Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


I got to be part of a panel yesterday at the UN, grandly titled “Conceptualizing a Set of Sustainable Development Goals - A Special Event of the Second Committee of the UN General Assembly.” I was excited to be there not just because of the location and topic, but also because of considerable respect for the rest of the panel, including Andrew Revkin of the NYT Dot Earth blog, WRI’s Manish Bapna and Oxfam’s Kate Raworth. There was also a surprise appearance by Shamshad Akhtar, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (and my old boss from the World Bank). There does seem to be real interest in the SDGs at the UN: there was someone sitting at pretty much every country seat and there was standing room only for civil society groups at the back of the room.

A highlight of the panel discussion was Kate’s presentation of donut/doughnut economics. The idea, broadly, is that all of humanity should live between two states. First, they should live outside of the ‘donut hole’ of absolute poverty and lack of access to things like food and water, education, health, energy, jobs, equity and equality. That’s what Kate calls the social foundation. But, second, it is important that humanity also lives inside the donut’s outer ring, what she terms the ‘environmental ceiling.’ That involves not putting too much stress on planetary systems including the climate and ozone layer, freshwater and biodiversity. You can quibble with details of the priority systems, and the links between ‘hole’ issues and ‘ceiling’ issues (I might, too). But as a broad framing device for a set of UN goals on what we want the planet to look like, the donut is great. And Kate is flexible enough that she said it could be renamed bagel economics if it will bring New York on board.

Image Credit: Oxfam

Kate is coming to CGD to discuss bagels/donuts at lunch on November 6th. Anyone who wants to take a break from constantly refreshing news websites on that day is welcome (you’ll know Dixville Notch in the morning and there isn’t any real news until the polls close, so honestly, Kate’s presentation will add considerably more value to your life).

I talked briefly about findings from two CGD working papers –on what have the MDGs accomplished and MDGs 2.0. In short: the first lot helped bolster aid flows, changed the development dialogue, and may have had some impact on rates of progress in some goal areas. That was in part because of their simple numerical time bound nature. Also because they were fairly narrowly focused as a tool for justifying aid post-Cold-War. But they did suffer the fault of asking impossible progress from some countries.

Based on that, and thinking about a new lot of global goals, there are easier and more difficult goals to imagine:

  • Easiest: old goal areas, non-controversial measures, simple to forecast plausible rates of progress. That would include things like halving child mortality by 2030 or an average global life expectancy of 75 years.
  • Easy(ish): old goal areas, non-controversial measures, more difficult to forecast plausible rates of progress. Examples include zero $1.25 poverty by 2030, less than one in ten of world living below $2 a day, universal basic literacy.
  • A little harder: new goal areas, non-controversial measures, simple to forecast plausible rates of progress. Perhaps “halted, and begun to reverse, trends towards greater population disparities in the number of girls and boys at age five in every country where such trends have been manifest” or “reduce global military expenditure expressed as a proportion of global output by one third of its proportion in 2010.”
  • Hard: new goal areas, non-controversial measures, progress on the basis of past trends completely not good enough to do the job. Examples: halted (by 2020) and reversed growth in global greenhouse gas emissions, prevented the extinction of known threatened species. (The advantage of this language, pretty key to a strong environmental sustainability leg of any new set of development goals, is it is largely implied or lifted from existing UN language either from the Cancun UNFCCC or the Nagoya Biodiversity conference.)
  • Really hard: new goal areas, controversial measures. Think governance, security, equity. I’m not sure we’ll get to simple numerical time bound goals that cover the waterfront in such areas. But maybe we could get in some partial measures that would make a real difference (even just by the act of measuring them). As it might be: rising proportion of the world with a legal identification, declining percentage of people who have been victims of domestic violence (the most common form of violence worldwide).
  • Pretty much impossible: global governance. I suggested as an example the idea of the UK giving up its UN Security Council seat to India while France gives up its seat to the European Union (it has a Peace Prize, you know). The audience laughed.

The discussion session was very interesting and a little disturbing. First, there was repeated frustration at the fact that the open working group that is meant to be designing the SDGs hasn’t been created yet –delayed by squabbling about who gets to sit on it. Second, a number of country representatives suggested that confusion still reigns when it comes to the linkages between the SDG process and the work of the High Level Panel –a concern since Rio. Some representatives from Latin American countries suggested that the Open Working Group should just come up with a list of its own SDGs, and it wouldn’t be so bad if we ended up with two sets of development goals come 2015. Third, some representatives from African countries went beyond the “common but differentiated responsibilities” language agreed at Rio to suggest there should be completely different goals for different regions.

All of this suggests there is still the real possibility that 2016 will begin without a common, universally agreed global agenda on sustainable development progress for the next twenty years. That would be a considerable missed opportunity. Two sets of goals each with different champions or regional goals will not drive the development discussion or achieve nearly the same visibility as the original MDGs –for all of their many flaws.

Doubtless there is some clever politics at play allowing the SDG process to drag slowly along behind and disconnected from the High Level Panel. Perhaps a rabbit will be pulled out of the hat (or will be put out of its misery) sometime in 2014 allowing for unity around a new set of goals. I hope so. But, if not, it is about time that the principle of the UN talking with one voice about global sustainable development started looking a little closer to the practice.