After the MDGs: what kind of goals?

Following the British government’s announcement that David Cameron will be one of the co-chairs of the UN’s forthcoming High Level Panel on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals after they expire in 2015, we’ve been setting out some thoughts about the design principles of any new set of goals. Last week, David set out some of the criteria that will make for an effective set of goals. So what about the actual content of the goals?

Amid widespread enthusiasm for the new idea of Sustainable Development Goals (see this briefing), there’s a marked lack of clarity about what such goals would actually look like: what they’d cover, how they’d work, how they’d relate to the existing MDGs and so on. Some people want to see environmental considerations like planetary boundaries in the new framework. Others want to see enabling conditions for development, like growth or governance. Lots of people are talking about access to energy as an area where a new goal could be agreed. Lots of others would love to see a new goal on reducing inequality.

Before the SDGs debate goes much further, these kinds of debate need to become a lot more structured if we’re to avoid getting a ‘Christmas tree’ of goals (weighed down with everyone’s baubles, lacking focus or any sense of priorities). So what are the key questions we need answers to, and in what order should we be asking them? Here’s our take on the five core questions that will shape the post-2015 agenda:

  1. Do we need new goals at all? Not enough people have stopped to ask whether new goals are really needed in the first place. But it’s essential that the approach to post-2015 be thought through from first principles: the case for new goals won’t be persuasive unless it sets out clearly why it is that quantified targets are likely to be an effective tool to accelerate development or increase sustainability, especially given that evidence for the impact of the existing MDGs isn’t conclusive.
  2. Should goals be universal? The current MDGs are designed to apply to the world’s most vulnerable people – in other words, about a billion of them if you use $1.25 a day of income as the benchmark, or 2 billion at $2 a day. Should a new set of goals continue with this basic principle? Or should it take a radically different approach, and aim for goals that would be genuinely global in coverage – in other words applying to 7 billion rather than 1 billion people?
  3. How broad should goals be? New goals after 2015 could be tightly defined (a small set of headline targets in a few specific sectors, say), fully comprehensive (covering all aspects of society, economy, and the environment), or somewhere in between (like the current MDGs, which cover a representative set of issues).
  4. Do we need one, or more than one, framework? While an all-singing, all-dancing package of SDGs would logically subsume MDGs, it’s also possible to imagine slimmed down SDGs living alongside revised MDGs (‘twin tracks’), or a variety of hybrid models (a loose ‘family’ of goals, that could apply just to poor countries or be universal in nature).
  5. Should the framework be binding? The MDGs were designed to be global targets – not to apply to individual countries. While many donors have increasingly tracked MDG progress at country level (and some countries have incorporated them into law or in some cases even the constitution), it’s also the case that the MDGs probably couldn’t have been agreed if they had imposed binding obligations on governments. So should future goals be applied at national as well as global level? And should they define rights or desired outcomes?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you end up at one of a range of different kinds of outcome:

Full SDGs – universal, comprehensive, covering all 7 billion of us and with nationally specific targets – have some momentum right now. But it’s hard to see major powers signing up: India’s against, China’s keeping quiet for now, and it’s hard to see the US agreeing to anything that looks like global direction of the US’s domestic agenda. Don’t hold your breath.

SDGs-lite – which is where we might end up if the full SDGs agenda gets progressively diluted (e.g. controversial goals get dropped; targets become aspirational or voluntary and fail to be matched with a hard-edged delivery plan). This option runs the risk of failing to satisfy anyone (governments, campaigners, the media) – while also losing the MDGs’ focus on the poorest.

MDGs Plus – This option would start from the core MDG principle of focusing on the poorest, but built outwards from there. The risk is that reopening the framework could lead to a ‘Christmas tree’ outcome. But strong leadership could also keep the agenda tight – perhaps complementing goals with a set of key capabilities open to peer review.

Hybrids – Another option would be to combine SDGs and MDGs in a hybrid – for example, the approach proposed by Oxfam’s Kate Raworth. This approach would allow an evolutionary approach under which the poverty elements of the goals would be agreed early on in the process – thus safeguarding the MDGs’ poverty focus before moving on to the politically more challenging ground of sustainability goals.

Car crash – Finally, of course, it could all go pear-shaped. This is a risk that deserves to be taken very seriously indeed; after all, it’s not as though the last few years are short of example of sustainability and climate summits going wrong in one way or another. Remember: the MDGs took ten years to emerge, during a period of history that was a lot more warm and fuzzy than today’s context – and the MDGs were politically much easier than goals on politically charged areas like sustainable consumption. A car crash scenario could lead to the loss of the MDGs’ poverty focus with no countervailing win in another area.

(This post is based on a forthcoming Brookings paper by David and I on the post-2015 challenge, which will be published in the next few days.)