Global Development Institute Blog

By Heiner Janus

In his Global Development seminar last week, Professor David Hulme asked: Are the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the world’s biggest promise or just another development fad? The short answer: a bit of both.

Content-wise the 2030 agenda, including the SDGs, is transformative. The 17 goals and 169 targets contain every issue one could wish for in a global development agenda, such as eradicating poverty, combating hunger, better education and health, protecting the climate and even controversial issues like reducing inequality or promoting peace and security.

Process-wise the SDGs are more of an evolution along existing lines of international development. They emerged from meetings held in the United Nations (UN), but are non-binding and will be supported by the “global partnership”, the collective efforts of all stakeholders towards achieving the goals. All elements which had featured in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) already.

From analysing the differences between MDGs and SDGs, David turned to the follow-up questions: What are the underlying factors that shaped the SDGs and what does this mean for the years ahead?

The non-exhaustive list of factors includes economic and geopolitical power shifts, development finance, global governance, ideas on what constitutes development, civil society organisations, etc. Instead of recounting David’s presentation (more information also in his new book) I will focus on three main points that will influence the implementation of the SDGs over the next years.

1) Emerging powers: The 2030 agenda is universal and will apply to all countries. Yet, the decisive group of countries are emerging powers. Some already played an important role: Brazil was instrumental in promoting the environmental goals, China announced a $2 billion South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund for SDG implementation and India highlighted the importance of clean energy and sustainable consumption. A second group of emerging powers such as Colombia, Indonesia and Turkey also increasingly engage in international development and has shaped the SDG negotiations.

The argument here is that emerging economies and in particular the urban middle-class in these countries will determine whether the SDGs can be achieved globally. Emerging countries had little interest in the MDGs, which were strongly defined by aid from the richest to the poorest countries. With the SDGs, however, the goals are much broader and cooperation will need to go “beyond aid”. The spotlight is now on emerging powers and whether they will take up a leading role in meeting the SDGs or not.

2) Accountability: The SDGs have clearer provisions than the MDGs for following up and reviewing progress on SDG achievement within individual countries, in regions and on the global level. The underlying challenge in current discussions on setting up the various reviews is about creating accountability – the obligation of stakeholders to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. No country (or company) wants its feet being held to the fire, but there need to be fora for meaningful and constructive debates on progress and lessons learned. This is true for all stakeholders, especially the richer countries. For instance, what will the UK do to ensure that “nobody will be left behind” in the UK – and how are Germany or the EU going to make their consumption and production patterns more sustainable?

3) Communication: 17 goals and 169 targets are a technical necessity for addressing the complex development challenges of the 21st century. Still, they are not suited for telling a compelling story that can reach all people across the world. To address this communication challenge the UN have launched the “Global Goals Campaign” that popularises the SDGs by simplifying their branding. This effort is commendable but falls short of generating any real traction. The unwieldy number of 17 goals remains unchanged. The real challenge might lie somewhere else. Creating a transformative development agenda is actually about changing norms that people in all countries value.

The 2030 agenda has already created an emerging normative understanding between all countries on what human well-being includes, most notably combining the ideas of protecting people and planet. The SDG notion of human well-being can therefore be understood as a “super-norm” that integrates several different norms into a coherent structure, like the idea of poverty reduction in the MDGs (David and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr). An alternative communication campaign thus could focus on a single super-norm like “leaving no-one behind”, instead of broadcasting multiple norms at the same time. Further, research shows that super-norms leading to big social changes, like the abolition of slavery, might not be brought about by rational insights or imposed legislation but rather by an intrinsic feeling of honour. Communicating the SDGs and changing global norms therefore belong together.

In conclusion, the next years will show how revolutionary and evolutionary elements of the SDGs simultaneously shape global development. The next testing ground will be the climate conference, COP 21, from 30 November till 11 December 2015 in Paris. Experts say the SDGs have been prologue for Paris, where countries will negotiate a binding treaty on their responsibilities for tackling climate change. A strong treaty could lead to stronger engagement for the SDGs. A weak treaty could limit enthusiasm for SDGs. Or it could be a bit of both.

Heiner is a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester (IDPM) and Researcher at German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).