The Sustainable Development Goals: Team Bumblebee or Team Chimera?

First session of the UN Open Working Group on SDGs (image: Flickr/Adam Adamus)
Written by Benjamin Day

First session of the UN Open Working Group on SDGs (image: Flickr/Adam Adamus)The sun is setting rapidly on the MDG era. Only months away, at the end of September, world leaders will assemble at the United Nations in New York to agree on a shiny new set of goals to guide global development efforts to 2030.

In some ways, the SDG era seems to have been on the horizon forever. For years, countless working groups, clusters and committees have been engaged in contemplations, negotiations and consultations with the objective of shaping the critical events of 2015. But for those not intimately involved in these machinations, or following them closely, only now are these efforts beginning to feel tangible. With the release of the latest draft [pdf] of the outcome document in early July and the Third International Conference on Financing for Development having just wrapped up, the rays of a new dawn are visible and things are beginning to warm up.

Yet crucial questions remain. Will the light of day reveal a truly different era of development? How likely is it that the SDGs, in the long run, will be successful? And by what criteria should this success be evaluated?

When contemplating such questions, it is difficult to avoid becoming entangled in a morass of detail. In one of my own forays into furthering my understanding of the SDG process last year, I came across the graphic below and froze. I gave up for a little while. I had wanted to get a view of the forest but was blinded by all the trees. (You can find a helpful primer on the SDGs here).

Processes feeding into the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Processes feeding into the Post-2015 Development Agenda (UN Foundation)

Source: United Nations Foundation

If you zoom out, it appears two camps are forming among those asking the types of questions above. When it comes to the SDGs, it seems, you are either on Team Bumblebee or Team Chimera.

The Bumblebees are the optimists. They believe the SDG process will ultimately deliver a set of goals that prove useful. This camp reckons the SDGs will get off the ground and fly, confounding the apparent laws of the universe. The SDGs will emerge as a coherent, functioning, productive creature.

The Chimeras are the pessimists. They believe the SDG process will ultimately deliver a set of goals that prove useless. This camp reckons the SDGs will be doomed at take-off by the weight of unrealisable ambition. The SDGs will emerge as an unviable, incongruous, mythical creature.

The Economist has situated itself clearly in the second camp. In a recent article, it concluded that “the proposed sustainable development goals would be worse than useless.” Railing against the proliferation of goals and targets, The Economist argues that “a set of 169 commandments means, in practice, no priorities at all.”  The ODI’s Philipp Krause is also a backer of Team Chimera. (In fact it was Krause, via this presentation at the 2014 CAPE conference, who was the genesis of the Chimera meme).

Homi Kharas and Amar Bhattacharya are cheerleaders for Team Bumblebee. They concede that the SDGs require fine-tuning, but emphasise that the enlarged agenda “gives voice to a range of different people.” The SDG process may be messy and require compromise to reach consensus, but it is worth it, argue Kharas and Bhattacharya, stressing that “a truly global effort to create a better life for all and a sustainable future for our planet is a cause to celebrate not denigrate.” The ODI’s Marcus Manuel, whose contributions on issues related to the SDG process can be found here, is another backer of Team Bumblebee. (It was his response to Krause’s presentation that inspired the Bumblebee meme).

In the lead up to the finalisation of the SDGs there will no doubt be much debate, both on this blog and elsewhere in the development community, both between Team Chimera and Team Bumblebee, and on the goals more generally. Is it overly simplistic to view the development of the SDGs as a competition between two teams? Probably. Is it fair to caricature the SDG process as being influenced by two opposing camps? Probably not. But is the Team Bumblebee versus Team Chimera framing a useful device for thinking about the SDGs as the pointy end of the process approaches? I think it helps. As this debate unfolds, it assists to frame some of the questions that remain unanswered in my mind.

As I’ve touched upon, much commentary and analysis on the SDGs is insider-focused and heavily technocratic. The Bumblebee–Chimera framing reinforces the pressing need for participants in the SDG process to continually revisit core questions and not get caught up in detail. Will the SDGs work? Will they achieve their purpose? Are the goals too ambitious?

It is also a reminder that, to be truly global in scope, the goals need to resonate deeply with the global populace, not just development insiders. There are difficult challenges ahead in translating the new agenda to a broad audience. How are the SDGs going to be ‘sold’ to the general public? Will they buy in? And will they instinctively consider the goals feasible? Will they assume the SDGs will fly?

The Bumblebee–Chimera framing also reinforces the fact that a contest is taking place. The crafting of the SDGs is a political process, requiring political decisions. Many voices are struggling to be heard. And as with any political process, choice is at its heart. Are the choices that are being made weighing down the Bumblebee to such an extent it has no chance of flying? Is collective over-ambition leading to a Chimera?

Another crucial question concerns the relevance and applicability of the SDGs for our region. While some of the issues discussed above are being debated abroad, discussions about the implications of the SDG process for our region are noticeably muted. Just how high are the stakes for the Pacific? Have the concerns of Pacific Small Island Developing States been adequately captured via the Open Working Group process? And what stake does, and should, Australia have in shaping the SDGs? It has been interesting to observe how Australia is directing its SDG-related diplomacy through the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Australia) grouping, as signalled by Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop in a recent speech. The government’s official response to the recently convened Third International Conference on Financing for Development took the form of a joint statement by MIKTA.

Any global deal must strike a difficult balance between aspiration and achievability. There certainly needs to be a bit of Bumblebee; we would all like to see something remarkable take flight. But equally there needs to be an awareness of, and active mitigation against, the risk that the SDG process could a spawn a Chimera.

Benjamin Day (Twitter: @benjaminsday) is a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre and a PhD Candidate in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU.

Benjamin Day

Benjamin Day is an Associate of the Development Policy Centre and a PhD candidate in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU. His doctoral research examines aid policy change from a decision-making perspective by recreating a series of recent aid policy decision-making episodes in order to uncover the factors that are most salient for political decision-makers.

8 Comments

  • It isn’t clear to me how much of a political process has been involved in creating the SDGs. Or at least, not much like other political processes. In standard politics, we operate under constraints. There is a fixed budget, and that has to be allocated among competing priorities. There are competing priorities, and we bargain to reach a final agreement. For the SDGs, it is just an ever growing wish list without any consideration to the feasibility of achieving the goals, or to structuring them in a way that usefully guides the allocation of resources.

  • Ben, as you highlight there are arguments in both directions for the current 17 goal SDG framework. I suspect that whether these new goals are impactful or not will have more to do with the actions and efforts of civil society groups and other interested parties in each country and across the globe than the specific form of the framework. They offer us a tool – how we use that tool is up to us.

    I expect that civil society groups in different countries will simplify the goals and set their own priorities to meet their interests and country context.

    • Hello Garth.

      I think you’re exactly right about the likely next steps and that civil society groups will help determine the ‘local shape’ of the Goals. In fact, Simon Maxwell has used this kind of language to describe Paragraph 19 of the current draft of the SDGs. He calls this paragraph an ‘escape hatch’ which allows that the “SDGs will be global in scope, but that individual countries will shape their own programmes.”

      But if this is the likely outcome, then for me it limits how powerful the SDGs can become. The MDGs were like a set menu; to sign up meant you ate everything. On the other hand, if countries are just going to be choosing digestible portions from the SDG smorgasbord, it’s going to be difficult to change our collective eating habits.

      • Hi Ben,

        In theory countries could set their own targets for the MDGs too; although in practice I don’t think many did. So the escape hatch may not be as readily used as you would imagine. And egregious use would be something campaigners could police.

        Terence

  • Hi Ben

    Glad you’re doing your PhD. Good luck

    I don’t regard myself as either an ‘optimist’ or ‘pessimist’ – perhaps ‘realist’.

    I have fundamental problems with the imposition of MDGs and other global agendas on developing countries. I don’t believe it should happen and I don’t believe it works. I also have issues with aid being used principally as an instrument of donor foreign policy. I’d rather see it based on and driven by domestic development agendas i.e. owned locally

    • Hi Phil.

      Yes.. I too have found myself on the PhD journey… Thanks for the best wishes.

      I tend to agree with you that there’s a sense that MDGs are being / have been ‘imposed’ at times, especially by DAC donors. But on the other hand, all UN member states did explicitly sign up to the MDGs.

      What’s obvious this time round is that there’s more push back from the developing world. They certainly don’t want to be imposed upon this time around.This was apparent in the recently convened Financing for Development Conference and follows on from similar examples at Busan and Mexico (First High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation). These dynamics, even though desirable in many ways, are a big part of the reason this round of negotiations are tougher and the list of goals longer.

    • Phil, are these goals really imposed? The G77 is a powerful negotiating bloc at the UN. Their votes matter. Do you really think it is as straight-forward as OECD donor countries imposing their will on everyone else? Further, if agreed, these goals will be universal, so this is about a collective agenda for everyone. Also, there is leeway in the goals for countries to chose their own priorities and focus on those. Given the comprehensiveness of the goals there is a lot of scope for choice in there. Finally, the process to create the goals has been consultative on an unprecedented, global scale, with voices from across the world involved – not only the perspective of governments (who wield their own power over their citizens) but also citizens.

      However, I do agree that in the implementation power differentials in the real world play out in ways that can undermine national government ownership. I just don’t think it is as black and white as ‘us’ imposing on ‘them’.

      • Phil, if accurate, evidence against my assertions emerged at the recent Addis Ababa Financing for Development conference, where the negotiating methodology stacked the odds against the G77. Read it here. So maybe I’m too optimistic.

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