Novembre 3, 2015

Why the SDGs are not that sustainable

Why the SDGs are not that sustainable

In the past few weeks, during and after the UN general assembly, there has been so much hype about the Sustainable Development Goals inside and outside the development industry. The enthusiasm among world leaders and UN circles has gone hand in hand with scepticism from development pundits, academics, press and leading international organizations.


Certainly, the making of the SDGs summarises a much needed (and long-awaited) commitment to bring transparency, deliberation and inclusion within decision-making procedures in the development community. Advocacy and communication have been impressive. This is an undeniable achievement.


In future, a similar degree of fervour and dedication to sustainable development will largely depend on the capacity of reaching the targets. The bet is very ambitious, to say the least. The post 2015 framework aims at pushing countries, international institutions, donors and civil society organizations towards more inclusive, more sustainable and more equal practices. What sustainability, equality and inclusion actually mean is often left unexplored.


In this article, by addressing specific aspects in which the proposed targets fall short, we go through the agenda in health, gender, environment and education. Immense progress has been made so far, more realism and less diplomacy would boost international development in the next fifteen years.




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At a macro level, going through the list of targets creates an overarching sense of comfort among practitioners, researchers and academics in the health sector. Clear targets and a stand-alone goal on water and sanitation can have a decisive social and political impact on donors and governments in low and middle-income countries.


Now that the targets have been formalized, nevertheless, it is of crucial importance to create indicators that combine universal benchmarks with contextual challenges. Not an easy task, especially, when social and cultural determinants affect health practices robustly. A commitment to transparency and accountability asks for significant investments in terms of human resources and public assets. It also encourages international institutions and academics to indicate resilient standards of objectivity and efficiency.


Perhaps, the ambition to achieve universal coverage would have been strengthen through a rights-based approach. If good health were explicitly seen as a basic and non-negotiable human right, questions of public health would become even more imperatives for all countries. Moreover, when considered as a right, good health gives citizens political agency and strengthens their demands for getting things done.


A crucial aspect of health policy is one country’s wealth. Evidence shows that maternal, infant mortality and malnutrition are much higher among poorer countries. Historical evidence shows that as a country becomes stable and wealthy these problems decrease dramatically, leading to healthier societies. For the SDGs to achieve health goals by 2030, poverty and conflicts across the world will have to be significantly reduced.


Target 10 addresses the research and development of vaccines and medicines for communicable and non-communicable diseases. It is a fundamental step towards global equality in public health. Yet diseases such as Tuberculosis and Malaria, which claim millions of lives, evolve constantly. This undermines sensibly the hope to ensure eradication in the next future.


A large part of disease burden is on low and middle-income countries; research, development and the production of drugs usually takes place in the developed world. The only way these diseases can be completely eradicated is through a facilitation of knowledge exchange to help overcome the North/South divide. Interchange of experience and know-how will allow developing countries to contribute with their own expertise to the development of suited and cost-effective vaccines and medicines.


Working under the agreements of TRIPS is crucial, but efforts will be ineffective without a tangible lessening of intellectual property rights in healthcare and manufacturing of drugs. For a large number of people, a move in this direction would make possible cheaper and more accessible health care. The UN is in a unique position. It can negotiate with all governments, making possible a freer flow of knowledge and information related to medical care.


All in all, a decisive impulse for free flow of information and a commitment to the vision of good health as a fundamental human right will make easier a faster road to accomplish with the targets of goal number 3.



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The Millennium Development Goals were criticised for ignoring inequality. The successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have incorporated reduction of inequality as a separate goal (Goal 10). It is intriguing that the SDGs have chosen the pragmatic ‘reduction’ rather than the idealistic ‘elimination’. The adoption of SDGs provides an opportune moment to consider what inequalities they seek to reduce.


Target 2 of Goal 10 sets the ambition of ‘empowering and promoting the social and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.’ The ambiguity in the sentence leaves migrants, stateless persons and persons of non-conforming gender and sexual identities excluded; states can include or exclude them, depending on how words like sex, origin and other status are understood.


Indeed the SDGs do not repeat an orthodox view like the Universal Declaration, which considers the family as the ‘natural and fundamental group unit of society’ (Article 16) and leaves out anyone who does not comply with this idea of organising one’s life. But just the omission of a reference to family does not enable the SDGs belong to this age (or shall we say, ‘post-2015’?). For instance, Goal 10 of the SDGs indeed mentions ‘ensuring equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws’. However, this idealist vision does not help ameliorate the glaring neglect of non-conforming identities as equality in their case goes beyond just equal opportunities – it is, rather, about being equal persons.


To give an example, the SDGs are completely silent on the persecution of non-conforming identities, the elimination of which is essential to many other goals and targets that the SDGs put forth. These include Target 7 of Goal 3 that envisions universal social protection for all, Target 6 of Goal 5 that asks countries to ensure universal access to sexual health, Target 5 of Goal 8 that envisages full and productive employment and decent work for ‘all women and men’, and Target 1 of Goal 16 that calls for reduction in all forms of violence and related death rates.


The myopic gender sensitivity of SDGs is most visible in its understanding of human beings as just ‘men and women’. For instance, adults have been identified as ‘men and women’ in Target 2 of Goal 1 (‘By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’). A simple ‘persons’ or ‘persons, including children’ to maintain the emphasis on children, would have demonstrated more mature gender sensitivity. The problem with this binary definition comes out in Target 3 of Goal 1, where countries are urged to ensure equal rights to economic services, access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, natural resources and financial services to ‘men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable’.


The definition is oblivious to the fact that third gender persons and persons with various trans* identities have been consistently excluded from each of these privileges around the world. The gender binary permeates other goals as well. Goal 4 on ensuring education chooses to use the terms girls and boys, as some sort of heuristic categories for children. The entire Goal 5, dedicated to gender equality, reads gender as only women in all its component targets.


Indeed the difference between sex and gender cannot be dismissed as just biological and social construct when it comes to needs like nutrition, reproductive health, sanitation and access to economic resources. Yet, a nuanced reading of gender would only enrich, and not dilute, the discussion.




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The development community criticized the Millennium Development Goals for being too sector-focused, without recognizing conflicting aims and interdependence among targets. At Rio+20, parties agreed upon the idea of a brand-new agenda, which combined all dimensions of sustainable development – environmental, social, and economic.


Specifically, according to the original ambition, the SDGs had to be transformational, while increasing the well-being of everyone and preserving the integrity of the ecosystem. Despite proclaims, the final draft of the SDGs studies intersections, correlations and mutual causations poorly. In the long run, this may undermine robust and sustainable solutions to multifaceted development challenges.


When we look at the sustainable development ‘environment-related’ goals, lack of multidisciplinary vision comes to be especially transparent. The goals are addressed as separate components, mostly isolated from one another, without the due attention to potential synergies.


Particularly relevant is the nexus between water, energy and food. Issues related to these sector areas are interconnected with one another, both at the local level and globally. The ways people use and manage these resources affect directly the ecosystem as well as other natural resources. There is already wide consensus about the incidence of water, food and energy on sustained-demand-growth and supply constraints. Growing scientific evidence has highlighted the important connections between water, food and energy encouraging an integrated ‘nexus’ approach to planning in these sectors. However, the final SDG framework misses to underline how these three systems interconnect and how they rely on the same resources.


Another missing link in the SDGs is the one between energy and industrialization. Industrialization and economic infrastructures constitute the largest share of global energy consumption, with a demonstrated impact on global warming over the past 150 years. It is imperative, therefore, for whatever strategy towards climate change mitigation, to consider energy management and distribution.


Surprisingly, the final draft of the SDGs also fails to highlight the linkage between climate change and oceans. The connection is twofold. While rising sea levels, fish migration, coral bleaching and acid oceans are tangible effects of climate change, oceans play a role also in the process of mitigation. Evidence, for example, shows that oceans store a large reserve of carbon dioxide. Once more, while 14.3 aims at minimizing ‘the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels’, there is no point in the agenda addressing the connection between CO2 emission and oceans, neither in Goal 14 nor among the targets of Goal 13.


Overall, a multi-dimensional approach would have improved most of the defects of environment-related-sustainable goals. In areas where science proves strong systemic links among sectors, a criss-cross agenda is imperative. Without a clear order of priority and a division of labour among states and international institutions, the lack of explicit interlinkages is likely to put at risk the implementation of a sustainable management of resources, thus undermining not only internal consistency among targets, but also affecting the more substantial commitment to sustainable development


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There is almost unanimous agreement that investments in education have a positive impact on a variety of social indicators. Nevertheless, progress towards universal enrolment has slowed. About 17 percent of the world’s adults lack basic literacy. Inequality within countries severely narrows opportunity for children in rural areas or for those people who belong to historically disadvantaged groups. Millions of children attend schools where the quality is so poor they are not learning even expected basic skills.


The interdependence of social, economic, cultural and health problems calls for a comprehensive approach to education, one that is capable to surpass the sectorial silos and to attune programmes to contextual needs. Overall, Goal 4 defends an integrative approach to education. It does so with a pinch of optimism and without the hoped energy.


Clarity plays a special role in international development. On the one hand, well-defined targets as well as a transparent vocabulary facilitate monitoring and the transmission of knowledge. On the other hand, clear-cut and feasible goals get the attention of affluent donors and civil society organizations. Quite a few SDGs education targets lack the expected intelligibility. The awaited outcomes are vague or unfeasible. A prioritization of resources allocation is missing, and, the concepts employed are confusing.


For instance, in 4.1, secondary school is taken as a single entity. In the real world, in turn, there is a significant divide between lower and upper levels. At current rates, as UNESCO has pointed out recently, universal upper secondary education is beyond the reach of most low and middle-income countries in the next 15 years.


Reaching education targets will demand a better delivery of funding. After substantial achievements in the early 2000s, evidence shows that commitment of donors and national government to education has lost momentum.


As this were not enough, between 2015 and 2030, UNESCO estimates that in low-income countries the financing gap for delivering universal good quality junior secondary education will be $10.6 billion, on average, four times the level currently provided by official donors.


A straightforward ranking of objectives would have stimulated national governments to orient their shrinking education budgets towards certain specific areas. Possibly, the rewarding prospect of realistic achievements in the field would have encouraged non-state actors to fill part of the gap.


Growing evidence shows that, while in school, children are not mastering their curricula. From intestinal worms to teacher absenteeism and poor infrastructures, a number of nested social factors affects performances of young students especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is surprising to notice how education targets assess this imperative demand insufficiently.


Forceful targets should have pushed for the need of ensuring adequate teaching for all learners. This responsibility goes far beyond the supply of qualified teachers and old-style enrolment measurement. It asks for a comprehensive approach to education, one that includes adequate remuneration for teachers, the development of acceptable working conditions, forms of advocacy action for the public acknowledgment of teacher’s social status in rural and disadvantaged communities. Culturally tailored measurement of student performances, indicators that go far beyond literacy and numeracy and that are sensible to what local communities actually expect from their students.


When it comes to tertiary education, many meaningful problems are left untouched.


First, the ambition to achieve universal tertiary education, as UNESCO has recently pointed out, is excessively optimistic. As this were not enough, in low-income countries, which must contend with a mounting demand for primary and secondary education, a focus on tertiary education would cause a resource allocation dilemma. Orienting public spending to the benefit of the most advantaged, who access higher education, or ensuring equitable access to education at every level of the society?


Second, evidence from the OECD reveals that low-income countries experience disproportionately the brain drain. Sometimes more than half of all university graduates migrate to OECD countries from low and middle-income countries, with potentially devastating consequences for critical segments such as education, health and engineering. Not to tell the serious impact on democratic practices.


The post 2015 agenda fails to recognize the need for the development community to act in concert on issues of transnational justice in education. A substantial commitment to inclusive social development and equality among countries must address the unequal distribution of benefits and burdens between rich countries and the poor ones in education.


If we look at goals concerning education, equality and partnership, a more equitable redistribution of benefits from sending and receiving countries seems not to be in the agenda for the next 15 years.


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About Sudheesh R. C.

Sudheesh R. C.

Sudheesh R. C. is a doctoral candidate at the department of international development, University of Oxford. His work looks at land use changes in the state of Kerala in India. Previously, he has worked as a research assistant with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in New Delhi. Sudheesh has an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and an Integrated MA in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. His publications have appeared in journals like Citizenship Studies, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and the Indian Journal of Human Development.

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About Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli

Corrado Fumagalli is a postdoctoral research fellow in Comparative Political Theory at LUISS. He obtained a PhD in Political Studies from the University of Milan. Corrado graduated from the London School of Economics and the University of Milan with master’s degrees in Political Theory and Philosophy respectively. Corrado has held visiting positions at the Centre for the Study for Developing Societies (New Delhi), the Cluster of Excellence “Normative Orders” at the University of Frankfurt and the Political Science Department at Brown University. Meanwhile, he has been a researcher and an external consultant for EY, Feltrinelli Foundation, IOM-China and the Lokniti-Centre for Comparative Democracy. His research interests include: pluralism, multiculturalism and integration policies, political inclusion, migration policy, the right to stay, skilled migration, brain drain, return and readmission, South-South cooperation and the changing landscape of development assistance.

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About Valeria Lauria

Valeria Lauria

Valeria is currently a Boya Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Peking University. Valeria research interests lie at the intersection of international relations and international political economy, with a particular focus on development financing and the rise of China in the global context. She received her Ph.D. from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the International Institute of Social Studies. She holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and an MA in International Relations from the University of Roma Tre in Italy. During her PhD, she held visiting positions at the Tsinghua University in China and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University. In the past, she also served in different capacities at several international organisations and research institutes which include, among others, the OECD, UNDP-Ethiopia, UNIDO-China, UNICEF Bolivia and Operation Asha India. Valeria has published her work in peer reviewed journals and presented her papers at conferences and workshops held in Italy, the Netherlands, the U.S., China and Ethiopia.

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About Navika Harshe

Navika Harshe

Navika Harshe leads the health research cluster at A-id. She is an independent researcher who works on issues around health, policy and governance. She has a decade of expertise working in policy specifically monitoring and evaluation across Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the Lok Sabha (Parliament of India) and the Planning Commission of India. In her recent role as a Senior Research Manager at NEERMAN she led a cohort study which followed 440 pregnant women through their pregnancy in Uttar Pradesh, India. Navika was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Chicago where she received her Masters in Public Policy. She also holds a Masters in Economics from the University of Hyderabad. Her research interests include Health policy and its implementation, Economic development, Social and Public policy and Education policy.

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