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?