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Copenhagen Consensus Center

SDGs: Far Too Many Promises

As the deadline of the Millenium Development Goals neared, the United Nations started a new process to identify what to replace them with. Some influential voices said we needed to stick with the MDGs—they were simple and effective. Others, including me, said we should identify the most effective policies and do those first.

But many and louder voices wanted the UN to tackle a far larger number of issues, and listen to a much broader range of people in forming the new list of promises. An entire industry of working groups and researchers popped up, pumping out reams of well-intentioned recommendations. In total, more than 1,400 different suggested promises were on the table for leaders to consider.

The new global goals, to run from 2016 to 2030 were eventually named the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

They ended up as a list of 169 targets spread across 17 goals or themes. Among this impossibly long list, there are priorities that most of us would agree belong at the top of the agenda for world leaders and development organizations: Tackling extreme poverty and hunger, cutting down infectious diseases, improving education, and ensuring access to affordable energy and banking services.

Alongside these crucially important targets that have the potential to save millions, help billions, and transform societies, there are many other targets that are decidedly less momentous—or that are so airy that they are nearly meaningless. Some of them would be nice to do but far from a matter of life and death, some are difficult to achieve, and some are simply difficult to understand.

Many of these targets revolve around issues that are largely important to well-meaning and well-off people who live comfortable lives in wealthy countries around the world, a long way from real hunger or insecurity. Of course, supporters would argue that unlike the MDGs, the SDGs were meant to apply to all countries, including the rich. But not only has this not actually taken place — you won’t hear US, German or UK domestic politics framed by SDGs — but it is also a basic planning flaw to try to use one set of promises to deal with problems for everyone from the world’s poorest to its richest.

Examples of less momentous SDG targets include promoting sustainable tourism, boosting organic foods or insisting on green public spaces for disabled people. Don’t get me wrong: ensuring that disabled people have accessible public parks is a well-intentioned consideration for a city that can improve the lives of people who are vulnerable. It’s right that cities think about these things. But putting promises like this one – or the promotion of organic apples – on the same level as the other targets is pretty jarring in a world where hundreds of millions of people are starving.

One global SDG target reads more like a rambling parody of good intentions: “by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” Not surprisingly, even the UN struggles to define what this means.

Other targets make far-fetched, expensive promises like achieving “full and productive employment and decent work for every single woman and man, including for young people and persons with disabilities”. The value of making this into a global development target isn’t clear: It is not like most leaders are not already aware of the importance of delivering jobs. If there was a simple and effective way to deliver on this target, it would already be done.

Similarly, the SDG promise of social protection systems delivering social security systems in all countries is wildly optimistic and the best estimates suggest it would cost a trillion dollars each year.

You can read about the more successful Millenium Development Goals here.