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”