Should we have Sustainable Development Goals as well as (or indeed instead of) MDGs?

by | Jan 23, 2012

Later today in New York, a 2 day meeting on the idea of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ will begin, bringing together numerous countries’ Permanent Representatives to the United Nations plus a whole host of environment and development experts from capitals. It’s going to be an interesting meeting.

The idea of ‘SDGs’, after all, has acquired a lot of political momentum in recent months. Partly that’s because they’re seen as a potential outcome from this summer’s Rio+20 sustainable development conference – at a point when very few concrete outcomes from Rio appear to be in prospect (see the ‘zero draft outcome document’ pdf that was published earlier this month). The SDGs agenda is also topical given that the Millennium Development Goals are due to hit their 2015 deadline pretty soon, raising the question of what should come after them. (See Claire’s excellent recent publications, like this and this, on that for a full briefing on where things stand on that front.)

But the funny thing is that there’s remarkably little clarity on what SDGs would cover, or how they’d work. Would they just run from now to 2015, alongside the existing MDGs, and cover a few ‘gaps’ that were missed out in the MDGs – like access to energy? Or would they in fact take over from the MDGs after 2015, thus becoming the new organising framework for global development policy? These are big questions – and at a time, of course, when multilateralism has really been struggling to make much running not just on Rio preparations, but also on climate, trade, and any number of other key issue areas.

Against this backdrop, David and I have just published a short CIC briefing paper (pdf) that discusses where we are on the SDGs agenda – and how it might usefully pan out from here. In a nutshell, our argument is that policymakers should think twice before regarding SDGs as an “easy win” from Rio. We argue that this is a very complex and potentially very contentious area of policy – and that policymakers should play a long game at this stage rather than going for quick wins that could all too easily backfire. Accordingly, we think that discussion of SDGs at Rio should go no further than discussion of broad principles and raising the level of ambition. A lot more shared awareness – not just between policymakers, but also with publics, private sector, media, civil society and so on – is needed before the discussion about specifics gets underway in earnest.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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