Sustainable Development

Critics of the Sustainable Development Goals were wrong. Here's why

Langiton Sitima waits for customers along the Mchinji road-the highway linking Malawi to Zambia's eastern province, April 21, 2008.

Image: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Raj Kumar
President and Editor-in-Chief, Devex
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Sustainable Development

Thinking back to when the Global Goals were first designed, you might remember a lot of consternation among global development leaders about the large number of goals, targets and the complexity of the whole Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. Now that it has been about a year-and-a-half since the SDGs were ratified, and following the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, I’m struck by how those worries haven’t played out in reality.

Back in 2014 and 2015, the idea of going from eight goals to 17 was seen by many as tantamount to making the whole approach a fruitless exercise. With so many goals, the thinking went, the advocacy community wouldn’t be able to focus attention on any of them. Storylines and narratives used to move the public and donors would be too diffuse to add up to anything. Since few people would be able to remember all the goals or rattle off the 169 targets, critics insisted it would be hard to create accountability around any of them.

And the complexity! How could anyone get their heads around the idea that all of the world’s challenges were being presented in this interconnected framework? Maybe the whole thing would just be forgotten.

So it was interesting to see how visible the Global Goals were in Davos. In many meetings, there is a poster or backdrop displaying them. At the media reception on the first evening of the Annual Meeting, they were on stage, framing up the Forum's messaging about why we all came to this freezing mountaintop in January. Even the airport in Zurich greeted Davos-bound travelers with a display of the goals.

And the little circular pins with all the rainbow colors meant to represent the seventeen goals were ubiquitous. It wasn't just NGO executives wearing them on their lapels either: I saw plenty of corporate and political leaders showing their colors.

Many of the events that I attended use the Global Goals — or, more often, a specific goal — to explain why a particular topic or initiative is important. Companies in particular, which like to work against metrics as part of their business culture, seem to have embraced the goals as a way to ensure their citizenship and responsibility work is aligned with the world’s biggest problems and priorities.

And it turns out complexity is a good thing. The world is complex and efforts to improve it must reflect that. Sitting in sessions, I tried countless times to craft a tweet that could capture an issue accurately, but discussing what needs to happen in, say, primary healthcare, is actually complex and doesn’t necessarily benefit from being oversimplified. The complexity inherent in the Global Goals has allowed serious people doing the difficult work of solving global challenges to accurately communicate what needs to be done while still aligning to a set of common global targets. That’s evident in the many initiatives and reports launched at Davos: because they can accurately tie their efforts to the Global Goals, they do.

These weren’t the only critiques of the SDGs and certainly there are some who make a compelling case that the most cost-effective interventions were given short-shrift in the process of reaching global agreement. But achieving consensus from 193 countries was no easy task. World Bank President Jim Kim told the story of trying to change a single word in the SDGs after they were drafted, correcting “a typo” as he put it, but he was told that even a single correction would open up the entire document to renegotiation.

And the SDGs add up to much more than each individual goal and target, as the UN’s ardent SDG advocate Thomas Gass reminded me this week. In fact, the early critique about the number of goals and targets missed the point about what was so new and different about the SDGs versus the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Today’s Global Goals are no longer about donors and recipients: because they are owned by all countries, they are about leaders being accountable to their citizens. In addition, the Global Goals are predicated on the idea of leaving no one behind. The MDGs by contrast focused on averages, so a country could still be seen as successful even if many of its citizens remained in poverty. Now the idea of focusing on the most vulnerable people, including people with disabilities and indigenous communities, is central to the goals.

And Unilever CEO Paul Polman (who was a member of the panel that drafted the goals) recalled how challenging it was to find an organizing principle to tie together so many disparate ideas from a diverse array of world leaders until they landed on the concept of partnership. That too is something truly different from the MDG era. And that is perhaps the most powerful message from the SDGs for this meeting in Davos: at a time of great uncertainty when world leaders and corporate CEOs are trying to find their footing, the idea that the biggest global challenges are clearly laid out, have targets and metrics associated with them, and can only be solved in partnership by all people working together offers a much-need roadmap.

The SDGs may not be perfect, but the fact that these Global Goals exist is important and valuable. And if this year’s event in Davos was any indication — and it’s just the second year since the Global Goals were approved — they are making a meaningful difference in the way leaders understand the challenges facing the world and recognize their own responsibility in addressing them. Whatever you think of them, they’re impossible to miss in Davos.

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