Why the SDGs will break your heart

Why the SDGs will break your heart (image: Flickr/Elizabeth Haslam)

It’s a pity there aren’t more country and western songs about development. There are plenty of tales of woe to be had, and lessons learnt the hard way. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example: they are destined to break your heart.

It’s not that they are villainous. Actually, the Goals have good intentions: they’re all about reducing poverty, improving human rights, and ensuring environmental sustainability. It’s just that the Goals are complicated. Or, to be more accurate, complex. The most recent draft [pdf] of the Goals has 17 Goals and 169 targets (and twice as many indicators). And while the targets may be tweaked, it is unlikely their number will change. Given many issues matter for development, it’s fair enough the Goals reflect this. The trouble is there is not nearly enough development data to track progress against all the Goal’s targets. Indeed, in many countries, the SDGs’ predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), never garnered enough data to be accurately reported on, despite having far fewer targets (plenty of country progress estimates for the MDGs were provided, but their reliability was often questionable). Hopefully, the SDGs will prompt the aid world into better data gathering but, even if they do, the improvements are unlikely to be enough.

The breadth of the Goals’ scope is troublesome in other ways too. It will almost certainly guarantee that no country on earth will be on track to meet all the indicators associated with the 169 targets. And this increases the risk that countries will simply shrug their shoulders and walk away. For campaigners, on the other hand, the risk in all those targets is that their quantity will blunt the political impact of failure in any one area, and therefore campaigning traction. Adding to the complication is the fact that the SDGs are intended to cover all of the world’s countries (developing and developed alike). This is fair, but it brings with it the risk that wealthier, powerful countries such as the United States and Australia will refuse to face up to their own failures, which may then provide license to developing countries to also ignore the Goals.

And there’s the SDGs’ family history: like the SDGs, the MDGs may have meant well, but they’ve had a chequered track record. Specifically, it’s not clear the MDGs achieved a lot. As Andy Sumner and Charles Kenny have written on the basis of their own detailed analysis:

What have the MDGs achieved?… We argue that the MDGs may have played a role in increasing aid and that development policies beyond aid quantity have seen some limited improvement in rich countries (the evidence on policy change in poor countries is weaker). Further, there is some evidence of faster-than-expected progress improving quality of life in developing countries since the Millennium Declaration, but the contribution of the MDGs themselves in speeding that progress is—of course—difficult to demonstrate even assuming the MDGs induced policy changes after 2002.

Just to be clear: ‘not a lot’ is not the same as ‘nothing’, and the improvements they note are non-trivial. What’s more, absence of evidence here is not the same as evidence of absence (remember, available data are poor). And the years of the MDGs were certainly comparatively kind ones for many developing countries (even if we can’t attribute this to the MDGs with any confidence). Yet it is very hard to argue on the basis of the data we have that the MDGs transformed development.

So what does this mean for the SDGs: should we ditch them pre-emptively? Before they break our heart?

I don’t think so. For a start, assuming they are agreed upon later this year, they will be the only game in town, and their form is more or less finalised. And, just like human rights declarations and treaties, they have a normative, aspirational value: even if they change little in the short term, they speak to a form of global social contract based on a recognition of equal human worth. Unless the SDGs spectacularly backfire, promoting this norm has a value of its own.

There is also considerable scope for intelligent engagement with the Goals. Obviously, one thing we can do is use the Goals to campaign for better data everywhere (and point out bad data for what it is). And the Goals will be useful for actual development improvements too. In certain countries, certain Goals will matter much more, and development efforts can be tailored to reflect this. Similarly, campaigners (particularly domestic campaigners) should think now about how they can use specific Goals strategically to press for change. Start early, focus on goals where your country is performing particularly poorly, make sure these goals are brought to the fore, and work to add an international norm to domestic momentum for change.

The Sustainable Development Goals won’t be everything they promise to be. They’ll break our hearts. But if we love them wisely, we might be able to make them work for development.

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His PhD focused on Solomon Islands electoral politics. He used to work for the New Zealand Government Aid Programme.

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.


  • It does seem true that the MDGs helped to focus development efforts (or at a minimum, funding efforts) in the past 15 years. Progress was made on several key indicators, and the MDG scheme can be credited for helping to focus efforts and funding. Still, development work continues to be plagued by a lack of evidence-based programming supported by high quality, quantitative and qualitative impact data. Part of the problem is created in the design flaws of much development work, where evidence-based data are not examined, and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms and tools are inadequate to the creation and sharing of high quality data. Short-term projects make valuable longitudinal studies very challenging, if not impossible. Lack of international data standards and data gathering standards cripples our learning. So, in the spirit of this post’s title, below are the lyrics I wrote today for a proposed country song for our discussion:

    Ode to MDGs

    I said good-bye today
    to a trusted mare I rode,
    and fed fifteen years of hay
    to merit this mournful ode.

    She’s been with me all these years;
    I chose her from among the foals.
    Through disappointment, joy and tears
    her name, Millennium Development Goals.

    She took me where I needed to go;
    she gave me comfort, direction and hope.
    She lifted me when I was low;
    she showed me how to cope.


    Now as I prepare to say good-bye
    to a friend, a partner, a mare,
    I wonder about a new ride,
    and how I will ever get there.


    I hear of a new herd in town
    with more variety and breeds,
    bred by a team well renowned
    to meet all relevant needs.


    So today I’m buyin’ a new mount,
    from among the long line of foals,
    and hopin’ she’ll give good account,
    her name, Sustainable Development Goals.

    Altered Chorus

    She’ll be with me in years ahead;
    I chose her from among the foals.
    Through disappointment, joy and dread
    her name, Sustainable Development Goals.

    • I tip my hat to you sir.

      Both out of respect for your prowess when it comes to writing development country and western. And with respect to your very sensible comment about our ongoing need for more evidence in development work. Indeed, maybe there’s a song to be written about evidence too? Perhaps, “My baby left me for someone with a better RCT”?

  • I am delighted to go through your post, Terence, and would like to add some of my observations. It is really nice that global community is empathised to suffering human beings and designing SDGs to replace MDGs. It is certainly an expression of the intentions of the international community. I am sure, these will get UN approval very shortly. The problem will start at the level of execution. The developing countries will definitely show enthusiasm in UN. The ‘third world elite strategy’ is to enthusiastically accept SDGs or any other such proposal to extract grant/aid from the developed countries and sabotage it in implementing at the domestic level when it hurts their interest. The success of SDGs, therefore, will be determined by the commensurate legislation, policy and cultural context of these countries. Quite often we can observe unintended results. For instance, inclusive policy was initiated for elimination of exclusion and it has empowered the impoverished to some extent but strengthened the ‘exclusivity’. So there must be some safeguards in SDGs to prevent such unintended consequences. Similarly, as regards the governance, any goal or strategy which is likely to weaken the domination of the ‘master strategist elite’ in developing countries will be sabotaged at the operational level. Can there be a possibility to incorporate code of governance or norms of elite behaviour in the SDGs? Certainly it will be resisted on the pretext of sovereignty but there must be some kind of global monitoring of the operational dynamics of SDGs in national boundaries without which there will be limited realisation of SDGs. Of course, resources (both material and nonmaterial) component is important but more significant are commensurate policy, legislation, institutions and socio-cultural context of the developing countries. How far and what way SDGs are designed to conform such a prevalent situation is of critical importance. Will you be able to anticipate and elaborate the SDGs-context interface?

    • Thank you Karori,

      I completely agree that the real challenge will most likely be in execution, and whether (both developed and developing) countries’ governments take the Goals as a serious matter or whether they just pay lip service to them.

      I’m not sure, however, whether formal rules monitoring the Goals (presumably associated with sanction), or the behaviour of political elites, would be feasible (in the specific case of the SDGs). Rather, I think the best approach lies in local and international civil society actors leveraging the normative weight of the Goals (and other development and human rights norms) to hold states to account. This will, by necessity be imperfect, but I think it is where the Goals may best help with the issues that you describe.

      Thanks again for your comment.


      • I understand that formal rules of behaviour are neither feasible nor possible in the world which is structured in ‘States’ . As regards the Civil Society model, it can be effective when citizens are educated and aware. Though I have not undertaken any structured investigation, my impression is that role and contribution of civil society organisations in implementing MDGs is not so significant. Let us see how they will be effective in case of SDGs and contribute to the movement ‘no one should be left behind’ by 2030.

        • Thanks Karori,

          I think that’s a good point: agreements on their own will achieve little; and whether we see achievements (at least in certain areas) will depend on whether there is successful collective action from civil society in holding governments to account.


          • Thank you very much, Terence ! I wish SDGs will do the greater good to marginalised humanity around the world. Plz keep on promoting impact assessment and the discourse alive. All the Best. Karori

  • Thanks Terence for your thought provoking article.

    I appreciate that the UN has consulted widely to get to these goals. I wonder how much retrospective learnings came from the MDGs. All MDGs were not successful and so it really begs the question – are we learning from the MDGs? Where’s the Lessons Learned Register? I guess I get frustrated when we (globally we) are very good at writing policy but not very good at implementing it. One of the SDGs should be to have Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation police if you will. Otherwise in 2030 we are going to rehash the wording for the next goals.

    • Thanks Susie,

      I certainly agree that better monitoring of progress and better data are essential. That said, I’m not sure something as sweeping as the SDGs or even the MDGs could have their implementation monitored in any meaningful way. (Although I am still mulling this over).

      Thanks for an interesting comment.


  • From where I stand, the MDGs catalysed a vast increase in the amount invested in HIV/AIDS and malaria treatment and prevention. That’s a huge good. (Even if a health system is more than two diseases, the increase there did have large spillover effects into health systems and delivery, and govt prioritisation of health outcomes.)

    It’s difficult to see the same kind of outcome from these vague and non-specific goals. “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being” means absolutely everything and thus absolutely nothing. Hopefully the impetus to health has been sufficiently engrained to make this process superfluous.

    • Thanks George,

      Good to hear from you. WRT to HIV/AIDs (and to an extent malaria) I think the impetus started at least pre-MDGs and was enhanced by other factors (religious conservatives feeling guilty all of a sudden and the like). However, I do take your broader point: so many goals may quite likely lead to just amorphism rather than holistic human development. Still, the goals are as they are (and sometimes for quite good reason). And the challenge will be working successfully within the framework they provide.


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