The UN's Sustainable Develoment Goals (SDGs) Are Not Smart

Several weeks ago on September 25, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), 17 goals and 169 associated targets, thereby setting a new global agenda for the next fifteen years. On the one hand, the SDGs agenda promises to engage the whole world community, not only governments but also multinational companies, philanthropic foundations, civil society, scientists, non-government organizations, scientists, scholars and students around the world.  The new agenda was hailed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “a defining moment in human history.” On the other hand, critics claim that the SDGs are unmeasurable and unmanageable.

The more limited “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs), which will expire at the end of this year, applied largely to poor countries and involved rich ones mostly as donors. The SDGs are broader and go much further than the MDGs; the latter are meant to be universally applicable to developing and developed countries alike.  The consultation process of the SDGs also has been far more inclusive and credible than for the MDGs.

By most accounts, the predecessor MDGs goal-based development was successful precisely because the eight goals, separately and as a whole, were SMART – that is, they were specific, measureable, attainable, relevant, and time-based.  They were meant to be understood by the average person, not only by high theorists. The U.N. and the world’s leaders made the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs in the hope that the latter would inspire action with a set of SDGs that would be “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number,” as the U.N. General Assembly specifically stated  in its 2012 outcome document, “The Future We Want.”  This was not be. An assessment of the SDGs 17 goals and 169 as a whole might easily conclude the opposite of the U.N. aspirations. The package of far too many goals is not actionable, and it is imprecise and difficult -- if not impossible -- to understand.

Leading up to the adoption of the SDGs, a prolonged debate about the goals the world set for 2030 has been heated, fraught with seemingly endless consultation, haggling, and horse-trading. Nonetheless, the sprawling package of SDGs, including 17 overarching goals and a mind-boggling 169 associated targets, was adopted virtually unchanged from the proposed package. Earlier this year, the Economist opined that the SDGs are a “mess” and could be “worse than useless,” a view shared by many other observers. For example, an analysis by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) concluded that of the 169 targets only a third could be considered well-developed and conceived, more than half require more specificity, and 17 percent require “significant work” to be of any use. The Economist saw the SDGs ambitious on a Biblical scale, and not in a good way. Moses brought down just Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai. If only the SDGs were that concise.  

The SDGs as currently conceived are not SMART. They need to become so -- and quickly -- by a rigorous process of performance measurement and management that is as inclusive of the member countries as the consultations on SDGs were leading up to their adoption. This will not be easy because it is just such an inclusive process that produced the sprawling SDGs.

A technical process spearheaded by the United Nations Statistical Commission is ongoing to define an indicator framework for the measurement of the SDGs in March 2016.  Echoing the U.N. General Assembly’s aspirations for the SDGs, the Commission stated “that, given the possibility of measurement and capacity constraints of Member States, the global indicator framework should only contain a limited number of indicators [and] strike a balance between reducing the number of indicators and policy relevance.” The Commission initiated the formation of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), consisting of national statistical offices and, as observers, the regional and international organizations and agencies, that will develop the  indicator framework under the leadership of the national statistical offices, in an open and transparent manner. 

As part of its technical process, the Commission conducted an initial assessment of 304 proposed provisional indicators based on the views of 70 experts from national statistical offices and systems. They were assessed according to their feasibility, suitability and relevance, giving them a ranking from A to C for each these three criteria. An indicator rated “AAA” was found to be easily feasible, suitable and very relevant to measure the respective target for which it was proposed by a majority of national statistical offices (60 per cent or more). In a similar way, an indicator rated “CCC” was found by a significant number of national statistical offices (at least 40 per cent) to be not feasible, not suitable and not relevant to measure the respective target for which it was proposed.

Out of the 304 proposed provisional indicators, only 50 indicators (16 percent) were evaluated as feasible, suitable and very relevant (a rating of AAA); eighty-six indicators (28 percent) received a rating of BBB, meaning that those indicators are considered only feasible with strong effort, in need for further discussion and somewhat relevant. SDG # 16 (“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”), for example, has 21 proposed provisional indicators for the 12 associated targets of the goal. It fares in the same general range of ratings as the SDGs as a whole with only two (10 percent) of the targets rated as AAA and ten (48 percent) rated BBB or better but not AAA (e.g., BBA or BAA).

Was the adoption of the current SDGs made possible solely because it allowed for what everyone wanted no matter how unmanageable and unmeasurable?  Has the hard work of making the SDGs action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, and limited in number, merely been postponed and moved to the measurement phase?  Will the inclusiveness of the technical process laid out by the United Nations Statistical Commission doom indicator framework to the same “messy” results of the current SDGs? As we move ahead with the process of development of measures and indicators for the SDGs, it is probably prudent to remind ourselves that performance measurement is not merely a technical diagnostic process but also an instrument of power and control available to different actors with varying degrees of moral hazards and conflicts of interests, asymmetric power relationships, and perverse incentives.

Whether the indicator framework of the SDGs will engage the global community and generate enthusiasm, knowledge production, and positive social outcomes or, alternatively, degenerate into bureaucratic infighting over special interests remains a matter of debate that will be watched over the next few years.

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