The Sustainable Development Goals and the pitfalls of global technocracy

by Léopold Ghins

HLPF 2018

An SDG review session at UN headquarters. Kaia Rose/Connect4Climate via Flickr

The 73rd session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly started on 18 September 2018. As in previous years, the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are attracting much attention. One of the session’s first high-level meetings was called ‘Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. At first sight, it looks as though the international momentum around sustainable development should be welcomed. Since the introduction of the 17 SDGs and their 169 related targets in 2015, development issues across the globe have become increasingly prominent. Environmental degradation, unequal growth, African demographics, refugee flows, conflicts and the rise of populism are but a few examples calling for more effective transnational cooperation. Matters are particularly urgent for the citizens of poorer countries, who tend to suffer most from these situations. But do the SDGs have the potential to deliver true progress from the point of  view of the developing world?

Optimists frequently praise the 2030 Agenda as an illustration of the power of multilateralism and a sign that a ‘spirit of global citizenship’ is emerging. The SDGs are seen as a reference point that helps interactions between developed and developing countries to centre on finding solutions to common problems. Increased aid ownership on the part of developing countries can be presented as a positive spillover of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and SDGs. The MDGs prompted the endorsement of the 2002 Monterrey Consensus, through which UN member states committed to increase financial flows for development and to address ‘systemic issues’ such as trade distortions in agriculture or unpayable sovereign debts. In parallel to updates of the Monterrey Consensus in 2008 and 2015, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) did considerable work to improve the quantity and quality of aid. It is widely agreed that the Monterrey Consensus and the related OECD-brokered agreements have gone hand in hand with an increase in the amounts of ‘untied’ aid channelled to developing economies in the twenty-first century.

Monitoring and evaluation everywhere

This narrative, however, does not take into consideration what the SDG process has become in practice: a large-scale monitoring and evaluation exercise. When the SDGs were launched, Ban Ki-Moon himself said their implementation had to go together with ‘evaluation everywhere, and at every level’. At the heart of the SDG process is the UN’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). Inputs to HLPF meetings mostly take the form of short progress reports that either zoom in on specific SDGs (the July 2018 HLPF concentrated on 6 out of the 17 goals) or dig into thematic areas and link them with several goals (see these notes on work or trade). Countries are also invited to present Voluntary National Reviews that discuss SDG implementation at the domestic level. The other core component of the SDG process is the ‘financing for development’ work stream, which is led by the UN Financing for Development Office and seeks to measure financial flows that contribute to the SDGs. Both the HLPF and the ‘financing for development’ work stream rest upon a means-end logic: trends, activities and results are monitored and evaluated through the lens of a set of pre-identified goals and targets.

Championing the SDGs in UN arenas is an excellent way for countries to project a positive image in the international sphere.

There are two problems with this way of working. First, monitoring and evaluating global development in reference to the SDGs is an extremely challenging task, notably because of technical and political factors. From a technical point of view, monitoring requires making linkages between policy interventions and the SDGs. Consider a case that is highly relevant to developing countries, namely that of Official Development Assistance (ODA), that is public aid. Definitions of the 169 SDG targets are broad. Many different aid flows can contribute to a target like ‘9.2: promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization’. Loose definitions frequently lead to intricate choices and assumptions as contributions to different SDGs overlap. When it comes to evaluation, there are information gaps that cannot be easily resorbed, such as those between objectives and impacts. For example, an ODA intervention labelled ‘purchasing food from local farmers for school feeding’ could be mapped to ‘SDG 2: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’ and its related targets 2.1, 2.2 and 2.3. However, when working with a large ODA database, whether the intervention really improved farmer incomes or child nutrition on the ground is usually unknown. Hence, an analyst observing increased allocations to SDG 2 will have a hard time determining whether this is a good or bad trend. In March 2017, the UN Statistical Commission approved a set of 232 indicators that further disaggregate SDG targets, in an attempt to make evaluation easier. Nevertheless, many of these indicators are unpractical. According to a recent OECD paper, only 1 out of the 8 indicators proposed for targets under ‘SDG 12: responsible production & consumption’ is robust enough to be included in the results frameworks of ODA providers, and similar limitations also apply to other SDGs.

It could be argued that technical issues can be worked upon. This is likely to take a lot of time though, partly because of political factors. Championing the SDGs in UN arenas is an excellent way for countries to project a positive image in the international sphere. Brazil, for example, has been diplomatically very active on the environmental front since the mid-2000s. In September 2007, President Lula da Silva gave a speech at the UN General Assembly in which he proposed to organise a summit on sustainable development. The June 2012 Rio+20 Conference followed and provided the country with a unique opportunity to stand out as an environmental champion. But once a UN agreement has been adopted, pushing for better review processes is not an attractive strategy. Not only do refinements in monitoring and evaluation procedures increase work for all member states, they are also unlikely to receive much applause at home, where interest in the technicalities of multilateral transparency requirements can be lacking. It is therefore no surprise that, for example, ‘integration of SDGs into national budgeting processes remains in its infancy’. This diagnosis also holds for the other components of the Monterrey Consensus, namely ODA, private investment flows, and trade- or debt-related measures.

Core problems left untouched

The aforementioned limitations of the SDG process in themselves should cause much concern, as they point out to the frequent inefficacy of international cooperation. Yet, the second and more serious problem with the SDG process is that it prevents the multilateral system from looking seriously into some of the Global South’s most pressing development barriers. Examples of such barriers abound in the literature. They include governance models, the dogma of ODA targets, excessive reliance on quantitative indicators or persistently unaddressed systemic imbalances. In recent decades, many voices have pointed to the fact that, historically speaking, rapid development is best achieved by so-called ‘developmental states’ that give significant stimulus to the economy. References to ‘developmental’ states are widely absent from the SDG framework, even though some isolated work on the concept has been done by the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

The SDG technocracy cannot meet its ambitions, notably because of technical and political factors.

Similarly, the necessity of raising ODA levels to 0.7 percent of gross national income (a target under SDG 17) is questionable. In many instances, aid flows fuel underdevelopment, and the interest for ‘untied’ aid is waning. As for the proposed list of quantitative SDG indicators, countries often evolve in ways they cannot capture. For example, whether a reduction in conflict-related deaths (an indicator under SDG 16) can be treated as a contribution to ‘SDG 16: peace, justice and strong institutions’ is debatable. Non-measurable, ‘structural’ forms of violence may be sowing the seeds of future violence even after the end of the killings. Lastly, by design the SDG process can only have a very weak grip on unfair trade patterns or unbearable sovereign debts. These problems require cohesive international actions that cannot be triggered by country-level reporting on targets. Necessary discussions about the kinds of statehood that need to be promoted in the Global South, the varying usefulness of aid, notions of peace and stability or trade and debt burdens are obliterated because of the focus on SDG targets and review procedures.    

The SDG technocracy cannot meet its ambitions, notably because of technical and political factors. But more importantly, it skews UN activity in sustainable development towards a constant assessment of trends and interventions in reference to restrictive and slippery methodologies. As a consequence, important development barriers remain undiscussed. The SDGs in themselves therefore have little potential to leverage progress across the developing world. Much of the development burden comes to rest on individual countries, which have to figure out by themselves how to achieve the SDGs despite an unfavourable global socioeconomic context. The capacity of multilateralism to work to the advantage of developing countries is, to a great extent, left unexploited. Elaborating ways for the UN-led conversation on sustainable development to escape the ‘monitoring and evaluation trap’ stands out as an incredibly urgent task.      


About the author

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Léopold Ghins is recently graduated with an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge. His research interests mostly relate to the political economy of the aid industry, as well as the relationship between development and fragility across Africa and the Middle East.

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