Five Ways the Co-Facilitators Have Made the Post-2015 Targets Worse

by | Mar 31, 2015

What was once a storm whipped up around the question of whether the world needs 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets has now degenerated into a tempest about whether it is possible to “conservatively” tweak some of those targets to make them more meaningful and deliverable.

Last week, the poor souls who are responsible for shepherding the post-2015 negotiations (the UN ambassadors of Kenya and Ireland) released a proposal that was intended to show how this could be done.

Sadly, they have made some of the targets better rather than worse, indicating that ‘technical proofing’ – an expert-driven process supposedly stripped of political overtones – is no sure fire way to a better development agenda.

(And who on earth thought it could be? Experts disagree with each other more bitterly than governments do – fortunately they lack armies with which to settle their arguments.)

So here are five ways the tweaked targets are worse than the originals.

1.       Targets are made more complex, not easier to comprehend.

SDG 3.2

Rather obviously, experts were always going to take the opportunity to drive the targets even further away from being understandable by the woman or man in the street.

This health example illustrates this pernicious tendency. Given that we’re going to develop indicators for the goals and targets, can’t the detail of 12 per 1,000 something or other be confined to the indicator level? Do we really need more words to add to the 5,000+ in the current draft of the goals and targets?

2.       When in doubt, the proposal ducks the x’s.

SDG 11b

In some cases, targets are changed to put a measurable number in, with admonishments of the importance of always being specific, but in others a placeholder for a number is replaced with a weasel word like ‘substantially’. That’s a cop out.

(The picture above cuts off the rest of this horribly long target so some of you, at least, keep reading.)

3.       We have utterly pointless increases in ambition

SDG 4.6

Many targets are already insanely ambitious. 50 million children are expected to be out of primary school in 2015, while 40% of all children do not learn to read, write or do basic mathematics.

The post-2015 agenda promises to get all kids into school from pre-primary to lower secondary by 2030, while ensuring they are all achieve “relevant and effective learning outcomes” (whatever that means).

We have no credible plan to deliver this miracle, but instead of developing one, the new proposal doubles and adds another unachievable target: teaching 775 million illiterate adults (that’s more than all the kids in the world of primary school age) the 3Rs.

Universal adult literacy and numeracy is never going to happen in 15 years. Worse, we have no intention of even trying to deliver this target.

4.       The deadline for targets hasn’t been aligned to 2030.

SDG 12.4

The new development agenda has a 2030 expiry date, but a number of targets have deadlines that are only five or ten years away.

The chemicals and waste target was set back in 2002 and not much has been done since then.

Why expect an environmental miracle to be plucked out of thin (and dirty) air in just 1,825 days?

5.       Means of implementation targets have been made (even) shoddier.

SDG 4c

The justification for this change is bizarre:

A specific percentage value (e.g., doubling) is not feasible technically. The aim should be to close the teachers gap; hence the proposed revision.

It’s not ‘technically feasible’ to double the number of qualified teachers, so instead we’ll aim to ensure every teacher on the planet has the requisite qualifications (whatever they may be)?

This target is supposed to provide the means (qualified teachers) to an end (all children learn), but the evidence is weak (to say the least) that more qualifications are the most cost effective route to better learning.

  • The latest UNESCO Education for All report finds no relationship between teachers’ academic qualifications and student achievement in Francophone Africa.
  • Some studies show teaching qualifications matter for learning (usually for high level subjects such as physics), but others find no link (including in countries that have decent teacher training systems [1,2]

Training – or firing – every unqualified teacher in the world (at the same time as we’re planning a massive expansion of education provision) is a BIG commitment to make on such scant evidence.

And beware of an unintended consequence. Most public school systems at least aspire to employ qualified teachers; low-cost private schools do not (only 10% of teachers in Ghana’s poorest districts are trained) and get away with much lower wages than the state system as a result.

Some would welcome the chance for a crackdown on this unregulated sector and its exploitative employment practices. But bear in mind that:

  • Low cost private schools educate a LOT of children in some countries: 27% children in rural Pakistan and 61% in the countries towns and cities. Growth has been explosive in India and many African countries too.
  • A DFID review finds that “teaching in private schools tends to be better –in terms of more teacher presence and teaching activity, and teaching approaches that are more likely to lead to improved outcomes – than in state schools” despite fewer formally qualified teachers.
  • These schools only exist because they charge poor (if not the very poorest) parents fees that are modest on the face of it but still eat up a substantial share of household budgets. Higher wages will break their business model – they compete with free government schools.

Maybe low-cost private schools will fade away once government systems get their act together and start educating kids, but mess with these schools in the medium term and what UNESCO has dubbed a ‘global learning crisis’ can only get worse.

Do we want a target for that?






  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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