Pitfalls and opportunities of the Sustainable Development Goals

by Mateo Porciúncula

In 2015, the countries of the world agreed to adopt a new agenda, the sustainable development goals (SDGs). These include 17 goals and 149 targets; the plan it to achieve this by 2030. Member states of the United Nations are expected to use these set of goals, targets and indicators to frame their agendas and political policies for the next 15 years. For development practitioners, this means there is a new game in town, so it is our responsibility to learn the ropes and jump in the discussion quickly. Just in case, a suitable summary can be found here.

Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, September 2015, source: UN photo/Mark Garten

Conceptually, the development agenda has become more comprehensive and integrated, while the SDGs contain more areas of concern.

The SDGs shift the global development paradigm towards a universal, holistic approach, and it is understood as a universal task; the responsibility of development lies not only on the poorest countries, but in all of the world.

The SDGs holistic view also tackles an important issue, challenges to development are global and interconnected, therefore they can’t be overcome with partial and incomplete strategies.

Climate change, pollution, extreme poverty, and migration are understood as pressing phenomena. the SDGs will seek to

“…integrate and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental — in a comprehensive global vision.” (UNDESA statistics division “The sustainable development goals report 2016”)

The “SDGs paradigm” reflected in the Outcome document is not just the goals, though the discussion is usually limited to them. It comes with an associated agenda, the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” that tries and breaks up with the traditional modus operandi of development cooperation. The big change comes through the incorporation of five basic principles in its implementation, including a section about “means of implementation” and another about follow-up and review.

Moreover, the process that resulted in the SDGs was a much more transparent and open process with a lot more consensus on the framework than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The discussions also paid more attention to the link between global goals and national targets. I actually find commendable what was achieved as a globally legitimate declaration, and I will come back to it in the end of this article.

Development experts have their doubts

However, the SDGs are not without their problems. They are, after all, the fruit of negotiation and compromise among countries. The trade-off for international agreement is that the more specific and “biting” commitments must be sacrificed for the sake of consensus.

Despite new language and structure, the SDG still reflect some of the old problems in the development governance world, and some methodological matters are unclear. Following we present some of the issues development experts see with the SDGs:

  • The SDG are too ambitious
  • The SDGs are global, but not universal.
  • The basic premise of the SDGs is still focused on “extreme poverty” instead of inequality.
  • The SDGs contain many items but only a few numerical targets.
  • The SDGs use absolute benchmarks and mix collective and country-specific targets.
  • Lack of prioritization and sequencing
Peace messages from the project Chalk4peace at UN visitors plaza, source: UN Photo/Laura Jarriel

Too ambitious.

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals and 169 targets which include lofty achievements such as “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” (goal 1) and “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all” (goal 6), among others. While most would agree with the normative value of high-reaching goals, experts are concerned with the value of such overreaching statements as a roadmap to development action, which should include a realistic possibility of achievement in the timeframe set. In the words of NYU professor William Easterly:

“The SDGs are a mushy collection of platitudes that will fail on every dimension. They make me feel quite nostalgic for the MDGs.”

This view is also shared (in less harsh terms) by other experts like Jens Martens and Wolfgang Oberland. The case for broader goals for the world and the development community is difficult to make when it is already arguable whether the partial success of the MDGs could be attributed to collective action or is largely a consequence of economic growth and social development in countries like China and India, it is also hard to prove an actual acceleration of the rate of development after the MDGs (as argued by Howard Friedman here and Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny here). Compounding the issue, if funding was already scarce for the more discrete goals of the MDGs, financing for the SDGs broader set of goals could be problematic. According to a World Bank report, this would require an increase of one degree of magnitude (from “billions” to “trillions) in global funding for development. Such transformation would also require creative associations with the private sector and mobilizing other sources of revenue towards the SDGs, such as remittances and South-South flows.

The SDGs run the risk of being the“new year resolution” of the international community, a set of lofty goals that sound nice as a normative ideal, but are (very) hard to put into practice.

Global but not universal.

A set of global targets does not necessarily make an universal agenda. One of the architects of the Millennium Development Goals, Mr. Jan Vandermorteele, has expressed his concerns. Many of the SD goals are ambitious and “hard” at the target level when dealing with “classic” development objectives like poverty or hunger, but fail to home in on targets that the developed world should be responsible for. In his words, “any agenda that is genuinely universal would not only deal with hunger but also with obesity. Yet, the proposed SDGs do not mention the issue of obesity and overweightness; they only set the target ‘to end, by 2030, hunger and all forms of malnutrition’. Other goals are similarly less well defined and “softer” when discussing issues that developed nations should take the lead, like goal 12 “responsible consumption and production”, waste generation and management or use of natural resources. This evidence seems to indicate some bias in which goals are better defined, with an increased burden for developing countries.

A recent research by the civil society coalition “Together 2030” used discourse analysis of statements made at the 2016 UN General Assembly to see which countries had grasped the intended concept of universality. Its results appear to confirm this point. Of the 40 States that referred to national SDG implementation plans, only six were developed countries: Bulgaria, Finland, Netherlands, Estonia, Switzerland, and Japan.

The basic premise of the SDGs is still focused on “extreme poverty” instead of inequality.

The very first of the 169 targets is to ‘eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day’. The first paragraphs of the SDG document state that, ‘eradicating poverty […] is the greatest global challenge’.

However, it is not, Yale professor and Economics Nobel laureate, Robert Shiller, says: “The most important problem we are facing now, today, is rising inequality.” Of the same opinion are experts in development and economics like Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Picketty, and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Extreme poverty and lack of access to services and resources are a symptom, whereas inequality might well be at the root of the global development problem. This point is especially evident at current staggering levels of gross inequality and accumulation by a few.

I agree with Mr. Vandermorteele on that, although the SDGs seem to address inequality (goal 10), once you look at the indicator level they do it very superficially. For example, target 10.1 is about poverty, not inequality. It aims to ‘progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average’ (it focuses on the poor, not on the whole distribution).


Methodologically speaking, a target should be a specific result, measurable, monitorable, and achievable within a set timeframe. Unfortunately, most of the SDGs fail this test. A study by the International Council for Science (ICSU), in collaboration with the International Social Science Council (ISSC) reviewed the 169 targets from a scientific point of view and the results are the following: of the 169 targets beneath the 17 draft goals, just 29% are well defined and based on the latest scientific evidence, while more than half (54%) need more work and 29 are weak or non-essential and should be discarded. Many of them speak in a vague language of compromise without setting any concrete commitments on paper, using constructs like ‘support and strengthen’, ‘progressively improve’, ‘achieve higher levels of’, ‘take urgent action to’, ‘ensure’, etc. At the same time, while some targets are specific, others speak in generic and idealistic terms (e.g. try and think how you could measure target 4.7 “by 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”)

The SDGs mix collective and country level targets

The SDG targets jump from country level targets to collective level targets. For example, Goal 3 is about health as a whole; and some targets, like goal 2.4 about noncommunicable diseases are clearly collective (By 2030, reduce by one third premature mortality from noncommunicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.). The 1/3 reduction is a commitment for the world as a whole, so some countries could lag behind and the objective still will be met if other countries exceed that achievement. Conversely, Goal 3.2 regarding infant mortality sets a specific target for all countries (“…reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1000 live births.”), and thus, should be met by anyone at the country level.

As a side note, it does not elude me the fact that the former, less well defined, collectively measured, goal is a problem of developed and developing countries, whereas the latter, which is a more acute issue for the developing world, has specific country level targets and indicators.

Lack of prioritization and sequencing

Finally, with a set of 17 goals and 169 targets there is a risk of losing sight of priorities because when everything is important, nothing is. Some goals, when implemented, could be contradictory to each other, like pursuit of access to clean energy (goal 7) and food (2), which compete for similar resources such as land use. The SDGs largely ignore the political struggles and conflicting interests that would manifest at the implementation and policy moments, which might make the overall achievement of the SDG ideal quite complicated.

According to the already mentioned ICSU report the “…key trade-offs and complementarities among goals and targets are not clear…” -or simply not there- and “should be specified in a follow-up document”.

Opportunities for action

Despite their shortcomings, the SDGs represent a very high standard of global commitment to development goals, an acknowledgement of the complexities and interconnectedness of development issues, markedly important is the integration of environmental and sustainability aspects at the very core of the global development agenda.

What they lack in specificity and hard commitment is most likely the fruit of hardly-fought negotiations in a context of growing divisiveness in international relations. It is commendable of the UN to have come with such a comprehensive agenda and have it agreed and thus legitimized by the whole international community. To think of it, a document such as the SDGs we have would probably not be approved today.

What is more, precisely because of their lofty ambitions and generalist nature, the SDGS open a unique “policy window” for countries, development practitioners and civil society organizations to step to the fore and, in dialogue with UN officials and other local development stakeholders, shape development policy and “ground” the SDGs on local and global action.

The SDGs lack of prioritization and sequencing, which can be perceived as a deficiency is also an opportunity. It sets the stage for development actors to empower themselves and help define priorities, goals and means of implementation both at the local level (country, local government) and as global communities and movements (i.e. human rights, environment, gender, etc.)

Following the eminent persons’ report for the post-2015 development agenda, a study by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung identifies 5 key challenges for the implementation and shaping of the SDGs. These provide a good overview of what dimensions to consider in the present discussion. They are:

· integrating the SDGs into national, sub-national and local-level development plans;

· establishing an institutional architecture that can deliver the development agenda;

· mobilising adequate financial and other resources;

· realising a “data revolution” with regard to monitoring and evaluation;

· developing partnerships by creating platforms for multi-stakeholder participation.

It is in their implementation that the SDGs will succeed or fail, and, despite their shortcomings, they still represent a tremendous opportunity for action as a globally approved agenda.

There are spaces open to make the most of the SDGs on local and global discussions about planning of national and donor priorities, and when discussing policy design at country and local government levels.

The indicators that would define the implementation for each of the goals are currently being developed by the UN statistics division, we find that some goals are still “orphans”. This is an arduous work that would benefit from more attention and discussion from countries and civil society and the perfect opportunity comes when the UN Statistics Commission 48 convene from 7–10 March 2017, in New York, US.

Activists push an inflatable globe on a march during Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 2012. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

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