The Sustainability Agenda: What to Expect from the SDGs

Tim Pfefferle

Co-chairs of the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda. Photo: DFID via FlickR.

Co-chairs of the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda. Photo: DFID via FlickR.

2015 is supposed to be the year of sustainable development. In the run-up to the UN summit in September, where the follow-up scheme to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be announced, the next few months will be littered with events, discussion forums, activist campaigns and any other publicity move you can imagine. In the midst of all these attempts at getting specific policies into the sustainable development agenda, it is important to clarify what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are. And what they aren´t.

Based on the amount of media coverage and the obsession on the part of policy-makers and NGO representatives, one would assume that the new SDG agenda will be integral to the dynamics shaping the world in the years to come. That is unlikely. Yes, the MDGs were somewhat of a see change to how we view international development. When taken in context, however, it’s clear that other drivers were much more significant over the last 15 years. Chinese economic and social policy, India´s successes and failures, and the 2008 financial crash all left an infinitely greater footprint than the MDGs ever could. The same will be true of the SDGs, whatever the final design. So far, the proposal on the table includes 17 areas that are all undoubtedly relevant to sustainable development in some fashion. Nevertheless, what is proposed and agreed to at the international level and what is or isn’t happening in communities are two fairly different things.

To realize why that is the case is not especially difficult. The UN is as influential an institution as an intergovernmental body with near-universal membership and an agenda encompassing social, economic and security policy could be. But it is still more of an agenda-setting actor than anything. That has real value, and is a factor that should not be overlooked. Indeed, the implementation of the MDGs did its part in revolutionizing the work of international development agencies, for better or for worse. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, the MDGs and their successor are only bit parts. They remain subject to the workings of an international trade and financial system that is virtually completely detached from anything that happens at the UN or donor meetings or NGO summits.

What is more, development goals have little to say about particular political dynamics that shape the pathway of a given country. What is the institutional makeup of country X? Who is calling the shots, and why? What set of actors could be change agents, and how can such change be brought about? The proposed Sustainable Development Goals cannot answer these questions. In part, that is by design. Ideally, countries should be empowered to define their own pathways toward developing their society and economy. This is called ownership, a concept that has been repeatedly stressed as good practice and as a prerequisite for successful international cooperation. Yet, the process is also limited by the institutional circumstances. Based on intergovernmental negotiations, the SDGs will inevitably produce outcomes roughly equivalent to the lowest common denominator. Not only are countries trying to sneak in their priorities while seeking to block proposals they thoroughly oppose; adding to the multitude of actors involved, NGOs, the private sector and academia are playing a much more significant role now than they were 15 years ago ahead of the MDGs. This boosts the participatory element of the SDG process, but also augments its complexity.

This is not to say that, going forward, we should completely discount or disregard the eventual SDGs. However, expectations should be toned down significantly. By themselves, the SDGs will not bring about the paradigm shifts that many are looking for. They will not institute policies to reduce inequality. They will not prevent climate change. They are unlikely to reform the global trade system. Ideally, the SDGs would make a positive contribution towards establishing a framework in which all of these things are more easily achieved. They can add to the imperative to combat climate change, highlight that fair economic distribution is important, and outline that international development and global trade are interdependent issues. Concrete policies, however, will have to be pushed in the national or even sub-national context. And therein lies the contradiction inherent in the SDGs. Try to prescribe policies and you will not get agreement. Tread lightly and you will be perceived as a talking shop without substance. Thus, while the SDGs are supposed to be universal in scope, this does not necessarily translate to universal impact.

The MDGs, though much maligned, had one essential advantage: manageability. In a sense, lack of ambition meant that goals could be communicated more or less clearly. Thus far, it remains unclear how the SDGs can square the circle and reconcile universal applicability with meaningful verification. So long as that is the case, the SDGs are unlikely to make the direct impact that many associate with them. Nevertheless, where the SDGs can leave a significant imprint is in normative terms. They matter more as a collective idea than they do in concrete terms. What is the vision for a more just and equitable global society? If, collectively, both state and non-state actors can rally around this question and build towards a stronger consensus, then the SDGs will have done their job.

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