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SDGs: Five Thoughts on the Zero Draft

The UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group recently released the ‘zero draft‘ of the Sustainable Development Goals. These are the follow-ons to the soon-to-be completed Millennium Development Goals. With informal discussions among the OWG members slated for next week, and the next formal meeting of the Open Working Group scheduled for mid-June, it’s a good time to offer some observations. For readers desiring an overview of the 21 page document, IISD has provided one here. Charles Kenny at the Center for Global Development has some thoughts on the zero draft posted as well.

1) Priorities are power.

The zero draft proposes 17 SDGs. Some of these are extensions of the Millennium Development Goals: hunger and poverty are decoupled in this draft so that each is a standalone goal. Biodiversity loss and access to secure water and sanitation, which were both part of MDG7, are now also standalone goals.

It would be a mistake to think that the OWG just took the existing goals and split them into smaller elements, though. There are new goals as well: on sustainable industrialization, access to energy, and inequality. These proposed goals reflect changes in global priorities. For a world recovering from a global economic crisis, there’s a lot here not only on how to ensure the global economy keeps moving forward, but also on how we better insulate groups from the consequences of economic integration.

2) Bridging the gap between the developed and developing world.

The SDGs are meant to be a global statement of priorities. There are certainly issues in these goals that should be priorities in the developed world. Goal 3 on health is framed as “attain healthy life for all at all ages. As such, there are targets that the public health community in the developed world will surely jump on, including promoting mental health and achieving universal coverage. Similarly in Goal 4, increasing the number of youth with vocational training and STEM skills reflects an ongoing priority in Washington as well as a consistent shortcoming in the OECDs review of the US economy.  These inclusions are no accident, as we can’t have a global document without addressing different priorities in different countries. This is essential to produce buy-in moving forward.

3) Promoting state capacity is essential.

Framing the SDGs as reflective of global priorities is important, but they won’t be achieved without capable and committed states.  Goal 16 underscores the importance of state capacity through its focus on “achieving effective and capable institutions.” At a number of additional points in this document, targets that are based promoting better data collection are laudable additions. While these might not have the appeal of combating malaria or HIV, better policy making will come from more available high-quality information.

4) Moving slowly toward synergy with International Financial Institutions.

The zero draft is a working document that contains moments of aspiration as well as pragmatism. Finding the right balance between these two impulses will be a challenge moving forward. Goals 8 and 9 address promoting strong, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth and sustainable industrialization, respectively. These goals bring a number of organizational challenges. It is not clear where and how the IFIs fit into this project. While the language borrows from that of the G-20 (the phrase “strong, sustainable, and balanced growth appeared in the Pittsburgh summit communique) we would be hard pressed to find evidence that the G-20 macroeconomic surveillance initiative (known as MAP) has made much of a difference on the ground, in part because the process is so opaque. Target 8.5 “create a sound macroeconomic environment with strong fiscal and monetary policies” is exactly what IMF surveillance purports to do. Similarly, Target 8.6 “create an enabling environment for business” is exactly the focus of the World Bank’s Doing Business survey, though this is not without critique. Asking “who is going to do this?” is a sensible question, and using the SDGs to empower UN development organizations at the expense of the IFIs might not be a wise strategy, because they might not be up to the task. UNDP has announced a round of budget cuts, including staffing, and UNIDO (ostensibly the focus of Goal 9) was recently named by experts as one of the least effective organizations in supporting the UN’s development goals. Forum shopping is common, but it is not clear that this is a particularly wise strategy.

5) Need to be flexible to balancing targets and aspirations.

Mario Cuomo once said that we campaign in poetry, yet govern in prose. For the OWG in the weeks to come, it will be a challenge to strike the right balance between the achievable and the aspirational. Climate Change is proposed as Goal 13, and given the divisions in global public opinion on the matter, progress might be difficult. It is certainly important to back up the Secretary General’s call for a September climate summit with specific deliverable actions on this front in order to meet the challenge. At the same time, the danger of overpromising and underdelivering is very real. To make headway here, we need to learn from the Kyoto process. There has been a lot of bilateral as well as unilateral progress, and multilateral efforts might need to be more flexible about targets to secure buy-in as well as sustain it over time.

Martin S. Edwards




  1. The most important principle is that all that is done is sustained. Donor-funded projects must be aligned with the country’s programs so that they contribute to improve the efficiency and the outcomes of the country’s programs. Most projects are focused on their deliverables and not so much on sustaining the country’s programs. For example, a donor or organization working to reduce malnutrition in Haiti or Malawi would do work that is aligned with the country’s national nutrition policy and contribute to a number of activities in the national health plan as it relates to the nutrition program. To sustain improvements made, they must be transferred to those responsible of delivering nutritional services in the form of improved training curricula, supervision checklists and procedures, standard operating procedures for nutrition education, food supplementation logistics, etc.

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