Putting the ‘sustainable’ and the ‘development’ into the Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development: more than just windmills?

A few months ago, the Colombian government created what passed for excitement among international climate and development types, with its proposal for ‘sustainable development goals’.  In a paper that is surprisingly short given the talk it’s generated, they proposed a set of goals which, in essence, incorporate the current Millennium Development Goals, but go well beyond them in including a range of possible goals on sustainability and the environment.

At the time, Alex raised a set of important questions here on GD about the what, the who and the how of any future SDGs.  And over at CGD, Charles Kenny made a plea for the SDG and the MDG people to start talking to each other to provide some of the substance to underpin these ideas. 

And since then?  Global negotiations are funny things.  In the absence of almost any of the substance that Charles was asking for, and without answers to any of the questions posed by Alex, the SDGs have continued their onward march.  Representatives of thirty countries recently met in Bogata to agree some objectives for SDGs, based around reconciling poverty reduction and sustainability.

 The SDG train has clearly left the station – even though no one really knows what they are.  This is a little disheartening for innocent folk like me who like to believe that facts matter (yeah, I know, hopelessly outdated – I may as well be writing this on a Smith-Corona). 

Given that no one really knows what SDGs are, but they sound good and people seem to like them, what might they actually be?  Where is the meeting ground between environment and development that could form the basis of a set of goals, and what difference would it make to go about things this way? 

Putting sustainability into poverty reduction:

If the MDG project has been about putting forward a set of positive things that need to happen for poor people: more money, more health, more education, what are the sustainability goals that could fit into this sort of framework?  The things we need more of, from a sustainability and a development point of view, are, among others, more clean energy, more sustainable sources of water, and more food grown in ways that does not irrevocably deplete natural resources.  These are things one could imagine putting into a new set of goals to go alongside the more traditional MDG concerns of health, education and income.  Some of them, like water, are even in there already, though almost ignored.

So far so good, but the poverty reduction bit is actually the easy bit. The MDGs tackle the worst aspects of human deprivation, and adding some new goals about improving access to essential infrastructure and technology is a great example of that favourite of politicians everywhere, the win-win for sustainability and for poverty reduction.  

Putting sustainability into development (or development into sustainability):

It all gets a bit harder when you move beyond poverty reduction to the more ambitious terrain of development.  In contrast to the immediate and individual-focused goals of poverty reduction, development implies a set of outcomes which are more about the long-term trends needed to make economies grow, make societies stable, and establish the context at national level in which individual wants and aspirations can be satisfied over time.  There are big overlaps, but they are not the same thing.

Putting sustainability into a development agenda for countries is a much harder thing than dreaming up a new goal for sustainable energy access for individuals.  If economic growth is to be truly green, developing countries will need to leapfrog over much of our recent history of technological development and have immediate access to the kind of shiny new technologies that are still prohibitively expensive in much of the rich world.  

This is possible – with dramatic changes to intellectual property laws, and with the kind of subsidies that until now have been reserved exclusively for the wealthiest farmers.  Neither are particularly likely, and this is just a taster of the huge changes in policy in almost every country if ‘sustainable development’ is to become a reality. We might even have to broach the subject of how more growth in one country might mean less in another.  But if discussions around SDGs put a bit of substance behind this agenda and start to identify where the possibilities for real and meaningful commitments actually are, then this will be a big step forward.

What hope for the SDGs?

The key issue here is that while putting the sustainable into poverty reduction is basically a question of adding in some new targets and promising some new money, putting the sustainable into development is more about working out how to subtract each country’s current and future needs from a fixed set of planetary boundaries.  Addition is always politically popular and easy but subtraction, for politicians, is a much harder sell.  Kate Raworth at Oxfam has a helpful diagram to explain what this means in practice.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be tried.  At some point, politicians are, we have to hope, going to get moving on climate change action.  And if SDGs help to make this more likely by the added weight of their moral appeal on behalf of the world’s poor and the ‘we’re all in it together’ appeal of a global framework, then bring them on.  And if the discussion of the SDGs opens up space for people to start a proper, political, discussion on what might come after the MDGs, then yes please.  But if in doing so the debate gets mired in the inertia and paralysis of previous discussions on climate change, and the possibility of agreeing post-2015 goals that do something for poverty is lost, then, well, hang on a minute. 

It would expose me to too much ridicule from my colleagues in the future to try and predict what might happen to the SDGS, the MDGs, and any other Gs that might appear along the way between now and 2015, or even now and the Rio+20 conference in June next year.   Any prediction made now is almost certain to be wrong.  But I can exclusively reveal that….it’s complicated.  Also tricky.  Maybe even a bit difficult.  But hey, this is where the academics get off and leave the ride to the diplomats, no?  (no, in case any diplomats were wondering, not a chance!).