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The MDGs to SDGs trade off : What has been lost and gained for global equity?

Last fortnight, the international community gathered in New York for the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly and set the post-2015 development agenda in the form of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets. These targets are successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000: the first global, time-bound and quantified targets for addressing extreme poverty and inequity. The MDGs were composed of eight goals and 21 associated targets to be met by 2015.

While some of the MDGs such as cutting in half the share of people living in abject poverty were reached (largely due to the economic rise of China, and not the MDGs themselves); others such as reducing child and maternal mortality, and achieving universal education, although not met, have nevertheless seen significant progress. It can be argued that the MDGs were instrumental in focusing attention and resources of nations and the international development community on these important goals for improving human and social development and global equity. For more on the achievement of the MDGs, see The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015.

Regardless of the metrics and varied progress towards meeting the MDGs, there is no doubt that their adoption by the UN, and their diffusion to the general public and international development community were successful in raising awareness, catalyzing action, and focusing international cooperation on longstanding, priority areas for global development and equity. This led to rising public awareness of the most heinous forms of global poverty and inequity; a boom in aid money (official development assistance increased by 66% from 2000 to 2014, and official development assistance for health nearly tripled from 2000 to 2012), and the emergence of innovative new actors such as The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria and TB; the GAVI Alliance; and the UN-led platform Every Woman Every Child, which have proven effective in their areas of expertise.

It is important to remember that the resolutions brought by the United Nations are not actually enforceable. The strength of the MDGs lied in their soft power to inspire the public; motivate new and old development actors; and to applaud and shame countries that were or were not on track to meeting the MDGs. The primary reason that the MDGs were so powerful in moving the public, governments and development actors was that they were relatively simple, fundamental goals for global equity that anyone could understand and few could argue with: the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the reduction of child and maternal mortality, the achievement of universal primary education and promotion of gender equality, combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, and facilitating global partnerships for development.

These goals have an underlying thread of global equity that almost anyone can relate to. Most ordinary citizens are happy to accept that there are poor and rich economies and poor and rich people in this world; but few are ready to accept that a child born in a low-income country should die for lack of access to such basic necessities as a safe birth, safe drinking water, food, or life-saving essential medicines. Indeed, a quick skim over the MDGs reveals that they are less about economic development in the strict sense of increasing GDP and growing economies, and are more about global equity as it relates to gender, health, access to food and water, education, disease prevention and control, and the social justice of caring for the environment and each other. This was the inspiring, motivating and connecting soft power of the MDGs.

Building on the successes of the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals set out an ambitious and admirable set of 17 goals and 169 associated targets to be achieved by 2030, including the end of extreme poverty and hunger everywhere, gender equality, ensuring healthy lives and quality education; and reducing inequality within and among countries, amongst others. The goals and targets have been criticized for being both too broad and un-implementable, and also too bureaucratic. First, the sheer number of goals and targets make them less accessible (and therefore less inspiring) to the general public.

While the list of goals and targets is music to a development student’s ears, the reality is that few outside of the development field will spend the time to read them all, they will most certainly not be able to understand them all, and will therefore be less likely to rally around them in any coherent or meaningful way. This matters. The support of the public is key not only for building global solidarity movements, but also because it is public shaming and pressure that moves unwilling governments to act.

Secondly, in addition to being a long list, many of the goals and targets are simply too broad to be implementable or measurable (e.g. “By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance”). This is an admirable goal, but not a realistic one as access to land, technology, and financial services is a function of income in the global economy, and ensuring the right of 7.3 billion people to these assets would require upheaving the entire market-based economy.

Similarly, the goal of “Significantly reducing all forms of violence and related deaths everywhere” would require global powers to drastically alter their foreign policies of military intervention and war – which would be wonderful, but is simply not implementable. The inclusion of such broad-reaching and lofty goals undermines the targets that are realistically measurable and implementable.

Furthermore, no country can reasonably be expected to meet every single one of the 17 goals and 169 targets, hence countries can pick and choose which ones to showcase, and which ones to ignore, and pressuring them or holding them accountable for meeting this many targets will be near impossible. Yet, there are seeds of hope encapsulated in each of the 17 goals and 169 targets as well. First, their number shows that the development community has finally come to understand the complex and interdependent nature of poverty and that there are in fact no ‘magic bullets’ to development.

The SDGs leave no doubt that human and economic development is not as simple as ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstraps’, but require that many things go right in order to lift a population out of impoverishment. While the SDGs are less clear, they are also more nuanced; and even if some of the goals are not realistically attainable, they beg the question: why not? What is wrong with the global legal, economic, and political systems that we consider significantly reducing the level of violence, and affording everyone access to land, health, education, and gainful employment as laughably unrealistic? There are important questions about the global political and economic systems contained within the SDGs – their justness, their legitimacy, consequences for countries and populations at the periphery, and their sustainability in the long run.

With respect to actually achieving the SDGs, some have argued that the money required to finance them would cost an estimated 15% of annual global savings, or 4% of global GDP, and this, in a climate of economic recession and uncertainty, is as unrealistic as the goals themselves.There is certainly the danger that such a long list of goals could bloat development institutions in the West eager to monitor and track the SDGs more than it will bloat the capabilities of low and middle-income countries to actually achieve the targets. Yet, achieving these laudable, although sometimes lofty, goals does not necessarily require the injection of huge sums of money.

In fact, throwing huge sums of money would not in itself solve these huge challenges we face as a global community. Ensuring sustainable global development, in all its facets, requires a complete overhaul of the current modus operandi of international development and relations, global production patterns, natural resource use, and significant changes in the domestic policies of rich and poor countries alike.

Although this presents us with a huge task, it nevertheless also represents the seeds of a global solidarity movement aimed at social justice, equity, equal opportunity and reciprocity, and a respect for your fellow man and the environment. The SDGs, as the MDGs before them, represent a call to global equity, now with all of the multi-faceted and complex components in full bloom.

Equity cannot be achieved through the charity of rich nations to poor nations, nor can it be achieved by choosing. Equity can only be achieved by the recognition of rich nations and populations that some of their government policies, corporations, and national production and consumption patterns inadvertently make the rich rich by making the poor poor – that policies and consumption patterns at home cause real damages abroad; and then taking the necessary steps to remedy those inequities.

Since governments and corporations are not likely to implement such change, the global community must call for, pressure, lobby and shame, and the SDGs are a shopping list of good ideas. If they can be a source of inspiration, and help to educate and engage the public as well as governments and international stakeholders in the complex task that is sustainable development, then maybe by 2030 we will be wishing they had been longer.

In the end, it is not the length, specificity, or implementability of the SDGs that will decide their success, but whether or not they inspire and motivate a global solidarity movement for addressing the inescapable challenges of global development and inequity.

About the Author
  • Maja Pleic headshot
    Maja Pleic

    Maja Pleic is a global health and global equity researcher and advocate. Maja holds an MA in Political Economy of International Development and a BA in International Relations and Economics, from the University of Toronto. Previously, she was Research Coordinator at HGEI before taking time off to focus on independent research in her home country of Croatia. Maja has undertaken research on issues of global equity ranging from: health system financing, universal health coverage, child labour, and employment elasticities in periods of growth.

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