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.