donderdag 20 augustus 2015

Three Flaws in the Sustainable Development Goals

Post written by Jan Vandemoortele | 27 July 2015

Conceptually, the development agenda is becoming more holistic. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain more areas of concern. The process has seen more participation and consultation, compared with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The discussions have paid more attention to the link between global goals and national targets. Given that the report card regarding the MDGs can be summarised under the one-liner ‘Progress for people, regress for the planet’, it is absolutely justified to focus on sustainability this time around. All this is commendable, yet the SDGs fall short on three essential aspects.

A focus on poverty rather than equality

First, the SDGs are based on the wrong premise. The preamble states that, “Poverty eradication is the greatest global challenge”. Logically, the very first of the 169 targets is to ‘eradicate, by 2030, extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day’. But is this a valid premise? The World Economic Forum states, “…societies are increasingly under pressure from rising income inequality.” Robert Shiller, Nobel laureate for economics, puts it more categorically: “The most important problem we are facing now, today, is rising inequality.” The Economist says that “Growing inequality is one of the biggest social, economic and political challenges of our time.” Joseph Stiglitz argues strongly that “we are paying a high price of our inequality – an economic system that is less stable and less efficient, with less growth, and a democracy that has been put into peril”. Nevertheless, the SDGs repeat the old view that poverty rather than inequality remains the central issue, and negates the reality of extreme inequality.

One may respond that the SDGs do pay attention to inequality. Ok, but not quite. Yes, goal 10 is about reducing inequality but the formulation of target 10.1 is not about inequality. It says, ‘by 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average’. On careful reading, this target is not about inequality, it concerns poverty. One cannot pretend to talk about inequality when the entire income spectrum is not covered. It is possible, for instance, that the bottom 40 per cent sees faster income growth than the national average and yet the country to experience growing inequality – i.e. through the hollowing out of the middle class. In short, the priority on poverty is misplaced. The SDGs should focus on eliminating extreme inequality, through which extreme poverty will be eradicated. The Palma ratio offers a relevant indicator.

A global agenda, not a universal one

Second, it is common to hear that the SDGs represent a universal agenda. This is seen as a major achievement as it moves the discourse beyond the reigning North-South dichotomy. Not quite. Global targets do not necessarily make for a universal agenda. Global and universal are not synonymous. Take nutrition, for example. An agenda that is genuinely universal would not only deal with underweight but also with overweight and obesity – a growing public health concern in most countries. Yet, the proposed SDGs do not mention overweight or obesity; they merely set targets ‘to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030’. These may be global in scope but their reach is not universal. It would be naive to believe that this is due to an oversight. Developed countries are not ready or willing to commit to a universal agenda. For them, it is more convenient to focus on extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The reigning worldview of North and South is not yet something of the past.

Most SDGs are not measurable

Finally, the SDGs violate the three C’s that lay at root of the MDGs’ success: clear, concise and computable. A global agenda cannot be comprehensive and concise at the same time. Had all the aspects mentioned in the Millennium Declaration been incorporated in the MDGs, they would never have had the same staying power. Any belief in the perfectibility of a global agenda for development is illusionary. Regarding computability, take the example of target 10.7, ‘Facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies’. How can one track progress on this target? Measurability is not the be all and end all of a target. The maxim ‘not everything that counts can be counted’ is valid, but targets should, nevertheless, maintain a degree of objective measurability.

Solid evidence is the last defence against ideology. The British economist, E. F. Schumacher, wrote a seminal book in 1973 entitled Small is Beautiful – a study of economics as if people mattered, in which he says, “To measure the immeasurable is absurd and constitutes an elaborate method of moving from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions.” More recently, another economist, Thomas Piketty, wrote his bestsellerCapital in the 21st century. The very last sentence of this book reads, “Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off.”

Jan Vandemoortele PhD is an academic specializing in development economics. He worked for the UN for thirty years and was involved in the creation of the Millennium Development Goals.

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