Easterly on the SDGs: utopian and worthless

If you were made slightly nauseous by all the hashtag activism, popstar proselytising and earnest world leader speeches beaming out of New York this past weekend as the SDGs were adopted, never fear: Easterly is here.

In a lengthy piece in Foreign Policy [paywalled, but you get a few free articles a month], noted aid-skeptic William Easterly slams the goals for being utopian, unmeasurable, unactionable, unattainable and unfinanced, having “both too many items and too little content for each one”.

From his opening sentence: “Nothing better reflects the decline and fall of hopes for Western foreign aid than the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030”, to the part where he argues that “the SDGs are so encyclopedic that everything is top priority, which means nothing is a priority”, it’s a pretty scathing assessment.

He particularly notes that they lack any kind of mention of the foreign aid that is supposed to fund the SDGs.

“A surge in foreign aid had been at the heart of the MDGs, but the SDGs just change the subject as fast as possible… Nothing better exemplifies the decline and fall of the millennium goals’ transformational hopes for foreign aid than this no-show for the SDGs.”

He argues that the only SDG that will likely be met will be eradicating poverty using the $1.25 a day measure, precisely because it is a questionable measure and the number of people below this poverty line has been on a downward trend for some time (ODI’s recent report also shows this is one of the goals most likely to be met).

But it is not all pessimism. Easterly argues that the SDGs might work as “idealistic rhetoric that will motivate more people in the rich and free countries to care about the world’s poor and shackled”, and writes that they might offer increasing recognition of poor people’s rights to self-determination, and of their homegrown development success.

Read it yourself–then feel free to jump back here and have your say. We’ve had many varied opinions on the goals in our SDG analysis, so be sure to check those out too–most of them are far more positive!

image_pdfDownload PDF

Ashlee Betteridge

Ashlee Betteridge was the Manager of the Development Policy Centre until April 2021. She was previously a Research Officer at the centre from 2013-2017. A former journalist, she holds a Master of Public Policy (Development Policy) from ANU and has development experience in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. She now has her own consultancy, Better Things Consulting, and works across several large projects with managing contractors.


  • I read the Easterly piece not knowing who Easterly is (it is assumed that readers of this blog are part of the aid/development industry and are familiar with him: his identity is not explained to readers). I read the piece because I have indeed been ‘slightly nauseous’ this week on reading the hullaballoo about the SDG goals, as Ashlee indicates. For the life of me I cannot believe the hype generated by a statement of 2030 goals that is, as far as I can see, unlikely to make the slightest bit of difference to sum total of global poverty, disadvantage, discrimination and fear anytime soon.

    This is utopianism. Wild utopianism, given credibility by an assembly of world governments who presumably felt obliged to concur with the goal of ending world poverty by 2030. Did anyone suggest it might be done by 2025? Or 2040? That’s not the point, of course. It’s the intent, not the detail that matters.

    Which is why, presumably, I have read statements from some governments and civil society organisations suggesting that these goals might be difficult to budget for, and not easy to implement. Indeed. Implementation and budgeting for utopian goals are not easy to do.

  • Easterly writes: ““A surge in foreign aid had been at the heart of the MDGs, but the SDGs just change the subject as fast as possible…”

    But in the SDGs (survived to final version I think):
    “17.2 Developed countries to implement fully their official development assistance commitments, including the commitment by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 per cent of ODA/GNI to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20 per cent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries; ODA providers are encouraged to consider setting a target to provide at least 0.20 per cent of ODA/GNI to least developed countries”

    The MDGs had no point seven target. So it would seem that aid has done better in the SDGs?

Leave a Comment