ODI Report Advocates Ambition in Setting SDGs

In September of this year, the UN Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals presented a draft set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) to the UN General Assembly. The SDGs will replace the millennium development goals, which will reach their deadline at the end of 2015.

As it stands, the SDGs consist of 17 goals and 169 targets. The proposed SDGs retain many of the same foci as the MDGs- ending poverty and hunger and promoting health, education and equality- while expanding to encompass the challenges of climate change and building sustainable peace.

Many, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, have argued that 17 SDGs is too many. Warned Cameron, “I don’t believe they will cut it at 17. There are too many to communicate effectively. There’s a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust.”

Others have hinted that the 17 SDGs are too impractical. Amina Mohammed, the UN secretary general’s special adviser on post-2015 development planning, said, “We want actionable targets, not those that remain aspirational.”

However, a recent study from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) disputes the necessity of “practicality” in setting the SDGs. While many have expressed concern that the SDGs’ ambition will limit their effectiveness, May Miller-Dawkins, the author of the ODI report, argues that, “the high ambition and non-binding nature of SDGs could increase, rather than diminish, their overall and long-term impact.” Miller-Dawkins reasons that, historically, non-binding agreements have been more effective than strong-enforcement, low-ambition agreements in changing behavior.

Since the effects of international agreements are limited by local political constraints, Miller-Dawkins argues that broadly defined goals and targets tend to be more effective. According to Miller-Dawkins, such agreements lay out principles that governments can in turn adapt to their unique political situation.

Miller-Dawkins worries that ‘SDG fatigue’ will cause leaders to preemptively settle for more easily achieved short-term goals in lieu of “ambitious principles that strengthen norms and give national groups a further point of lever.”

– Parker Carroll 

Sources: ODI, The Guardian 1, The Guardian 2
Photo: CIFOR