Making the Sustainable Development Goals Workable

Today’s NY Times website has a very perceptive article about the risks that the world is running with the current thinking about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Abhijit Banerjee  and Varad Pande have raised some really serious concerns about what the SDGs will ultimately look like. The current plans are likely to give the world a set of SDGs that will consist of 17 goals and 169 targets to measure success in meeting the goals. This compares with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), coming to an end in 2015 which only have eight broad goals and just 19 targets.

Anyone who has worked, like me, in the private sector for any period of time will know the importance of setting targets properly. At the end-of-the-day you get what you are measuring. Targets need to be few, and they need to be clear. Normally one expects them to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, & Time-bound. Care should be taken that you measure outputs and that these outputs do contribute to the ultimate goals that you are trying to achieve. There should be a limited opportunity for “gaming” the system or having short-term achievements that put the long-term objectives at risk. By-and-large the MDGs met these criteria. Because there were few in number and care was taken to make sure that they didn’t overlap or work against one-another, they have established a global development agenda that everyone has been able to rally around. Certainly for malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS, they have had real value in giving the world targets to unite behind, and they seem to be delivering real results. I like the way that Banerjee and Pande put it: “The idea was to present to the world a specific vision that said, ‘This much at least we should be able to offer every human being.’ By emphasizing the sheer modesty of what was being proposed, it made it hard for nation states to ignore the global project”.

I haven’t seen the 169 targets that are being proposed but just the number makes me worried. It looks like we will end up with a “laundry list” of targets that are adopted because the political leaders who are setting them will not have the courage to make the hard decisions to boil them down to something much more sensible and workable. Too many targets will mean that governments will be able to ignore them because it will be much more difficult to measure all of them in any reliable way. Inevitably there will be unintended conflicts and consequences of too many targets. I entirely agree with the authors that we should avoid input or process measures – it is easy to measure doing things, but if they don’t deliver meaningful results, then what is the point? Setting the SDGs is too important to end up as a political fudge designed to please everyone. Focus on the key essentials is vital if the SDGs are to be as successful as the MDGs have been.

The article in the NY Times can be accessed at:-  ARTICLE