Politics of Poverty

Getting to less: 15 considerations for deciding on the number of SDGs

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To whom do the SDGs need to make sense? Ram Katori (in yellow) and Ginijar (in blue) in Biona Ranja during a series of inter-village rallies in 2007 to raise awareness of issues affecting rural women and to put pressure on the government to respond to the situation being faced by rural farmers in this region of northern India. Photo: Rajendara Shaw / Oxfam

How many sustainable development goals do you want?

I heard British Prime Minister David Cameron worry last week in New York that the current draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are too unwieldy. With 17 goals and 169 targets, the current draft covers the development waterfront – from consumption (Goal 12) to climate change (Goal 13), from saving our seas (Goal 14) to our cities (Goal 11).

Throughout the week at the UN General Assembly, I heard savvy global activists voice similar concerns. I also heard others say, “let’s go with the goals we have and move on.” As an Oxfamer, I want the final platform to address the core poverty goals (as in the MDGs) and directly confront extreme inequality and climate change. As long as those existential threats are tackled, and nothing critical is taken out of the post-2015 discourse, then I say, the more campaign-able the SDGs are, the better.

With months left to go before the SDGs are locked down, development activists should hear and mull over the arguments for and against making cuts to the number of SDGs. How many do you want?

8 arguments for reducing the number of SDGs

1. We have one shot. The goals have to be GREAT. 2015 is this generation’s moment to reach everyone everywhere in a global movement to tackle the injustices of our time. The SDGs need to sing! Right now, they sound like Denise Richards.

2. Who the hell can remember 17 of anything? Most of us can only remember stuff in three’s. The eight MDGs were rough on the recall. To go “global to local,” the SDGs have to be simpler and fewer.

3. Some of the goals just need a good edit. It’s not that any one goal is daft on its own. It’s just that some could be integrated together into tighter language and still cover the same issues. We could collapse them, and make them appeal to a more “mainstream” audience.

4. When was the last time “more industrialization” was chanted at a march? Some of the goals have no constituency, no champions, and no chance of capturing the public imagination.

5. Let’s have a goal for sunrises and sunsets while we’re at it. Some of the goals, like economic growth, are going to happen whether or not they are in the SDGs, so why waste political energy on them?

6. We’re supposed to make progress on 169 targets this year?! The government agencies responsible for implementing the SDGs can’t begin to cope the morass of targets across the 17 goals. Measuring 100 indicators would be bad enough…

7. You’re landlocked, President Ghani, but now you HAVE to protect the oceans. Because some goals don’t apply to certain countries (like Afghanistan), this will guarantee that the goals remain voluntary and aspirational. Without universal applicability, they will never be the stuff of real contracts between states and their citizens.

8. Just keeping an eye on the SDGs could cost more than the entire global aid budget. One analyst argues that monitoring the current crop of SDGs could cost $250 billion a year.

7 arguments for keeping 17 SDGs

9. The most politically sensitive goals may go first. If former MDG campaigners (including Oxfam), the UN, and nervous governments get into cutting goals, what’s going to win between “ending poverty” or tackling bad governance”? If they’re not cut, the goals that threaten political elites will get “mainstreamed” to death and become toothless.

10. Do you really believe tough choices will be made in another intergovernmental process? When was the last time an intergovernmental group made things simpler? If they meet again, we could end up with 20 goals! Enough already. We have less than a year before we have to start paying and doing. That’s where we need to put our intellectual and political energy now.

11. The goals don’t need cohesion. No one will really fight for all 17, 12 or even 10 goals. Most organizations will end up fighting for only a select few or one like “ending extreme poverty without destroying the planet” anyway.

12. It is just a menu. Eat what you like. The Common African Position selects from the SDG agenda the priorities that matter to them. In a universally applicable agreement that applies from the United States to Uganda, you may need different goals for Africa or Europe, for finance ministers or activists. It is better to have an inclusive menu from which to choose.

13. It shouldn’t be ownership, schmownership. Isn’t it largely development advocacy groups who want something punchier for global mobilizing? It’s mostly the G77 who are pushing for more goals, so why not let their leadership stand?

14. Bring me your farmers, your tree huggers, your corruption pluggers, your engineers, biologists, and feminists. If these goals really are universal and everyone is going to see themselves as an SDG activist, then there’s a better chance everyone will find a space where they fit.

15. Minister, this goal is just for you. If the real audience for the SDGs are ministerial officials, we need to ensure the right number for a well-structured government. For example, Ethiopia, which is hosting the financing conference in Addis, has 15 key ministries and agencies. The US also has 15 departments.

I came away from New York leaning towards sharpening the goals. Why? Mainly because of reason number one above. Activists I respect, many of whom have dedicated their working lives to campaigning, are down on the current big number. If the SDGs don’t get them excited, what chance does it have of reaching everyone else?

How much sharper do we need to be on the SDGs? I like the serendipity of 15. Fifteen government ministries. Next year is 2015. Feels like a good number to me. What do you think?

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