A big year for development

Click to see the 17 goals and 169 targets
Click to see the 17 goals and 169 targets

This will be “the mother of all years for summits on international development,” says Kevin Watkins, Executive Director of the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI). He’s not wrong.

Over the next 11 months, international delegates will gather first in Addis Ababa in July to discuss how poorer countries can fund their development. Then, in September, attention will shift to New York, where the United Nations will sign off on the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Finally, in December, Paris will take centre stage when it hosts the latest edition of the global climate change conference, COP21.

The three events may be separate, but the topics under discussion are not. For example, the development financing conference in July will need to come up with ways to pay for the priorities identified in the new development goals. In turn, those goals will (probably) cite the need to help countries better prepare for climate change.

All three events will generate plenty of news and commentary, including, no doubt, here on the blog. But if we had to pick the one that’s likeliest to grab the lion’s share of interest, it might well be the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In part that’s simply because of their rarity value. The first, and so far only, global development goals – the MDGs – were set down just over 15 years ago. When the SDGs are agreed in September, they will set the development agenda for the next 15 years. But the attention paid to the SDGs is also likely to reflect the fact that, like their predecessors, they’ll be a powerful campaigning tool for developing countries and the wider “development community”.

Indeed, some might argue that that’s been the most important role of the MDGs. The goals set at the turn of the century won’t be met in full by the time they reach their deadline at the end of this year, although there’s been important progress on a number of them. But, as The Economist noted some time ago, the mere fact they exist has forced world leaders to discuss “matters they might prefer to ignore”.

The MDGs have also become the way in which much of the development debate is framed. Describing them as “one of the best ideas for development either of us has ever seen” Bill and Melinda Gates argue that the MDGs “focused the world on key measures of how many people get the basics of a productive life: good health and a chance to get an education and make the most of economic opportunities.”

So what about the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals? Will they match or surpass their predecessors? That’s a question that many are currently debating, even though the SDGs are still only a proposal and will not be finalised until the UN General Assembly session in September.

Much of the discussion revolves around the scope of the SDGs. Are they, in other words, trying to do too much? The MDGs comprised just eight broad goals, each accompanied by at least one specific target (making 21 in total). So, for example, the overall goal of reducing diseases like AIDS and malaria came with the target of providing access to HIV/AIDS treatment for everyone who needed it. By contrast, the current proposal for the SDGs is to have double the number of goals, 17, and a whopping 169 targets. They are also designed to be truly global, setting goals for both developed and developing countries.

The breadth of the SDGs reflects in part the process that went into their making. As we’ve noted before, critics of the MDGs accused them of reflecting the priorities of donor over developing countries. Determined to avoid similar criticism of the SDGs, the UN has consulted widely. The SDGs’ broad scope also reflects growing recognition over the past 15 years that problems like environmental degradation and inequitable growth can undermine development, and that many of these can only be addressed globally.

But for some, such as Alan Beattie, the risk of such a broad agenda is that is that if “everything is a priority … nothing is a priority”. Similarly, Bjorn Lomborg argues that “having 169 targets is like having no targets at all.” Others are more upbeat: Nancy Birdsall believes 17 goals are “not too many” and reflect the reality that development needs “more about what both rich and poor countries can do together to address global challenges”.

What all can agree on is that the SDGs are ambitious. If they’re to succeed, careful work will be needed not just on their design and implementation but on how development is financed and on how progress is monitored. All that will make for a busy year indeed.

Useful links

OECD work on development

Development Co-operation Report 2014: Mobilising Resources for Sustainable Development (OECD, 2014)

Informing a Data Revolution (PARIS21)

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development (OECD, 2012)

Brian Keeley

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