Global Development Goals: If at All, Why, When and How?

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By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven

Last week, the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) were launched at the UN in New York. This is the outcome of two years of consultations, lobbying, and debate about what the “post-2015” agenda should look like. The assumption has been that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a huge success and that we, therefore, must proceed with a new round. Unfortunately, this assumption is not backed by empirical evidence.

While the SDG debates have been raging, New School Professor Sanjay Reddy and I have been asking ourselves why goals should be adopted at all. What function, if any, might they serve, and under what conditions could they do so successfully? Quite striking is the fact that  systematic efforts to answer these seemingly elementary questions have been absent.

Based on our answers to these questions, we find serious inadequacies in the contemporary approach to development goals and relate these to weaknesses in how the goals were conceived and formulated. However, we do find that despite the weaknesses of the SDG framework, higher-level goals may play a useful role if the approach to them is embedded in a holistic and integrated vision of a better world. In fact, the goals in the SDG framework incorporate a marked move away from the basic needs approach of the MDGs, towards a stronger focus on structural issues. Generally, the SDGs place a greater emphasis on environmental, economic, and social sustainability than the MDGs did, making the SDGs more transformative and potentially less depoliticizing than the MDGs.

However, the SDG framework fails to pay attention to the dynamics of development and the constraints faced by many developing economies. It also fails to give attention to the question of how wealth and power is produced and reproduced in the global economic system or within national economies. In effect, the view of poverty within the SDG framework appears to be one that abstracts from economic processes and systemic features that determine national growth prospects or individual circumstances. Thus, while the goals could potentially be transformative, the specific targets suggest an eviscerated causal analysis that shies away from challenging, or even identifying, the wider range of economic structures that may systematically favor the wealthy and even impoverish the poor.

Finally, with 169 highly specific targets, the SDGs appear too specific to fit into a global framework that could also claim to accommodate contextual conditions. We therefore argue that focusing on the set of 17 goals, rather than the 169 targets, would open up much needed space for flexibility, innovation, and fuller democratic accountability.

Download the paper (SSRN).
Read our blog post on the Financial Times.
Read Sanjay Reddy’s blog post about the paper.

This blog post was originally published on the New School Economic Review (September 28, 2015).

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