Decorating the Christmas tree with perfect Sustainable Development Goals?

By Katharina Welle, STEPS Centre PhD student 

The 2013 STEPS Symposium on “credibility across cultures” examined questions surrounding ‘best available’ scientific advice in relation to global policy processes on sustainable development. One global process discussed at the Symposium is the current United Nations consultation process for setting new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs will form the core of a new global development agenda that will replace the current Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

While following the consultation process – as I did for water supply and sanitation – it becomes clear that the discussion rallies, unsurprisingly, on setting new targets and indicators. To the credit of sector stakeholders, the sector-internal consultations have picked up many of the criticisms voiced against the MDG on water and sanitation: its focus on technical aspects of access to water supply at the detriment of other key aspects encompassing the human right to water (and sanitation).

The consultation document submitted to the UN proposes targets and indicators related to equity, equality and non-discrimination, and the sustainability of services. So far so good, but what about the reality of monitoring and the traction these will have in the political reality of service delivery?

This takes me to some of the comments made by the speakers at the relevant STEPS Symposium session “From MDGs to SDGs: aspirations, evidence and diversity in setting global goals”. For me, the points made by Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Advisor at Oxfam GB (who blogs here), stood out. He highlighted the politics of setting global targets, comparing the process with decorating a Christmas tree: everyone picks and chooses what she wants to see represented under the SDGs. The real challenge however, according to him, is how the post-MDG agenda will influence national policy making?

So, are the SDGs likely to make a difference? Will they be able to influence national level decision making? Paying attention to the politics of knowledge production and to its contested nature, a key theme in the Symposium, is helpful in answering this question.

For instance, when reading the latest official global figures on water supply access in Ethiopia, we learn that rural water access reached 34% in 2010.  However, when comparing these with figures released by the Ethiopian Ministry of Water and Energy, we find that official access figures for rural water supply for the same year were 65.8%. So, which figure is right? Is there even an objective figure that I could confidently quote? Attempting a quick answer one could say that much of the divergence between the figures boils down to using different data sources, different indicators and different methods of analysis. In other words, each actor chooses its inputs in appraising rural water access based on political pressures, professional biases, institutional capacity to collect data etc.

The picture that emerges from such insights is starkly different from the seemingly objective reporting of progress against the global development targets: rather, monitoring can be likened to a theatre play where different actors stage performances that reflect their interests and political affiliations.

In Duncan Green’s words it is “politics and power” that lie at the heart of global monitoring regardless of how inclusive the formulation of the new SDGs are going to be. Monitoring is infinitely manipulable – and therefore it is worth paying attention to the power and political dynamics in local monitoring settings rather than stopping short at the formulation of the ‘perfect’ target to decorate the SDG Christmas tree. 

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.