Are the sustainable development goals useful?

Are the sustainable development goals useful?

One should recognise the Sustainable Development Goals as a political tool for the international community to better achieve the goals of development economics using a new medium, namely civil society. That is what the SDG’s are about.

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By Matthew Parish

Within the United Nations system a discipline has emerged called “development”. It is also called “development policy”. While related to development economics, it is not the same. Development economics is a branch of applied economics that works to the assumption that economic growth is the consequence high-quality institutions of government. That is because good public administration facilitates entrepreneurialism, lending against security, domestic and international trade, and domestic and foreign investment.

Whatever one thinks of development economics (and it has some sharp critics – the essential criticism is that it put the cart before the horse, in that economic growth gives entrepreneurs domestic political incentives to improve institutional quality, and one cannot impose institutional improvements upon a society without powerful economic actors who can demand them from political classes), development has a far broader focus and a range of wider tools. “Development” is defined by development policy specialists as encompassing a series of social goods that are not captured purely (or maybe at all) in financial and economic terms.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a UN-mandated list of these objectives. The tools of development policy include UN policy; international lending policy; working with NGO’s and what is called “civil society”; and working with domestic governments. However capacity-building (i.e. use of experts to try to improve the operation of domestic public administration) is somewhat shied away from by development policy specialists. They may be seeking to identify their discipline is a response to the perceived weaknesses of development economics (i.e. it doesn’t work). Or they may wish to see their work as a progression from development economics to a discipline which is not so rawly associated with GDP per capita as a metric and that does not rely excessively upon interactions with routinely corrupt or incompetent public authorities in developing countries. Instead, “doing development” tends to involve interacting more with multilateral institutions and non-governmental organisations, which may be more benign interlocutor, committed to the common cause of promoting development and comfortable using the same language to describe wha they are trying to achieve.

Before we go any further, we should list the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals so that we understand the contours of the subject matter covered by development policy. There is a current substantial consensus that the goals are a fulsome cross-section of the subject. They are (in abbreviation): end poverty; end hunger; health; education; gender equality; water/sanitation; energy; economic growth and employment; infrastructure and innovation; reduce inequality; good cities; sustainable consumption; combat climate change; conserve the oceans; preserve ecosystems; peace and access to justice; partnership for sustainable development.

Now we must being to address the fundamental question about the SDG’s, before we even ask how such a list was prepared. While most or all of these things may sound intrinsically desirable and uncontroversial, is it valuable to prepare a list of social goods rather than rely upon the development economist’s harder indices of economic growth such as GDP per capita? At least part of the motivation behind the Sustainable Development Goals was a perception that conventional development economics matrices success are insufficiently discriminating in that they miss important social goods. A country can be wealthy yet very unequal, or without paying proper regard to caring for the environment. Classical economics misses a number of factors relevant to human welfare. Economics, being the dismal science, measures the wrong thing(s). In fact it measures nothing but money.

That might well be a fair observation. Classical economics has long been criticised for valuing gross utility ahead of measurements of equality. Nevertheless if (as is undoubtedly the case) there are social goods not captures by the net of a raw utility calculation then we must not abdicate altogether the economist’s insight that we can only do social policy if we measure objective things. Whatever social goods we may value beyond pure economic growth, they must be measurable; comparable; an there must be a mechanism for weighing the different social goods one against the other. That is because any policymaker trying to maximise social goods will inevitably be faced with resource allocation problems. Given a fixed budget available to pursue social goods, which ones should have priority? We will inevitably face the scenario in which we will have to balance one social good against another, and if our conceptual framework does not permit us to do that then it will be of scant use to a policymaker.

If the challenge of balancing seventeen social goods one against the other seems a prior improbable, then recall the economist’s retort which is that financial and utility calculations, applied with sophistication, can capture all of many of the social goods listed in the Sustainable Development Goals within a single matrix, hence allowing for a companion and weighing exercise. How do we reduce quality of the oceans to a sum of money for the purposes of a comparison, the development policy specialist will at some stage need to ask.

The economist’s answer is to ask how much society will pay for a clean ocean, and therefore ascribe it financial value on a supply / demand curve. The development policy specialist will respond that this grossly undervalues oceans. The economist will invite the development policy specialist to propose another model for calculating the value of an ocean so that the good associated with a clean ocean may be balanced – on a financial basis – against some other good. The economist will urge us to imagine that the only question that makes any sense is to ask people who live by the seaside how much they would be willing to pay in taxes to live next to a clean beach as opposed to a dirty beach )or a variant upon a question of this nature, potentially vastly more complex to take into account all the incidental benefits of oceans and not just clean beaches). At this point the debate between economist and development policy expert becomes rather stale.

Now let us ask, why this list as opposed to some other? Why are some social goods not in the list? Do any overlap, and if they do then is there a concern that certain social goods may be double-counted in any kind of comparative utility calculation? Is there a logical completeness to this lest? The best way to approach this question may be to start by asking how the list was actually prepared. It does appear at first glance like a list of Aristotelean virtues or Kantian metaphysical concepts, the product of the distillation of a single brilliant mind’s personal ideas about human welfare into a set of categories that person determined in his infinite wisdom to be exhaustive. However diplomacy being what it is, the reality was more prosaic.

The Millennium Development Goals consisted of a similar, shorter list, of eight goals to be achieved within 15 years of the year 2000. According to the head of UNDP at the time, it was dreamed up by a group of UN officials in a basement of UN headquarters in New York. In 2015, the list of eight goals was extended to 17 in a broader consultation process, But there is no getting around the fact that the SDG’s are a set of committee compromises and accumulations of ideas about development by a collection of individuals from different multilateral organisations associated with the development industry, without a coherent internal logic to them.

There is nothing wrong with creating a list of important social goals that a broad range of people sign up to. But what is much more problematic is for the multilateral system to premise its development policy around them, particularly if we do not have a means to weigh the different goals one against the other given limited resources to spend upon development.

At this point – at which the argument is admittedly starting to look rather critical for the development policy advocate – one might take a step back and observe that this kind of forensic analysis of the SDG’s rather misses the point. The list of goals is intentionally purely aspirational. It does not pretend to be complete, and it does not abrogate the need for the hard work of development economists undertaking econometric analysis of quality of life data and the results caused thereto. Rather the SDG’s are things we ought to bear in mind. That is true. Very few people would disagree that the SDG’s are important in the sense that they raise important human goods that should not be ignored. But you cannot make a science out of development purely on this basis, and it Is a long stretch to draw policy prescriptions from a list of aspirations.

Let us consider just one policy prescription that is associated to a substantial extend with the SDG’s and their 169 targets (more detailed policy descriptions that sit under the SDG umbrella). It is said that in implementing the SDG’s, international organisations should work in closer partnership with civil society and NGO’s. In practical terms, this means giving them money. Why is this a good idea? The flow of money is from states, who fund international organisations; to the United Nations; to NGO’s, that are private substate lobbying groups who push governments and corporations (themselves taxpayers to governments) to have regard for their specific focuses of interest. That money will then presumably be spent by NGO’s raising awareness of (for example) the importance of clean oceans.

An NGO cannot itself clean an ocean. But NGO’s can do at least three things that may help clean oceans. They can lobby government directly to introduce environmental regulations that prevent oceans from getting dirty or stop pollutants so that oceans may become cleaner. They do this by raising awareness in the public consciousness of the issue, and then they go to democratically elected politicians and suggest that votes are at stake if the issue is not tackled.

The second thing they can do is lobby corporations that make oceans dirty, essentially threatening to expose them if they continue or perpetuate dirty practices and offering to commend them if they observe clean practices. Corporations may care about this, because the perception of whether a corporation is environmentally friendly may influence consumers’ purchasing choices. Thirdly, NGO’s can lobby international organisations to lobby member states who receive donor funds from those international organisations, to enact environmentally friendly legislation. This is a form of indirect lobbying: lobbying states via the United Nations from whom they receive funds.

The story with NGO’s becomes more complex, because international organisations are not the only donors to them. Governments fund them directly. Foreign governments fund them: a particular source of controversy where (as is typically the case) their activity can be classified as quasi-political. This has led to some countries, perhaps most notably Russia, designating NGO’s as foreign agents if they receive funds from abroad. NGO’s also receive funds from corporations, keen to be seen as good citizens. In other words, NGO’s are in the curious position of receiving funds from all three groups that they lobby.

I have chosen NGO’s to consider because the SDG’s are at heart a list of NGO objectives that differing NGO’s are focused upon to varying degrees. The SDG’s are not a list of priorities prepared by governments. No government would prepare such a list, precisely because governments, involved in the policy decisions to distribute a fixed budget between different government departments, are all too well aware of the dangers of creating a Wishlist so ambitious that you might be held to it when there are insufficient resources to go around.

Very few countries, if any, meet all the Sustainable Development Goals; given the qualitative natures of the goals, there is always an argument that a country does not. The constellation exercise that created the SDG’s was a consultation with NGO’s and civil society, and the 169 targets in particular are their targets. That explains why there is overlap between the SDG’s, e.g. environment / ocean. The contours of the the SDG’s represent the ideological geography of the international NGO community more than anything else.

The contemporary UN development agenda is born of frustration at dealing with corrupt and incompetent governments. It is also born of the insight that in lobbying governments to change their ways (because it is only, ultimately, national government action that can implement the SDG’s in a credible way), international organisations have neither the domestic political knowledge nor the bureaucratic manoeuvrability to engage with government officials effectively. All international organisations can do is hand out money, and have ministerial meetings. This often doesn’t achieve much. Empowering civil society – this means giving NGO’s money to engage in domestic politics – may be more effective. National governments are not written out of the picture. Instead they are approached from a different direction.

Much development policy literature focuses upon the failure of traditional international organisation state lending models. The theory behind development lending from an institution such as the World Bank is to lend money that spurs institutional development so as to catalyse economic growth that in turn creates money that can be used to pay back the loans at a (much) later date. Development lending ultimately met with scepticism because state recipients of loans had no incentive to get involved in the institutional reforms it was anticipated the funds would be used for. Politicians, particularly in democracies, working to relatively short electoral cycles, the long-term advantages of institutional reform remained out of sight to them. Multilateral funders came to understand that short-term domestic incentives would become necessary for development economics to work. The civil society movement came to be perceived as the most effective way for international development experts to create short-term domestic incentives for reform.

This, I suggest, is the real value in the SDG’s. One ought not to spend much time buried in the textbooks of questionable analyses about the significance of each of the 17 SDG’s and 169 targets. Still less should one become (too) immersed in various quasi empirical attempts to measure the extent of achievement of the various SDG’s. They are all open-ended, and there is always more that could be done to achieve them. The world can always be made a better place. One should recognise them instead as a political tool for the international community to better achieve the goals of development economics using a new medium, namely civil society. That is what the SDG’s are about. Whether such a strategy actually works in promoting the goals of international development, is the subject of another essay.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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