From MDGs to SDGs: aspirations, evidence and diversity in setting global goals

By Adrian Ely, STEPS Centre Head of Impact and Engagement

This week’s STEPS Centre Annual Symposium will be looking at the tensions between scientific advice and policy-making across international borders.  I’ll be chairing a session on the Thursday morning that will hear the views of leading development experts on the role of aspirations, evidence and diversity in the post-2015 international development agenda.

A couple of weeks ago, the uses of evidence in development decision-making were debated in a great set of posts on Oxfam’s blog ‘From Poverty to Power’, written and maintained by Duncan Green.  My colleague Nathan Oxley gave an overview of the debate in a blogpost last week .  To some extent looking through the other end of the telescope, Thursday’s session will be about how political aspirations can be turned into measurable goals and targets (upon which evidence can later be built).  Defining the directions of development that we desire (what Jeff Sachs recently called “writing the future”) will be a complex interplay between technical and political considerations.

The Millennium Development Goals were crafted over years of debate amongst a relatively small number of (primarily donor) actors around the OECD’s development assistance committee (DAC).  The DAC’s 1996 report ‘Shaping the 21st Century’ proclaimed “we believe that a few specific goals will help to clarify the vision of a higher quality of life for all people, and will provide guideposts against which progress toward that vision can be measured.”  As a baseline for donors to focus their efforts and measure their impacts, the resulting goals have played an important role.
The post-2015 international development framework, including discussions around ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is already involving a far larger and more diverse range of actors and interests than its predecessor.  Participation in goal-setting is being emphasised and welcomed as part of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s high level panel of eminent persons (co-chaired by David Cameron).  The Participate initiative co-ordinated by colleagues at IDS and Beyond2015 and the MyWorld survey are just two approaches that are opening up this process in very different ways. The Overseas Development Institute is now tracking proposed goals.  The ONE campaign is running an SMS-based exercise in Southern Africa, and in a recent report argued that the outputs of this and other ground-level initiatives should be included in the High Level Panel’s report.

The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals that was set up following Rio+20 comprises 30 members (countries across the world including traditional ‘donors’, emerging economies and some of the poorest).  In his initial input to this group, Ban Ki Moon wrote “overall, the SDGs should seek to envision a more holistic and integrated agenda for advancing human well-being that is equitable across individuals, populations and generations; and that achieves universal human development while respecting the Earth’s ecosystems and critical life support systems. Strengthening the interface between science and policy can contribute to defining one set of appropriate goals, targets and indicators of the post-2015 development agenda.”

But how do we begin to come up with one set of goals, targets and indicators for global sustainable development?  Should we focus on absolute poverty as the MDGs did, or adopt a focus on equity, targeting and measuring relative poverty – and if so, at national or international levels?  In education, do we focus on ‘bums on seats’ (easier to measure) or educational quality and – our real aspiration – learning amongst girls and boys in primary schools around the world?  Beyond attending to the needs and wants of poor communities around the world, how do we ascertain the accurate and appropriate emphasis on environmental objectives?  Can science form the basis of such decisions and if so which environmental targets and impacts do we prioritise?  Absolute resource use, pollution or biodiversity loss, or alternatively energy-, resource- or carbon-intensity (of economic growth)? 

Whilst various earth system science frameworks (for example around planetary boundaries) offer guidance at the international level, decisions around SDGs will need to address diverse local perspectives and be flexible enough to allow prioritisation and implementation at national levels.  Scientific evidence and advice can help us to make these decisions, but at the base of them are political value judgements that should be influenced by, and accountable to, citizens.

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