Unsolicited publishing advice/reviewing rant to follow. Brace yourselves.

When writing an article based on the quantitative analysis of a phenomena, whatever it may be and however novel your analysis, you are not absolved from reading/understanding the conceptual literature (however qualitative) addressing that phenomena. Sure, you might be using a larger dataset than ever used before. Certainly, the previous literature might have been case-study based, and therefore difficult to generalize. But that doesn’t give you a pass to just ignore that existing literature.

  • That literature establishes the meanings of the concepts you are measuring/testing
  • That literature captures the current state of knowledge on those concepts
  • Often, that literature (if qualitative, especially if ethnographic) can get at explanations for the phenomena that cannot be had through qualitative methods alone

If you ignore this literature:

  • You’ll just ask questions that have already been answered. Everybody hates that, especially time-constrained reviewers who already know the answers to your questions because they actually have read/contributed to the literature you ignored.
  • You’ll likely end up with results that don’t make sense, and with no means of explaining or even addressing them. Editors and reviewers hate that, too.
  • Your results, even if they appear to be statistically significant, will be crap. I don’t care how sophisticated your quantitative analysis is, or how innovative your tools might be, you are shoving crap into a very innovative, sophisticated tool, which means that all you’ll get out the other end is crap. Reviewers hate crap. Editors hate crap. And your crap is probably not actionable (and really shouldn’t be), so nobody outside academia will like your crap.

Please don’t generate more crap. There is plenty around.

Finally, a note on professionalism and your career: Citing around people who have worked on the phenomena you are investigating because you are trying to capture a particular field of knowledge is awful intellectual practice that, beyond needlessly slowing the pace of innovation in the field in question, will never work…because editors will send the people you are not citing the article for review. And they will wreck you.

As many of you know, I tend to post when provoked to rage by something in the press/literature/world. These days, I am massively overtasked, which means I need special levels of rage to post. So hooray to Tom Friedman, who in his utterly frustrating column yesterday actually managed to get me there.

I’m going to set aside my issues with the Friedman-standard reductionist crap in the column. Ken Opalo killed it anyway, so just read his post. Instead, I want to spend a few words excoriating Friedman for his lazy, stereotypical portrayal of my friend and colleague Ousmane Ndiaye in that column. First, as has been noted a few times, Ousmane is a climatologist with a Ph.D. This is NOT THE SAME THING AS A WEATHERMAN. Just Google the two, for heaven’s sake. What Ousmane is trained in is high-end physical science, and he is good at it. Really good at it.

But what is really remarkable about Ousmane, and totally elided in Friedman’s lazy, lazy writing, is that he is no office-bound monotonic weatherman. First, Ousmane is really, really funny. I’ve never seen him not funny, ever – even in serious meetings. Which makes me wonder how hard Friedman, who writes “”His voice is a monotone,” is working to fit Ousmane into the box of “scientist” as Friedman understands it.

Second, Ousmane does remarkable work engaging farmers across Senegal. I have seen him in farmer meetings, talking about seasonal forecasts. He cares deeply about these farmers, and how well he is able to communicate forecasts to them. I’ve also seen him at Columbia University, in scientific meetings, moving between professors and development donors, talking about new ideas and new challenges that need to be addressed. He moves between these worlds easily, a skill far too lacking in the climate change community.

What I am saying here is simple: Friedman missed the fact that he had the star right in front of him, clicking away at the computer. He needed a counterpoint for his rapper, and a sad caricature of Ousmane became that counterpoint. And because of the need to present Ousmane as the boring scientist, Friedman totally missed how unbelievably apocalyptic the figures he was hearing really are, especially for rain-fed agriculturalists in Senegal. A 2C rise in temperature over the last 60 or so years means that, almost certainly, some varieties of important cereals are no longer germinating, or having trouble germinating. The fact Senegal is currently 5C over normal temperature is unholy – and were this to hold up, would totally crush this year’s harvest (planting starts in about a month, so keep an eye on this) because very little would germinate properly at that level.

Ousmane was describing the apocalypse, and Friedman was fixated on a clicking mouse. Friedman owes Ousmane an apology for this pathetic caricature, and he owes the rest of us an apology for the ways in which his lazy plot and the characters he needed to occupy it resulted in a complete burial of the lede: climate change is already reaching crisis levels in some parts of the world.

 

P.S., if you want to see some of the work that has started to emerge from working alongside Ousmane, check out this and this.

Back in September, HURDL released its final report on our work assessing Mali’s Agrometeorological Advisory program – an effort, conceived and run by the Government of Mali, to deliver weather and climate information to farmers to improve agricultural outcomes in the country. You’d think this would be a straightforwardly good idea – you know, more information (or indeed any information) being better than none. So our findings were a bit stunning:

  • As we found in our preliminary report, less than 20% of those with access to the advisories are actually using them
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is a man
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is already relatively well-off
  • The advisories were most used in the parts of the country where precipitation is most secure (see map below).

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 5.10.27 PM

This was, to say the least, a set of surprising findings. And, on their surface, they suggest that the program is another example of development failure: a project that only reaches those who least need the help it is providing.

But that conclusion only holds if this program was oriented toward development and adaptation in the first place…and it was not. The program was established in 1981 as an effort to address conditions of acute food insecurity closely linked to severe drought. The goal was simple: use short-term and seasonal advisories to help farmers make better decisions under stress and boost food availability in Mali. This program, in other words, was an effort to address a particular, acute problem (food insecurity linked to extreme drought) through a very specific means (boosting food availability). This was not a development project, it was a humanitarian response to a crisis. And as such, it was brilliant – and each of the findings above demonstrate why.

  • The goal was to rapidly boost yields of grains (and cotton), for which men have most decision-making authority.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost overall yields of grains to improve availability within Mali, and therefore targeting the wealthy farmers who had the access to equipment and animal traction necessary to use the advisories made sense.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost grain production…and much more grain is grown in the wetter parts of Mali than in the dryer areas in the north.

In short, the project was never intended to address development goals – it was supposed to address a particular aspect of a humanitarian crisis through particular means, and its design targeted exactly the right decision-makers/actors to achieve that goal. Indeed, one could argue that the rather narrow use of advisories speaks to how well designed this humanitarian intervention was. In short, the gendered/wealth-dependent character of advisory use, and the fact they are most used in areas that are already very agriculturally productive, are not bugs in this project: they are features!

The problem, then, is not with the design of the project, but the fact it continued for more than 30 years, and some 25 years after the end of the droughts. As a narrowly-focused effort to address a particular, short-term humanitarian crisis, the gendered/wealth-based outcomes of the project were acceptable trade-offs to achieve higher grain yields. But over 30 years, and without the justification of an acute crisis, it is likely this project has served to unnecessarily exacerbate agricultural inequality in rural southern Mali.

HURDL is now engaged in a project to redesign this program, to shift it from a (now unnecessary) humanitarian assistance effort to a development/adaptation project. With this shift in priorities comes a shift in how we view the outcomes of the program – the very things that made it an effective humanitarian assistance program (gendered and income-based inequality) are now aspects of the project that we must change to ensure that the widest number of farmers possible have access to information they can use in their livelihoods decisions as we move into conditions of greater economic and environmental uncertainty. In short, we now have to bridge the DRR and Humanitarian Response/Development and Adaptation divide that has so plagued those of us concerned with the situation of those in the Global South. This will be tremendously challenging, but through this process we hope to not only work with Malian colleagues to design and deliver a development and adaptation version of this program to Malian farmers, but also to learn more about how to bridge the particular time/scope emphases of these two assistance arenas.

Look, I know there have been lots of Star Wars and development posts/tweets (here, here, here), so I won’t belabor things. But forgive me a quick observation after seeing the most recent Star Wars: isn’t the continual construction of bigger and more powerful flying orbs of death by the bad guys (the Empire, then the First Order) a perfect metaphor for the sort of thinking that gave us the Millennium Villages?

Goal: Galactic Domination

Project 1: Star Wars: A New Hope

Logframe: Build giant Death Star space station, blow up a representative planet, watch galaxy cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Failure to address single design flaw results in giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Lack of Domination

 

Project 2: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Logframe: Build bigger, better Death Star space station, everyone will remember the last one blew up a planet, and because this one is even bigger the galaxy will cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Fixed previous design flaw, overconfidence in tactics and shields failed to account for another fatal flaw, giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Catastrophe, Complete collapse of the Empire

 

Project 3: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Logframe: F*ck it, we’re making an actual moon/planet into an absolutely massive, sun-powered Starkiller base (rebranded to avoid stigma of previous Death Stars), blow up the entire Federation home system, watch galaxy cower in fear=> Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Pretty much the same flaw as with the second Death Star, with pretty much the same result: Starkiller base destroyed

Outcome: Still no domination

So, to summarize: we have a problem, we can’t seem to solve it, so we will keep plowing ahead with the same approach, but bigger and more expensive, because clearly it isn’t the concept that’s flawed, we just haven’t gone big enough!

 

Yep, sounds like a lot of development.

Last week, I published a short editorial in Scientific American’s SA Forum online that decried the near-total lack of organization or prioritization in the Sustainable Development Goals/Global Goals/whatever they are called this week. My argument was simple: by not ordering or prioritizing goals, the SDGs

risk becoming an empty exercise that empowers business as usual in the field of global development.

At the conclusion of that piece, I suggested that the only way to avoid this outcome was to find actors who were able to demand organization and prioritization among these goals – principally the big bilateral donors like USAID and DfID, or perhaps the Gates foundation (which, on expenditures, comes in around the world’s sixth-largest donor organization).

I’ve been taken to task a few times by colleagues for this suggestion. These rather polite and professional interventions (I know, not at all like the internet I’ve come to expect) pointed out that I’d empowered the big donors, with their problematic, often Eurocentric framings of development and how to achieve it, to act as the saviors of development via the SDGs. Given my rather clear critical stance with regard to these framings of development (most clearly articulated in Delivering Development, but generally present in most of the stuff I write), I think some folks were mystified by my logic. So allow me to clarify:

When we refuse to define terms, organize concepts or efforts, or engage in the politics necessary to set priorities, we are not apolitical: we are empowering other political agendas. The basic argument of my op-ed was simple: by not making hard decisions, we have empowered a particular political agenda, one that leaves development in a business-as-usual situation. Therefore, I see nearly any effort at locking down priorities and organizing efforts as superior to no prioritization at all, because any effort to set priorities will accomplish two things:

First, it will bring politics to the fore, and we will all be forced to wrestle with what we want to prioritize and why.

Second, it will lock down the meanings of the different terms we use (i.e. sustainable, well-being, secure) in such a way that they can become sites where politics can happen.

What do I mean by this? If, as we have done to this point, we refuse to define what we mean by sustainable (for example), we create a conceptual container that can be filled by nearly any definition, policy, program, project, or activity. It allows completely contradictory efforts to coexist and cancel each other out, without providing a base from which to contest any or all of these efforts. When there are no definitions, everything using a given term can be seen as equally valid. Similarly, if we refuse to prioritize our efforts, organizations can fill their efforts to meet the SDGs with almost any hodgepodge of policies, programs, projects, or activities…and will likely do so in a manner that mirrors their current emphases, funding, and staffing structures. Thus, organizations could set up completely contradictory agendas, with associated material efforts, and be seen as making equally valid efforts to address the SDGs in the eyes of the donors and the public. There is no way to contest the way one organization or another does its business if there are no definitions or priorities from which to work.

This does not mean that I think any particular donor organization will save the SDGs by setting the agenda we need to move forward. All are mired in their own internal and/or national politics, and therefore will push for agendas that most clearly reflect their own strengths and priorities. Further, most donor organizations do, in fact, operate from rather problematic, Eurocentric framings of the world, for example in their continuing inability to recognize the genius of small farmers who already negotiate uncertain environments and economies. As I have written about at length, in the eyes of most donor organizations these farmers are poor and helpless in the face of these large forces, and in need of help/saving/education. As a result, the donors cannot identify the things that these farmers really need (which are often a lot more narrow than a total reworking of their agricultural systems) and, even worse, they cannot learn from the things these farmers already know about how to best manage their agricultural, economic, and social environments.

So no, I don’t think the donors will save us…directly. But if one or more are willing to step up and impose politics on this process, they will create a process by which terms gain definition, and efforts are prioritized. When these meanings become fixed, it becomes possible to engage them and contest them, to actually have a conversation about what development is, and what it should be. Right now, we can just hold hands, say words like sustainability, and watch a nice concert together, all the while operating under the illusion that we have the same goals, and that we are working toward those goals in the same ways. That gets us nowhere. I want a development world where we are forced to recognize that different organizations and individuals prioritize different things, have different visions of the future, and different means of moving us toward those visions. Further, I want a development world where we have to struggle with the fact that what organizations want may have little to do with what the global poor want. That is what the SDGs could have given us.

It is too late to make the SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets a site of real development politics. But all is not lost: over one thousand initiatives have been set up to meet these targets and achieve these goals, and many more are coming. This is where the goals will become impacts on the ground. If we can create a real politics of development around these initiatives by organizing and prioritizing them, perhaps we can recover the SDGs as a site from which we can build a truly transformative agenda for development.

 

So, I have news. In August, I will become a Full Professor and Director of the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. It is an honor to be asked to lead a program with such a rich history, at such an exciting time for both it and the larger Clark community. The program uniquely links the various aspects of my research identity within a single department, and further supports those interests through the work of a fantastic Graduate School of Geography, the George Perkins Marsh Institute, and the Graduate School of Management. At a deeply personal level, this also marks a homecoming for me – I grew up in New Hampshire, in a town an hour’s drive from Worcester. My mother is still there, and many friends are still in the region. In short, this was a convergence of factors that was completely unique, and in the end I simply could not pass on this opportunity.

This, of course, means that after twelve years, I will be leaving the University of South Carolina. This was a very difficult decision – there was no push factor that led me to consider the Clark opportunity. Indeed, I was not looking for another job – this one found me. I owe a great deal to USC, the Department of Geography, and the Walker Institute for International and Area Studies. They gave me resources, mentoring, space, networks, support, etc., all of which were integral in building my career. Without two Walker Institute small grants, the fieldwork in 2004 and 2005 that led to so many publications, including Delivering Development, would never have happened. The department facilitated my time at USAID, and the subsequent creation of HURDL. I will always owe a debt to South Carolina and my colleagues here, and I leave a robust institution that is headed in exciting directions.

As I move, so moves HURDL. The lab will take up residence in the Marsh Institute at Clark some time in late summer, assuming my fantastic research associate Sheila Onzere does not finally lose her mind dealing with all of the things I throw at her. But if Sheila is sane, we’ll be open for business and looking for more opportunities and partners very soon!

I’ve been writing here on Open the Echo Chamber since July of 2010. Good lord, that is a long time. I’ve cranked out well over 250,000 words on the site (plus or minus 30 articles, or about three books, worth of writing). And for all of that effort, I have received exactly no credit at all for this in my academic job. In my annual reviews and promotion packets, I can shove this work under “service”, but 1) most of my colleagues probably wouldn’t agree with that categorization and 2) nobody in academia gets much of anything for their service contributions unless they are a full-on administrator. I don’t blog for my academic career, I blog as a means of getting ideas outside the rigidity of the peer-review publishing world, the ways it gates off knowledge from those that might use it, and the ways it can police away innovative new thought that challenges existing powers. So, when I recently stumbled across The Winnower, I got excited. “Publish my posts with review and a DOI?” I thought. “Make my posts citable in major journals and technical reports?” I chortled. “Further blur the lines between my academic publishing and the stuff I do on this blog?” I fairly giggled. Yeah, I need to give this a try.

Let me explain:

According to the lovely people at Google Analytics, in that time nearly 50,000 users have committed to over 100,000 pageviews. For a blog that is home to some long, wonky posts, that is pretty amazing. Readership comes from all over the world, with the top 10 countries looking like this:

  1. United States 37,530(52.18%)
  2. United Kingdom 7,990(11.11%)
  3. Canada 4,186(5.82%)
  4. Australia 1,949(2.71%)
  5. India 1,339(1.86%)
  6. Germany 1,019(1.42%)
  7. Netherlands 834(1.16%)
  8. Kenya 773(1.07%)
  9. Philippines 722 (1.00%)
  10. France 695 (.97%)

It is remarkable that Google lists visitors from 192 different countries and territories. And when you drill down to cities, it gets pretty cool as well:

  1. Washington 5,023(6.98%)
  2. London 3,419(4.75%)
  3. New York 2,965(4.12%)
  4. Columbia 2,326(3.23%)
  5. Irmo 1,273(1.77%)
  6. Toronto 769(1.07%)
  7. Seattle 713(0.99%)
  8. Fonthill 676(0.94%)
  9. Melbourne 642(0.89%)
  10. Nairobi 604(0.84%)
  11. Sydney 532(0.74%)
  12. Cambridge MA 517(0.72%)
  13. Oxford 500(0.70%)
  14. Ottawa 466(0.65%)
  15. San Francisco 459(0.64%)
  16. Arlington 457(0.64%)
  17. Chicago 429(0.60%)
  18. Durham 393(0.55%)
  19. Boston 367(0.51%)
  20. Montreal 364(0.51%)

I’ve known who I was reaching for a while – I get informal notes and phone calls from people at various institutions letting me know they liked (mostly) or disliked/had issues with (sometimes) things I have written. Compared to many blogs, I don’t get that many readers. But my readers are my target audience – they are the folks who work in development and climate change. Well, that, and my students here at the University of South Carolina (hence the Columbia and Irmo numbers).

The one big problem for me, and this blog, has been the level of effort it requires, and the ways in which it could (and could not) be used in my primary sectors of employment, academia and development consulting. Though the world is changing fast, the fact is most people still will not take a blog post as seriously as an academic article. That is probably a good thing – there is a lot of crap out on blogs. At the same time, there are really good blogs out there, some of which produce better work/scholarship than you find in the peer-reviewed literature. Finding ways to help people sort out what is good and what is crap, and finding ways to make social media/blog posts viable sources for academic and consulting work, is important to me.

So, starting today, I have linked this blog to The Winnower. When I produce a post with enough intellectual content, I will cross-post it to the Winnower, where it will be subject to a review process, after which it will receive a DOI, making it a real publication in the eyes of many journals and other sources (hell, it will fit under “other academic contributions” on my CV, so there). I’m excited about what The Winnower is trying to do (as you might already know I find academic publishing structures deeply frustrating: just look here, here, here, and here), and if my work serves to further their mission, and their efforts serve to further blur the lines between the ways in which I disseminate my work, I’m happy to give it a go.

Here is my author page at The Winnower. I’ve currently got six old posts up for review – six posts that were viewed by an average of well over a thousand readers each. So I know you all care about these posts and topics. Go ahead and review them, comment on them, help me make them better…and help The Winnower succeed.

Welcome to the future. Maybe.

If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

In my last post, I laid out the first of my concerns with the evolving Sustainable Development Goals. As I said, I think most of these goals fall into one of three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Having covered the impossible, I now turn my attention to the remaining two categories and why they are problematic:

The vague:

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

What does it mean to ensure the availability of water and sanitation? That everyone actually gets to use it, or just that the facilities are available where you live? This is an open question, because Goal 6 says availability (water and sanitation is present), not access (you can get water and adequate sanitation, no matter your circumstances). The former requires one set of values with regard to public services (i.e. water as a privatizable commodity that might be subject to efficiency gains if privatized), while the latter evokes a completely different set of concerns (i.e. water as a human right). By using the word availability, Goal 6 enables everything from the free delivery of water to all citizens to the complete privatization of a water system, as long as under both scenarios some form of water delivery is present for all users. Achievement of availability doesn’t speak to pricing or other factors that might enable or constrain the ability to access water. Basically, you can justify both actions as ensuring availability and therefore meeting an SDG even though these actions would likely result in wildly disparate outcomes for the affected population – including reduced access to water, even as it becomes more available.

How, under Goal 12, will we ensure sustainable consumption patterns? For example, are we promoting revolutions in energy production that will lower the cost of recycling, or are we arguing for massive social change in the wealthiest countries that would result in reduced consumption among the world’s rich populations? None of the proposed indicators suggest the latter, but simply cleaning up our energy supply is not going to create a sustainable pattern of consumption in a world that may well already be in ecological overshoot due to a wide range of resource consumption issues.

Vague goals that enable virtually all possible actions, or actions that really don’t do much to address the real problem the goal is meant to address (i.e. ecological overshoot under Goal 12) are not goals. They are slogans that neither motivate action nor focus effort, making the outcomes we want (greater access to necessary water, a planet we can live on indefinitely but in greater prosperity) disappear. This is worse than no goal at all.

 

The “Sounds good, but on second thought…”

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Reading that I have objections to Goals like 8 and 10, you can be forgiven if (at least momentarily) you think that I am a huge jerk, but hear me out. Personally, I think that promoting decent and productive livelihoods is a critical part of improving the quality of life for people, whether they live in rich or poor countries. And there can be little doubt that high levels of inequality have deleterious effects on economic growth, and raise major issues of justice. But this does not mean that these goals are necessarily great ideas.

First, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth…is basically impossible under existing energy and resource regimes. As the global economy has grown over the past few decades, and growth has taken off in a number of formerly low-income countries, we’ve seen a colossal expansion in consumption that strains our climate and our resource base. Continued economic growth, at least in the near future, will drive greater greenhouse emissions and increased drawdowns of non-renewable natural resources. In short, Goal 8 sort of fits into my first grouping of SDGs (“the impossible”) but is in some ways even more dangerous because its framing suggests that we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (sustainability). We cannot, at least not right now. Instead, pushing for sustained economic growth that brings full and productive employment and decent work for all will make the achievement of Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts), Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development), and Goal 15 (Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss) very difficult, if not impossible.

And what of Goal 10? Well, there is a real question to be asked here: when is inequality bad, and when might it help us achieve development goals? At the national scale, it does appear that inequality can become a drag on economic growth (see Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – and before you ask, yes, I actually read the damn thing). But what of situations at different scales, where inequality might present a temporary path to economic improvement for many? For example, at the scale of a very poor community in the Sahel, actions that enrich a relatively small, already rich portion of the population might enhance inequality in the village. However, if those wealthy members of the community accumulate assets that they are obligated to share under local social expectations (for example, cattle that can be used as traction in farming), such accumulation might improve the agricultural productivity and incomes of many in the community (by enhancing access to animal traction) until such time as those poorer members of the community can accumulate their own assets. If such a pattern were to take hold across a relatively poor country such as Mali or Burkina Faso, it could manifest in national statistics as an increase in economic inequality that, under this goal, should be ended. Until we understand the different causes of inequality, and their consequences, perhaps we should wait to see what it is we are trying to address and when it is appropriate to do so.

In short, the achievement of this last group of goals might serve to blow up our efforts to achieve other goals. Development has a penchant for stovepiping activities into sectors and goals. Further, there is no way any single donor/partner is going to cover all 17 goals under their portfolio. What this means is that individuals working on one goal may not have any idea what their efforts are doing to other goals. Further, if those other goals are owned by different organizations, there may not be any means for or incentives that lead to coordination across these goals. Organizations and individuals will respond to the tasks and measures in front of them first, and worry about the collateral damage later.

In summary, proposing goals that are so vague as to encompass every possible outcome of activities under a broad heading, or creating goals that might, if achieved, undermine other goals, is not moving us into a “beyond aid” world. They are not moving us anywhere except to more of the same work that development and aid have been doing for decades, and which has given us little we might call transformational.

 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Next: What is the way forward?

 

Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Wisford House for a Wilton Park conference “Beyond aid: innovative governance, financing and partnerships for the post-2015 agenda.” The meeting emphasized thinking beyond aid, to the ways in which aid funds can leverage other, larger flows of money (i.e. private capital) in manners that speed or transform ongoing changes among the world’s poor. In short, it was a meeting that embraced a shift from aid as “fixing things for poor people” to aid as “catalyzing and accelerating what people are already doing to create faster, more impactful outcomes.” The question, of course, is exactly how to shift aid fully into the latter role in the context of the third Conference on Financing for Development coming up in July, and the ongoing development of Sustainable Development Goals that should conclude in 2015.

As the conference kicked off with a discussion of the new SDGs, Charles Kenny serendipitously tweeted out their current structure:

Kenny tweet

Just as I started to freak out (as did Simon Maxwell, who was seated next to me and saw the tweet at about the same time), Charles followed up:

Gross national happiness

So, 303 indicators (several of which are actually unmeasurable in the usual indicator sense) feeding into 169 targets which speak to progress toward 17 goals (Charles was off by one). My first reaction, which I shared with the conference, was that this structure was useless, either as a set of focusing goals or as a set of aspirational targets.

First, these do nothing to focus us. With 303 indicators aimed at 169 targets, any reasonably talented program officer should be able to reverse justify any and all existing programming under this structure. Were I still advising a presidential appointee at USAID, and they asked me about the SDGs, I would tell them not to worry about it as there is nothing in this structure that constrains anything that the Agency does.

Second, these goals don’t feel aspirational – but this is for a variety of reasons that I can lump into three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Over the next few posts, I will lay out what I mean with examples of each category. Today, I focus on…

The impossible

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Let’s just get something on the table right away: None of these goals is going to be achieved by 2030. First, “poverty” is a pretty vague term that means much more than income. While the indicators proposed under Goal 1 certainly recognize a complex understanding of poverty, including income, access to productive resources, social protection, and exposure to shocks and stresses, the ways in which these different factors align to produce “poverty” depends greatly on where you are. As a result, there are many “poverties” in many places. Therefore, it is not clear to me how a broad set of indicators will tell us if we have succeeded in eradicating poverty in a particular place.

Goal 2, ending hunger, is easier to measure as an outcome, but very difficult to measure as a process (as most determinants of food security are social, and we have very weak data on these processes in most parts of the world). The indicators don’t tell us where to intervene, or how we will know when “hunger” has been ended. Given 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2013, it seems extraordinarily unlikely we will be able to meet this goal globally.

And Goal 5… we’re not even close to gender equity here in the United States, but somehow we are going to fix this globally in 15 years? Folks, gender relations and equality are issues that take a minimum of three generations to address – and that would be extraordinarily rapid change. 15 years is about one generation.

It is not that I hate (or even dislike) aspirational goals. However, goals should be achievable and actionable so we can hold people accountable for their achievement. None of these three goals meets either criteria. Can we make significant progress on addressing some components of poverty in the next 15 years? Yes. Can we reduce food insecurity in both rich and poor countries? Yes. Can we make some movement on the status of women and girls in both rich and poor countries? Yes. And we should work toward all three, but with ambitious but achievable targets. If the goals are achievable, then we can hold someone accountable for any shortfalls in 2030. Accountability fosters action. Right now, nobody will be held accountable when we fall short, because in 2030 whoever is still around will (rightly) point out that these were always unachievable, and therefore it is nobody’s fault that we did not meet these goals.

So, I dislike impossible goals because they strip away responsibility for their achievement. If these were ambitious but achievable, it might force those of us in the aid world to think more carefully about how we are going to leverage other sources of funding, other trends already taking place in many parts of the world (declining fertility, rising incomes, etc.), and build on existing knowledge and capacity among the global poor to ensure we reached these goals. In short, impossible goals do nothing to move us beyond aid – they just maintain the status quo.

 

Next up: The Vague and the “Sounds good, but on second thought”

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