Development goals, progress and philosophy

The UN’s long process of developing the post-2015 global follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals continues with the Open Working Group working on Sustainable Development Goals. Last week they released a draft. It has many plenty of goals and targets but lacks an overall concept of what progress means today. What might the wise have said about it in days gone by?

That’s the question my colleague Phil Vernon, International Alert’s Director of Programmes, posed in his review of the draft. This blog post is basically a quick ‘n’ dirty version of his.

He envisages telling an ancient sage about demography, inequality, the use and abuse of nature, states’ sovereignty and their varying political systems – and then asking how to create a political map defining progress for over 7 billion people between now and 2030.

Plato would probably say, ‘Easy, leave it to me and my mates, we’ll let you all know what to do in due course.’ But Phil envisages the rest of them telling him to tell the world, ‘Stop it, it will never work.’

It’s easy to understand why but that’s exactly what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are meant to be: a political map for everyone on this planet for the next 16 years – a map of “progress”.

Goals, targets and criteria

The draft of the SDGs has 17 goals and well over 200 targets. It’s out for a few days of informal consultations and then they’ll polish it up and submit it to Ban Ki-Moon.  And that’s when the negotiations will begin.

Phil suggests  four basic criteria against which to judge the SDGs and the OWG’s work:

  1. Is there a discernible concept of progress emerging, and if so, does it make sense?
  2. Does it reflect the importance of peace as an integral component of human progress?
  3. Is there anything obviously missing?
  4. And will the proposed model work as a tool for incentivising and monitoring progress?

1. The concept of progress

Maybe the draft is only meant to list the potential components of progress, rather than actually providing a concept of it. As you would expect when there are 17 goals and over 200 targets, the components are many – addressing poverty, hunger, healthy life, education, equality and especially gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, sustainability, economic growth, decent work, industrialization, climate change, conservation of land and sea, biodiversity, peace, rule of law, effective institutions, inclusion, and a global partnership for sustainable development – so it feels like the intention was comprehensive.

But being comprehensive and developing a clear concept are not the same thing and aren’t always compatible. For example, Phil points out that three key goals – promoting sustainable industrialisation, ending poverty everywhere, and strengthening the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development – are from three very different categories. Optimistically, Phil reckons he could have found a sage to tell him that confusion is a critical stage on the road to enlightenment.

One of the more irritating sages, probably.

The inclusion of every item and the absence of a clear concept do, of course, make it easier to include everyone. On the other hand, they mean there’s no transparent way of prioritising because there’s no built-in basic logic to link choices together. In turn, that makes negotiating easier because arbitrary outcomes are harder to challenge when there’s no underlying logic to disturb. And be in no doubt that the OWG/SDG process is now entering the phase of wholly political negotiations about what’s in and what’s out.

So the big tent that the OWG has erected has its good sides and not such good sides. Phil himself gets very sagacious when he remarks, “Ultimately, a big tent can be a good thing, unless it’s so big it has no structure and blows down when the wind blows.”

2. The importance of peace as an integral component of human progress

Everyone wants their own preferences included. Like Phil’s, mine is peace. It squeaks in as Goal #16 out of 17. It’s not there by itself but it’s in the right company: Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions.

However, quite a few countries seem set against this goal. It might be sacrificed if enough governments think a commitment to good governance and the rule of law would be a hostage to fortune. So peace is in there but the process is not yet completed.

3. What’s missing?

Nothing really stands out; it’s a right old Christmas tree and it’s always hard to look at a big one and say for sure which lights or baubles didn’t get put up there. Still focused on peace and why not, Phil points out all of the five generic peacebuilding and statebuilding goals are there.

4. Will the model work?

The draft does not set out how the goals and targets would be used, who is responsible, who will monitor, and a clear sense of the time frame (the SDGs in principle are intended to be achieved by 2030 but, as worded now, there’s a strong case for saying many of them simply can’t be).

This means that the goals and targets could become means of admonishing governments that don’t match up, but are less likely to be a guide for how to match up to the ambitions that underlie them.

Philosophically speaking

I have to admit that I am sceptical about the possibility that the OWG and the negotiating process that follows will be able to pull from the 17 and the >200 a clear concept of progress, a clear order of priorities, and a workable model. To my mind, that requires a kind of leadership that is both unavailable and non-feasible when all interests have to be accommodated within the UN’s global framework.

Sceptical – but I am sure that if one of Phil Vernon’s sages were along, I would be reminded that in classical philosophy, scepticism is a condition of having an open mind. So I’ll be open-minded too – seems wiser.

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