Does the Development Industry really need new clothes?

If you don’t work in the international development field, it may have escaped your attention but we currently find ourselves in the dawn of a new global development epoch. As the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in September 2015, their replacement – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – will soon take over.

The ultimate goal of this brand new set of global standards and targets is to put in place the strategies, principles and partnerships to make this world a more equal and just place over the next fifteen years. The recently released synthesis report offers a (provisional) blueprint of what sustainability will look like. Its ultimate aim? Ending poverty, transforming lives and protecting the planet. The first goal is to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere”.

The word sustainable shows up no less than 199 times in the report’s 34 pages (plus 12 hits for sustainability). As it stands, there are seventeen goals, 169 targets and six essential elements (dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice and partnership) that will guide the allocation of trillions of development dollars and shape national policies of member states (though the extent of the latter will differ in each country). With ambitions this high, the SDGs are worth speculating about, as evidenced by a slew of recent op-eds and blog posts.

With fifteen years of the MDGs behind us, an evaluation of their impact seems a logical starting point to assess the new agenda’s potential to drive positive change. Yet, as some commentators have pointed out, there are some notable differences between the two agendas. One major difference between the old and the new set of goals is the process to create them. Unlike the ten MDGs, which were established by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a handful of confidantes, the SDGs are the product of huge rounds of global consultations. A consequence of the more inclusive approach of the SDGs, as some governments and human rights NGOs have lamented, is that the new goals and targets are too many, and lack both clarity and direction. For economics professors Abhijit Banerjee and Varad Pande, who wrote about it in the New York Times, it will be challenging to balance ambition with practicality.  Former World Bank Economist Charles Kenny is skeptical about the impact of the MDGs and, by implication, the potential of the SDGs. According to him, the MDGs may have led to an increase in aid – but it’s not clear they always led to progress. One critical problem of the new agenda, Kenny argues, is that the goals lack a clear rationale on what, exactly, they will accomplish and how.

Similarly, Duncan Green, an advisor for Oxfam, argues that we lack the actual evidence to show that the MDGs influenced government policies. Drawing on the findings of a report called Power of Numbers, he points to the limitations and unintended consequences of measuring justice and human well being with quantifiable targets. One example, offered by the report and cited by Green, is the MDGs’ focus on gender parity in education, the workforce and the political sphere. “’These narrow targets were a dramatic change from the more transformative understanding of “gender equality” that had emerged from the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women and the civil society movements of the 1990s.” With regards to education, the MDGs’ preoccupation with raising primary school access, often hailed as one of its greatest achievements, has been singled out for its detrimental effect on the quality of education, as many schools lack the resources and teaching staff to actually accommodate the newcomers. While it’s important to get all children in school, enrollment and attendance rates don’t tell us much about what they’ve learned in class.

William Easterly, currently a Professor at NYU and famous for his skepticism towards development aid, told the New York Times that development experts “mistake development for an engineering problem” when in reality development progress only happens “when people identify problems and push for solutions through their political systems.” He recently shared on Devex that the SDGs mirror the development community’s “fetish with action plans.” To him, the excessive usage of the term sustainability in a global framework that tries to please everyone rendered the project somewhat empty. Yet even he admits that both the MDG and the SDG share the potential to spur “advocacy and motivation.” However, with the efforts and budgets that are invested in the SDGs, they should amount to a great deal more.

Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld writes about feminisms, inequalities, multinational corporations and economic justice; sometimes in Dutch.

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