A better SDGs

 The case for radical downsizing of the UN’s post-2015 wish list

The latest incarnation of the UN’s proposals for the SDGs – the Sustainable Development Goals designed to replace the MDGs after 2015 – are, much like the previous version, a bit of a wish-list of nice ideas rather than a prioritized set of achievable goals.

It’s understandable; once someone suggests perhaps targeting reductions in road deaths, increased registration of children, or reform of the financial sector, would you really want to be the one to say no, just to keep the list down to a manageable number? But eight original MDGs was probably too many – surely only the deepest development nerds can remember all of them – and the new proposals have 17!  This is surely a recipe for confusion, especially given that the 17 include such achievable, measurable goals as “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” (If we could figure that out, it would be not only the end of poverty, but the End of History, Fukuyama-style.)

But griping is easy. Those of us who would like a set of SDGs we can explain to our relatives without embarrassment need to speak up and make the case for a shorter list that actually prioritises our development challenges – and that means leaving something out. As Warren Buffett knows and the SDG process has forgotten, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Imagine a better SDGs: a list that was challenging but achievable, that was measurable, and above all, which prioritized the most urgent problems. A list that was short and memorable, and whose selectiveness sent a powerful message: this is no wish list. We’re serious about achieving these.

Here’s my take on a list which is short, memorable and punchy. It might be less ambitious than the UN’s, but to achieve it all would still be a stunning achievement – and we might even actually manage it.

By 2030:

  1. Reduce to fewer than 200 million the number of people living in extreme poverty
  2. Ensure access by all people to safe, nutritious and sufficient food and water
  3. Reduce by two-thirds or more incidence of child marriage and female genital mutilation
  4. Reduce global emissions of greenhouse gas by 40% compared to 1990
  5. That’s it

Now, I know what you’re thinking. What about targets for economic growth, inequality, energy, urban planning, indigenous people’s rights….?

For the most part, things ‘missing’ from this list are covered by the few included. Poverty reduction won’t happen without growth, so an additional growth target is redundant. Similarly for energy: if we near-eradicate poverty while reducing emissions, we must have provided low-carbon solutions to poor people’s energy needs. I doubt we could do it otherwise.

What this does leave out is some kind of minority-rights issues, like indigenous people’s rights. Instead, this list focuses on the most widespread form of discrimination, sexism, and attacks its most egregious manifestations.

I doubt this list is ideal: the actual numerical targets are pretty much off the top of my head, though frankly any number is better than the usually-unachievable goal of ‘eradicate’.

But the basic shape feels right to me. Here’s a set of goals you can print on a card and give to your grandma, a list people could be mobilized to campaign for; and a list we actually have a chance of achieving.


Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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