Sachs’ Sustainable Development Goals – vision of the future or more pie in the sky?

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – that have guided much of the international development arena over the past decade – are due to expire in 2015 leading many to ask: what happens next? Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, appointed a panel of experts (that included our own Kevin Rudd) that recently issued a report recommending the world address the pressing challenge of moving towards a more sustainable global economy and system (more on the report here). They called for more focus on the nexus between food, water and energy; on the full environmental and social cost of production and consumption; on social exclusion and equity.  Finally, they recommended the creation and adoption of a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the MDGs.

The formulation of SDGs was one of the (or perhaps the only) outcome of the Rio+20 conference held last month. There was agreement that such goals must be developed but no agreement on the goals themselves. An “open working group” of 30 nations was agreed that would decide upon key themes by September 2013 which would then see a transition period between MDGs and SDGs.

In June, Jeffrey Sachs, one of the architects of the MDGs, came out with his vision in the Lancet for a new set of global objectives to guide international development policy for the next 15 years.  Acknowledging that the content of the SDGs is still up for grabs, Sachs has put a stake in the ground with his view of what the SDGs should contain.

Disclaimer: I worked for Professor Sachs for five years and maintain ongoing collaborations with his team.

For the SDGs, Sachs proposes three broad categories of economic development with a focus on basic needs (SDG1), environmental sustainability (SDG2) and social inclusion (SDG3) with good governance as an overarching dependent condition (SDG4). He calls for a move away from traditional measures of economic performance such as gross domestic product to better capture wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction and freedom from suffering (more on this here, and here). At the Rio conference, UNDP moved in this direction with their Human Development Report team unveiling efforts to better measure progress within a sustainability lens.

These SDGs continue some elements of the MDGs but also represent a fundamental departure in that developed countries are included among those who must strive to achieve these goals. In this way, the SDGs are less paternalistic and less aid-focused and more about mutual global cooperation and national responsibility. Australia for example would continue to support reduction of basic needs poverty in developing countries but would commit to achieving universal access to services in indigenous communities, would move towards a “low-carbon energy system”, and would adopt sustainable food and energy strategies.  Sachs sees a much bigger role for emerging middle-income countries in the new global partnership.

Sachs’ vision is very optimistic. His SDGs call for “government at all levels to cooperate to promote sustainable development” and for the world community to help low-income countries bear the additional costs involved in adoption of sustainable economic systems. On current evidence from Copenhagen and other global summits, the adoption of any concerted action on the environment is stuck in a quagmire.

Despite this, the call for “all the world’s people” to have access to safe water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and basic health and for the promotion of “the wellbeing and capabilities” of all citizens is achievable and necessary. Indeed, we as a global community, should be striving for nothing less. By definition, 15 year goals should be transformative and ambitious.

There will, of course, be critics and critiques. Especially after the lack of real progress seen in Rio, there is not much evidence around us of global cooperation and leadership that would be needed to underpin any type of SDG framework. But there is an opportunity for the SDGs to herald a new engagement by the emerging economies of the world that will be the global leaders of the next 15 years. While there remain those that are trying to persist with the traditional western model of development (remarkably for example calling for a Bretton Woods institution for global health), perhaps China, Brazil, India, Indonesia and South Africa should lead SDG development.

Sachs, as is his wont, had taken a fairly extreme view at one end of the spectrum and has outlined his vision for the SDGs. His view will rightly be criticised but, as he often does, he has managed to put his views out in the open and start a debate that the world community needs to have.

I’d be very interested in the views of the Devpolicy readership on the post-MDG world. Do we need SDGs at all and, if so, what should the principles be?

Joel Negin in Senior Lecturer in International Public Health at the University of Sydney, and a Research Associate at the Development Policy Centre.

image_pdfDownload PDF

Joel Negin

Joel Negin is Head of School and Professor of Global Health at the University of Sydney School of Public Health. He focuses on health and development in sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific.


  • Your title suggest that he has previously given us “pie in the sky” ideas. In fact, if you do your homework, you will learn that the Millennium Development Goals have actually achieved significant drops in poverty (about half in most developing countries) from 1990 to 2010. This is NOT “Pie in the Sky.” People act like things never work, even when they actually do for a change.

  • Signs of Change and Progress

    Papua New Guinea has changed, for the mere fact that PNG can put three women into the traditionally male dominated Parliament. These three women hails from the predominantly patrilineal societies (Highlands, Momase and Southern), which were the least expected regions to have women representatives in Parliament. Alas the rural electorates and provincial seats. This is CHANGE we can believe in.

    We’ve proven ourselves to the international community that Papua New Guinea can change and have changed. The first two National Directive Principles enshrined in our constitution are Integral Development and Equal Participation. That was established since 1975 before the UN created their Millennium Development Goal (MDG) that identified gender equality as a development goal. PNG recognized gender as a development issue decades ago before the international community (UN).

    Again, Human Capital Development, Gender, Youth and People empowerment is the first strategic development focus areas of our Vision 2050. We know where we are and where we are going. We cannot be forced or lured by some external forces to adapt their standards and values. We have our own standards and values which for centuries have bonded tribes, clans and families together. We know our development needs and goals. However how we accomplish these development goals and needs may not be consistent with the international rules and appeasing to their referees. But we know we will get there one day. We are actually “crossing the river by stepping on the stone,” a famous Chinese parable. That means to take one step at a time.

    Another interesting point to note is that the newly established political party “Triumph Heritage and Empowerment” (THE) Party, impressively has two of its female candidates voted as MP. THE party’s political platform amplified the values of equality and empowerment of individuals including gender which are also reflected in our National Directive Principles and Vision 2050. Hence Papua New Guineans may be graduating from tribal politics to party politics. People no longer voted for ethnic pride but for values and principles. This is CHANGE we can believe in.

  • Whether an MDG or now a SDG, what use are Goals without an agreed means to achieving them; that is, a framework for growth and development? As always Sachs sidesteps the means to development and all the inconvenient arguments over the respective roles of capital, human capital, technology, the environment for investment … institutions, policies, and good governance. By strong implication Sachs’ only means to his Goals is to spend more and more money and that has rarely worked since the Marshall Plan.

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for the comment. We all agree that economic growth and policy reform is key to development. I do have to take issue however with your characterisation of both Sachs and Easterly’s perspective. It is a real misrepresentation of the views of both men. First of all, there is not much value dredging up and getting into this tired Sachs-Easterly debate. Fact is, the soundbites that both men use to promote their ideas aside, they probably agree on more than either would care to admit.

      To characterise Sachs as all about charity and as ignoring policy reform and economic growth is just wrong – based both on his writings and action. And to say that Easterly has been a strong proponent of “systemic policy reform” is a very kind representation of what he has done in his career.

      Of course policy reform is needed: at the local level, at the national level and at the international level. The issue is which reforms and how to galvanise action on those reforms. Some would argue that to get international action (for example on reducing agricultural subsidies or trade reform), you need big goals and commitments to get some movement. Others emphasise community leadership to reduce barriers to getting programs going.

      I don’t know if the SDGs are needed or will work. I do know that the MDGs – while imperfect – have had real impact and galvanised more action on child health, agricultural reform, HIV treatment, on primary education and – yes – on getting money flowing to support these programs. And, as an example, after just under a decade where the HIV response was funded by donors, now, for the first time, over 50% of the funds being spent on HIV (treatment and prevention) in developing countries is coming from developing country governments themselves.

      The development arena is complex and we have to examine these issues with the nuance and care befitting such complexity. Reducing perspectives on aid to two diametrically opposed simplistic strawmen doesn’t help further the debate.

  • “Big Picture Visionaries” are only useful if their theoretical constructs and lofty targets are the appropriate ones. There are strong reasons to question whether the solutions propounded by Sachs are the correct ones. In the real world, the apparently neat constructs of the Sustainable Development Goals are really not much use.

  • The independent reviews of Sachs’ efforts on the Millennium Villages project are less than stellar and are hardly an endorsement for similar projects. My view is too many goals, not enough focus on basic issues that underlie development

    • Without optimistic “big picture” visionaries such as Sach’s setting theoretical constructs and lofty targets, we would not have a roadmap outlining direction to achieving these targets. For that reason I welcome the SDG’s as a logical next step in moving towards a sustainable and equitable future. Complementing this will require clarity and focus on basic issues and detailed practical implementation strategies. I like his categorisation of basic needs (SDG1), environmental sustainability (SDG2) and social inclusion (SDG3) with good governance as an overarching dependent condition (SDG4). I would make specific mention however of the vital role of human population and family planning initiatives in the sustainability of all of these goals.

Leave a Comment