Global conflict and the sustainable development goals (SDGs)

By James Copestake

The decision of the international ‘community’ to come up with a new set of development goals to take over from the MDGs in 2015 and to see us through to 2030 was not one that readily filled me with excitement. Even their formal approval at the UN General Assembly in New York in September largely passed me by. And when I discovered they comprised no fewer than 17 goals and 169 targets then, yes, it did occur to me that this might be a hugely costly bureaucratic exercise: a fable of synergy, partnership and rationality jarring against a global reality of sharp trade-offs, conflict and insanity…

Now that the goals have been agreed the SDG roadshow confronts tangible ‘what next’ implementation questions, and perhaps these are more interesting. With this thought in mind, and with the added allure of a short trip to Rome, I signed up to participate in a “technical seminar” co-hosted by the four UN agricultural agencies based there (FAO, WFP, IFAD and CGIAR) to consider how to monitor and evaluate progress towards just one of the goal/target clusters – SDG2. Just in case, like me, you didn’t know SDG2 combines ending hunger and malnutrition (including obesity) with doubling the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, and promoting more sustainable farm practices. Sorting out just this mix confronts not a few trade-offs, you may note. But it’s easy to criticise from afar. So here are three positive thoughts that emerged at the seminar.

First, the reason for so many goals and targets is partly that the SDGs have been negotiated though a relatively inclusive, deliberative and overtly political process. In sort, they are firmly owned by national governments (rich and poor) not international development agencies. And in New York they jointly committed to account to their citizens for progress – or lack of it – towards achieving them.

Second, contradictions and inconsistencies between the goals and targets reflect at least in part a recognition of the complexity of current global problems. The messiness of the mix poses awkward questions, demands analysis, invites debate, and opens up multiple options for negotiation and action. This is surely better than some neat but inevitably simplistic and unrealistic grand plan for universal planetary renaissance. Our discussions in Rome about how to evaluate change relative to SDG2 were in this spirit: open to a diverse voices, approaches and levels of action; consistent with different forms of collaboration, synthesis and precision.

Third, the SDGs are normative framework – aspirational and symbolic – not a planning framework. What else can you point to that has involved so many people in building such an ambitious vision weaving “people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnership” in an interconnected if far from fully coherent way, not forgetting to mention the late commitment (SDG10) to reduce inequality both within and among countries? Encyclicals from religious leaders are all very well, and come a lot cheaper, but we’ve clearly long ago moved beyond building international relations on contested claims to divine authority.

But will the SDGs actually make enough difference in the world to justify all the hot air and expense? Here are four pointers highlighted by the Rome seminar towards what they might just possibly do.

  1. They can help to redefine power relations between national governments and international donors. Government representatives at the meeting were quick to take UN staff to task on the odd occasion they implied donor leadership in pursuit of SDG2 goals, or even primary responsibility for tracking progress towards them. They made clear that IFAD, FAO, WFP and the rest are there to help governments work towards SDG2 goals, especially those who lag behind. Consolidating this power shift will take time, but a Rubicon has been crossed by extending the goals to all countries not just poorer ones.
  2. They are prompting necessary updating and rationalisation of development indicators, as well as the local, national and supra-national infrastructure needed to collect them. Some areas are in relatively good shape (e.g. monitoring of undernutrition and of food production). Others require serious investment (e.g. for monitoring dietary quality and the sustainability of agricultural practices). ICTs, new bio-metric and geophysical measurement methods offer scope for doing this both better and more cost-effectively.
  3. Their complexity reinforces the case for a diverse ‘ecosystem’ of inter-agency relationships, conducive to collaboration and partnership, but also respecting the case for subsidiarity and looser alignment of activity when appropriate to diverse contexts and problems. Governments can choose which goals to prioritise and justify their choices among their peers (e.g. Uganda is not keen on adding the doubling agricultural productivity target to the array it already has).
  4. The messy complexity of the SDG framework is an antidote to oversimplification, including the myth that development can be reduced to results management by numbers. It promises to foster investment in national evaluation systems. The seminar recognised the need for evaluators, and commissioners of them, who are seeking to catalyse learning and adaptation, and recognise they are accountable for doing this. This takes evaluative practice beyond auditing compliance with targets, offering instead a vision of evaluators as change agents – “professional revolutionaries” is what Simon Levine from ODI called them – who are accountable for learning. Commissioning and delivering weighty reports will no longer suffice.

Environmentalist and author Sunita Narain summed up this positive spirit by asserting that “if the SDGs reinforce business-as-usual then they will have failed”. Others countered with warnings about the power of inertia, and the scale of the problem. But if the SDGs reflect boldly wishful thinking about the potential for change, then – well – that’s the point!

To conclude, my recommendation is to select and follow at least one of the SDGs yourself, and to reflect on what you learn from doing so. As with the many government agencies now committed to them in one way or another, that should be easy enough to fit in with other commitments you have. Sitting in the IFAD cafe over lunch I watched as delegates of various sizes wavered between pizza, pasta and the salad bar. And I reflected on how the balance between hope and fatalism about the future depends less on global workshops than on the daily decisions of each one of us.

Some further reading

Garcia, O., et al. (forthcoming) Enhancing the evaluability of sustainable development goal 2: “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” Proceedings of an international technical seminar. Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Loewe, M., Rippin, N. (2015) Translating an ambitious vision into global transformation. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Bonn: German Development Institute. Discussion paper 7/2015.

Nicola, S., Hoy, C., Berliner, T. (2015) Projecting progress: reaching the SDGs by 2030. London: Overseas Development Institute.


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