The 169 Commandments
Friday, March 27, 2015
Moses brought ten commandments down from Mount Sinai. If only the UN’s proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as concise. The SDGs are supposed to set out how to improve the lives of the poor in emerging countries, and how to steer money and government policy towards areas where they can do the most good. But the efforts of the SDG drafting committees are so sprawling and misconceived that the entire enterprise is being set up to fail. That would be not just a wasted opportunity, but also a betrayal of the world’s poorest people.
The SDGs are the successors to the development targets that governments around the world signed up to in 2000 and promised to reach by 2015. There are eight of these so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with 21 sub-targets, from educating girls to cutting maternal mortality. Overall, the MDGs have a decent record. Some (such as reducing maternal and child mortality) will be missed by miles. But others, such as cutting by half the share of people who live in abject poverty, have been reached. The MDGs themselves do not always deserve the credit: the plunge in the global poverty rate has far more to do with growth in China than anything agreed on at the UN. But in other cases, such as boosting access to clean water, the prospect of missing an international target shamed countries into acting better than they might have otherwise.
The developing countries and Western aid agencies drawing up the SDGs, which would set targets for 2030 (see article), seem to think that you cannot have too much of a good thing. They love the MDGs and want more—148 more. At the moment there are 169 proposed targets, grouped into 17 goals. These are ambitions on a Biblical scale, and not in a good way.
Their supporters justify the proliferation by saying the SDGs are more ambitious than their predecessors: they extend to things such as urbanisation, infrastructure and climate change. The argument is that cutting poverty is not a simple matter. It is rooted in a whole system of inequality and injustice, meaning that you need lots of targets to improve governance, encourage transparency, reduce inequality and so on.
There is truth in that argument, but the SDGs are still a mess. Every lobby group has pitched in for its own special interest. The targets include calls for sustainable tourism and a “global partnership for sustainable development complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships”, whatever that means.