Global Development Institute Blog

By Professor David Hulme

The imminent announcement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is generating real debate amongst researchers, NGOs and academics about their level of ambition and the likelihood success. Will they be business as usual for the aid industry, or something truly transformational?

At the World Social Science Forum earlier this month there was a consensus that the SDGs are an advance on the MDGs, yet they still met with major criticisms. As one conference delegate told me, “they are just the MDGs with knobs on – these are not about global justice!” The MDGs focussed largely on reducing extreme poverty – according to Thomas Pogge seeking only to secure a minimalist set of basic needs for the world’s poorest people.

The SDGs are definitely more ambitious. With 17 Goals and 167 targets (the MDGs had 8 goals and 20 targets) they have to be. The SDGs seek to eradicate extreme poverty, not simply reduce it; to move the world toward environmental sustainability; to create economic growth and jobs in poor countries; to reduce inequality; to achieve peace and justice in all countries and much more.


The starting point has to be asking whether having a lot more goals and targets is an improvement. The many NGOs who got their pet target into the SDGs draft might think so. But some, particularly the UK Government, have argued that 17 goals and 167 targets is a dysfunctional number. How can countries identify national priorities when the list is so long? How can aid donors explain to taxpayers and voters what ‘foreign aid’ is, and why it’s a priority when it takes five minutes to read the goals – and thirty to read the targets? The public in rich nations work on rolling 24/7 media reports and sound bites. They need messages in bullet points, or so the argument goes. Too long and people will just ‘switch off’.

The G77 thought differently, however, and were annoyed at the UK’s efforts to intervene. They saw attempts to consolidate the SDGs into a shorter list as a covert attempt to reopen debate on goals that richer countries have found to be problematic – such as reducing inequality across countries and encouraging sustainable consumption.

So what has been added to the SDGs? In terms of poverty reduction they are a great advance on the MDGs. Where the latter were framed to halve income poverty and hunger, the SDGs take poverty as multi-dimensional – measuring it in terms of income and hunger, but also factors like access to potable water and sanitation, basic health services and education – and seek to eradicate it in all its forms.

The SDGs also go beyond poverty and seek to “reduce inequality within and among nations”. With the exception of several Latin American countries, most countries have seen inequality rising in recent years, so Goal 10 lays down a significant political and economic challenge. It’s not just aimed at developing counties, but also tasks rich nations to address the growing wealth gap in their own populations.

However, what does reducing inequality “among nations” actually require? Will rich nations redistribute their wealth, or slow their own economic growth so that convergence between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies can occur? In their present form, the Goal 10 targets avoid specifically addressing this question, and it remains to be seen whether the indicators designed to measure inequality reduction will be further diluted so that rich countries and rich people are not directly challenged about their current control over global assets and income.

As might be expected, the SDGs also exhibit a much greater focus on sustainability than the MDGs did. Five goals pursue environmental sustainability, including Goal 12: “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (will we all get individual carbon allowances?) and Goal 13: to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

Beyond poverty, inequality and sustainability the SDGs include several other goals that are significant advances on what the UN could agree in 2000/01. Economic growth and job creation figure strongly in Goal 8 – and are to be sustainable, inclusive and decent. A goal for peace, justice and effective institutions appears toward the end of the list, albeit with very weakly-specified targets. Negotiation of this 16th goal was very contentious; OECD members argued for ‘good governance’, while G77 members saw this as an attempt to reinforce a Western form of liberal democracy as the global norm. Discussion about what indicators should be used to monitor Goal 16 could run up to the last minute.

While the content of the SDGs can be argued to be a great advance on the MDGs, they are ultimately political output produced by the UN’s Open Working Group through a filter of multiple compromises. They are not a carefully theorised and operationalised form of human rights. That said, I believe the SDGs do have the potential to be transformational – because of how the process of negotiating the Goals took place this time around.

While the MDGs were very much driven by OECD members and donor agency preferences, the SDGs have been produced through a formal UN process, involving negotiation across all 193 members. The G77 – or more accurately, the G77 and China – have played an active role in creating these goals. Emerging powers (especially Brazil), which pushed the sustainability/Rio agenda – have taken strong positions. The world has changed: development is no longer officially defined by aid donor countries but by all UN member states. ‘Developing’ countries now have a big say in what development means!

Two final points must also be observed. First, will the SDGs actually be implemented? Often the MDGs existed only on paper, and the SDGs are a resolution and not a legally binding treaty. Though they represent a global super-norm there are no penalties for countries that do not pursue them. More meaningful commitment to transformation has already been resisted by all sides. Admittedly, there is a goal, with 19 targets, that provides guidance on implementation. Maybe that is progress; the 130 countries that comprise the G77 certainly fought strongly for it.

Secondly, the SDGs are not the only game in town and they will be agreed in the shadow of the climate change treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Paris in December.

Climate change has the privileged status of being addressed with a treaty; countries that ratify it must honour it and countries that do not sign up lose status in international terms. This is why one European envoy to the UN told me, “It’s all about Paris”. While the SDGs will be agreed in September, COP 21 will determine how seriously they are taken. If a strong treaty to tackle climate change can be agreed, it will serve as stimulus for energetic pursuit of the SDGs in many countries. If climate talks stall or produce a weak, inconclusive treaty then one can expect enthusiasm for the SDGs to be low. What is the point of a set of Sustainable Development Goals if climate change makes sustainability a joke?

The newly announced Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester is based around the pursuit of social justice. As a supporter of this aim, I hope UN members gets the deals right in both New York and in Paris.

Read David’s earlier post: Are the SDGs the world’s biggest promise… or the world’s biggest lie?