Why poor countries should try to avoid the SDGs

Ahead of the UN Sustainable Development Summit from 25-27 September, and to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, a 10-minute film introducing the Sustainable Development Goals is projected onto UN Headquarters. UN Photo/Cia Pak
Written by Philipp Krause

This weekend, the United Nations officially adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, as they now seem to be called. Judging from the congratulations emanating from New York, this is great news for the international aid community, who managed to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a new framework to cover the next 15 years until 2030. Unfortunately, they’re also bad news for developing countries.

It’s been widely reported that the process of tortured negotiations essentially turned into what political scientists call “logrolling”: everyone voted for everyone else’s proposal to garner support for their own pet causes. The result is the current unwieldy framework of 17 goals, 169 targets and probably an immeasurable number of sub-targets and indicators. There are many ways in which this result could be, and has been, criticised. At last year’s ODI Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure Conference, CGD’s Charles Kenny called the SDGs “a mess”. Oxfam’s Duncan Green bemoans the technocratic hubris of the process, which involved every conceivable NGO lobbying for their cause without concern for the whole edifice, among other things. Ex-World Banker Phyllis Pomerantz makes the rather obvious point that if the world has 169 priorities, it effectively has none. Of course all of these arguments stand against an avalanche of enthusiasm, perhaps best encapsulated by Bono quoting Nelson Mandela: “it’s always impossible until it’s done”.

The 17 goals cover very broad swathes of government activity and explicitly aim to “transform societies” in the pursuit of ending hunger and poverty, improving health care, education and water and sanitation services, creating welfare states and peace in our time, and much more. The drafters of the SGDs understood that the global volume of aid would fall far short of funding much of this agenda, which is why the outcome document of the recent “Financing for Development” conference in effect calls for developing countries’ (hypothetical) domestic revenues to be used to pay for it all.

Unfortunately, the drafters of the SDGs cannot possibly claim a mandate for an unprecedented worldwide transformation, nor is there any evidence that implementing them by means of a 169-goal strong global plan has any chance of succeeding.

Let’s take a step back. Technically, the SDGs and its implementation framework are an agreement among the sovereign states that make up the membership of the UN. Agreements between states are of course as old as states themselves, but their success, among many other things, depends on how deeply they rely on the multitude of domestic institutions and power relationships to produce a specific result.

If the agreement only concerns how states behave internationally, implementation is relatively straightforward – think a peace agreement, where the governments involved agree to stop fighting each other. Regulatory agreements, like the Montreal Protocol, are much harder to implement, since they rely on many states taking action domestically in very specific ways. Institutional agreements, where the states at the table decide to change their very nature, are exceedingly rare, and have virtually no record of working without the threat or use of force. There is, for instance, the Holy Alliance of 1815-1825. Scared by the French Revolution, its members agreed to remain monarchies and fight to keep Europe that way. The Comecon Treaty is another example, by which the member states of the Soviet Bloc agreed to organise themselves as socialist economies and form an integrated trade system. If these examples sound obscure and a bit scary, that is the point. Yet they pale in comparison to the scope, scale and specificity with which the SDGs aim to reorganise the inner workings of every country in the world.

It is impossible for the complex societies that make up the countries of the world to be so perfectly aligned that they would be able to agree on so much at the same time. In various countries, groups will inevitably have preferences that differ from the SDG agenda. And we know from the comparatively simple and focused MDGs that misallocations, or “kinky development”, can be a real problem. Even a policy as seductively simple as universal access to primary health care can be deeply flawed, as Jeffrey Hammer persuasively pointed out.

Furthermore, the likely futile efforts of aid donors to set up new and expanded health, education, social protection and other services will harm the ability of developing countries to establish such systems on their own. There is ample evidence, for instance, of how Poverty Reduction Strategies (the main vehicle to try and link MDG funding to government systems) resulted in costly parallel systems, wasted efforts and very little positive effect on actual government capabilities. The current momentum for a “data revolution” to support the SDGs promises more of the same.

In reality, governments will need to continue the slow and difficult process of institutional transformation if they want to develop – they need to build capable bureaucracies, money management systems, train and deploy public servants and so on. The way to do that is for government officials and politicians to fix the problems that are in front of them, because they want to keep their jobs and the complicated networks of domestic politics push them that way. Much like Bismarck, who set up the German welfare state to keep the socialists out of government, this kind of progress need not rely on politicians wanting to the right things, and is intensely contested by its very nature.

Governments develop unevenly, and find their own idiosyncratic ways to do so. A good way of organising a welfare system in one country may look very different from another, and societies at different times will prioritise some areas over others. Arguably, this is how most progress has been achieved on the MDGs as well – not by the UN’s plan, but because governments were advancing anyway. China probably doesn’t mind the international plaudits, but it is hard to imagine that its policymakers paid much heed to the international agenda when they were busy achieving all that growth in the 1990s and 2000s, thus lifting unprecedented numbers out of poverty.

For those governments doing the actual work of development, capacity is scarce, and every step forward is often a struggle, especially in poor and fragile contexts. They can ill spare the time and attention to deal with a new set of measurement frameworks, assessments, strategies and plans – ones that now aim to not just deliver aid but impound their own tax revenues in the process. To them, the SDGs really are a Chimera, in both senses of the word. An imaginary monster compounded of incongruous parts, as well as an unrealisable dream.

Philipp Krause specialises in public administration and budgeting, particularly ministries of finance. He leads the public finance team at ODI’s Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure and manages the research program of the Budget Strengthening Initiative.

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Philipp Krause


  • This is an argument against strategy. Life may be just one damn thing after another but it can only help to aim to achieve more than small increments.

  • There’s a lot wrong with the SDGs but this article misses the biggest concerns. The SDGs don’t set up new obligations for states, they are supposed to focus on how to meet existing obligations. They claim they will ‘transform’ the world in light of the deepening inequalities between and within countries, climate change and the death of democracy. That requires changes to the deeply inequitable global finance, trade and investment rules that ensure wealth is extracted from the Global South and channeled to a tiny minority, mostly in the the Global North. Essentially the problem with the SDGs is that they don’t address wealth and neo-liberalism. If the world continues with the growth model we need to consume 175 times our current rate to lift everyone out of poverty and the meager rate of $5 per day. Instead the SDGs refer to expanded partnerships with the private sector – more of the same. (No surprises that Ambassador Ashe who presided over consultations for the SDGs as President of the GA was arrested this week on corruption charges after allegedly taking bribes to promote public-private partnerships). The week following the UN General Assembly when the goals were adopted, 12 of the member states met in the US to finalise the TPP. Unlike the SDGs the TPP is enforceable and has remedies (for corporations). The obligations the TPP establishes directly contravene the stated aims of the SDGs.

    • Hi Kate – thanks for your comment. You’re raising an important issue, but my take is pretty much the exact opposite of what you’re suggesting. While issues of international trade, finance and taxation fall squarely into what the UN might usefully tackle, inequality within countries is a national issue that has little prospect of being addressed through global targets.

  • I’m with Bono on this. Many of the goals and targets are interlocking – progress in one area (especially financing) will open the way for progress in other areas.

  • Excellent review. The question remaining is: how is it possible that this farcical process and outcomes were allowed to take place? And then a second question: how do we reform the UN/INGO/development system to stop this sort of thing happening?

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