance should be spent. For donors, and rich nations, government expenditures are critical for achieving social and economic rights, particularly for marginalised and vulnerable populations, in all countries. Even in the more advanced developing countries, the capacity for mobilising government resources to target poverty and marginalisation are without doubt inadequate. In a country like China, and many parts of developing Asia where middle-income status has been achieved, the pressing needs of marginalised and vulnerable populations is far from over and hence the big focus on the SDGs, universality, means leaving no one behind.

The SDGs have both a universal push to bring about pressure on all countries of the world, not just poor nations, but also the rich who hold resources, and they also contain a specific pledge to leave no one behind, which speaks the rights of remote, marginalised and vulnerable populations. There is an overlap between ending extreme poverty with natural resource dependence and there is an overlap between extreme poverty and with fragility and conflict hotspots. Leaving no one behind will push agencies more into conflict and environmental hotspots.

Some of the old criticisms of the MDGs have not completely been buried. Long before the ink had dried on the agreement, it was pointed out that the SDGs did not go far enough; inevitably, they didn’t address the fundamentals of power and powerlessness that trap individuals into poverty. The SDGs were agreed by consensus, to bring together a broad set of interest and stakeholders. By definition, heads of states won’t easily dismantle the policies and practices that sustain inequality and the degradation of the planet. That has to come from the truly powerful resources on the ground, from organised groups of people, who can build powerful moments, and collaborations which force open the intractable issues to international summits.

The closest governance target is in SDG16, which hopes to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. The SDGs, and even SDG16 have fewer teeth with regards to targets that involve building people-based challenges to authority and power, and while these cannot be measured as well in terms of results, they nevertheless secure the implementation of the SDGs, holding their governments and local leaders to account.

It is not a bad start to the next generation of global goals, agreed by the world, unanimously.

By Dr. Halima Begum, Senior Adviser, Policy and Insights, British Council, and former development expert with DFID for ten years.

Twitter links

Dr. Halima Begum – @halima_begum

British Council – @BritishCouncil




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