Skip to content

How might the ancient sages have responded to the latest SDGs proposal?

June 6, 2014

The Open Working Group released the zero consultation draft of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 212 Targets this week. Examining them from the perspective of four criteria (Is there a coherent narrative, is peace included, is anything obviously missing, and will they work?), I conclude that although the ancient sages might well counsel us to abandon this SDG enterprise as a fool’s errand, there remains room for optimism about the outcomes.

So, I am imagining a conversation with one of the ancient sages. I ask him (they are all men, right?) how we might go about creating a political map defining progress for over 7 billion people between now and 2030. He’s a bit out of date, so I give him a bit more detail. I explain that we all live in more or less sovereign, more or less countries, which more or less coincide with states; how some are small and others large; how some are democratic, some far from it, and some are somewhere kind of in between. I talk about what links and what separates us. I explain a bit about how we’ve harnessed energy in support of a better life, and how we’re plundering the planet to do so. I sketch a few word pictures of humans living very different kinds of lives, and explain how inequality presents itself in the modern world. I talk a bit about the different demographic profiles of different countries, and about cultural similarities and differences. And few other salient details, too.

Assuming it’s not Plato (who’d probably say: easy, leave it to me and my mates, we’ll let you all know what to do in due course), I am fairly certain that my interlocutor would at some point stop me and say: don’t do it, mate, it will never work

But we are doing it, of course. That’s what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are meant to be: a political map for everyone on this planet for the next 16 years – for what could be more political than the question of how to define “progress”?

The zero draft of the SDGs was released by the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) this week. The intention of the OWG’s chairs is that this zero draft – essentially a short covering note and preamble attached to 17 goals and 212 targets if I counted right – is to create a negotiation database. After a few days of “informal-informals” in mid-June, the OWG will complete its work by presenting its final draft to the Secretary General. The assumption at that point is, if it’s not in, it won’t be; but that plenty of what’s included in the OWG’s report will be dropped and clustered and otherwise amended in subsequent negotiations. That’s when the real negotiations will begin.

So the 17 goals and 212 targets are not yet a framework, merely the building blocks thereof. What can we infer, from the document the OWG chairs have now released?

I can identify four basic criteria against which to judge the SDG process and its eventual output. First, is there a discernible concept of progress emerging, and if so, does it make sense? Second, does it reflect the importance of peace as an integral component of human progress? Three, is there anything obviously missing? And four, will the proposed model work as a tool for incentivising and monitoring progress?


  1. The concept of progress

It would be a little unfair to critique the present list from this perspective, as it seems to be intended merely as a list of the potential components of a concept, rather than claiming to provide one now. Looking at the list of goals, there is clearly an intention to be comprehensive, with the inclusion of poverty, hunger, healthy life, education, equality and especially gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, sustainability, economic growth, decent work, industrialization, climate change, conservation of land and sea, biodiversity, peace, rule of law, effective institutions, inclusion, and a global partnership for sustainable development. Phew!

But what I like about this list, is also what’s slightly concerning about it. It is reassuring that the list does not yet try to be a set of equivalent parameters. Far from it, in fact: promoting sustainable industrialisation, ending poverty everywhere, and strengthening and enhancing the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development – three of the goals – seem to come from three very different categories, and they would sit uneasily with one another in a fruit bowl. That seems like a good thing at this stage of the game, when it’s important for ideas to retain as much intrinsic and political meaning as possible, before they get smoothed out into a set of similar seeming apples that can sit in the same bowl. As the bearded sage might have told me, confusion is a critical stage on the road to enlightenment, so one should avoid trying to impose too much order on ideas before one needs to.

At the same time though, this categorical diversity is a cause for worry, because by avoiding the creation of any kind of conceptual framework for human progress at this stage, the OWG provides no real criteria for deciding what matters most, among the 212 targets or the 17 goals. So those seven billion of us not directly involved in the negotiations may be forgiven for feeling a little anxious on two grounds. First, have the drafters more or less given up on trying to create a coherent narrative of progress? That would be worrying because without one, it does seem a little pointless to create a set of goals: it is a truism that goals and targets only make sense when they emerge from and are justified by a coherent strategic narrative. And the second grounds for concern are that without a narrative, what is to protect any of these goals we particularly care about, from being removed during the next phase of negotiations?

Like others, I have personal narrative for development, and of course I’d be very happy to see that adopted. But it’s only one of many, even I am not convinced it’s right, and I certainly wouldn’t be looking for it or expecting to see it used by the OWG. But while I recognise the immense difficulty of getting agreement, I would have liked to see some semblance of conceptual shape provided to link these diverse goals. At International Alert we recognised this problem some years ago, which is why we proposed a simpler system without goals as such.

Ultimately, a big tent can be a good thing, unless it’s so big it has no structure and blows down when the wind blows.


  1. The importance of peace as an integral component of human progress

Everyone with a particular fetish or sectoral preference looks for his or her preferences in the list. I look for peace. It’s still there, goal #16: Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions. Good.

There is cause to worry slightly though, as the scuttlebutt is that quite a few countries are set against this goal. And by lumping peace in with rule of law and good governance, it does run the risk of being thrown out with the bathwater by governments who fear that by agreeing to good governance and the rule of law they create a rod for their own backs which will be wielded in collaboration by their civil society and the international community.

And there’s another reason to be concerned about whether peace will keep its place in the list. The introductory text references the usual UN instruments and makes it clear that the SDGs will reaffirm these. Oddly though, it does not include the Millennium Declaration – which clearly enshrines the international community’s existing commitment to peace. And where the preamble singles out certain elements for special mention – the centrality of people, equity, inclusivity, etc. – they do not give peace the same status, merely “reaffirming” it.

Saferworld has today released a more detailed analysis of what is right and wrong with goal #16, which provides more depth than I can here.

So we do need to keep a close eye on goal #16 over the next few months.


  1. What’s missing?

Given the lack of any clear conceptual shape, it is hard to see what’s missing. Rather like looking at a Christmas tree festooned with coloured lights and baubles, and asking if there are any specific lights or baubles missing. Given that gender, women and girls gets a goal of its own, and given the demographic s of the next few years, I did wonder whether young people and perhaps old people ought to be more visible in the goals. But I think we can assume that an “inclusive” set of goals has them covered.

A useful aide memoire is provided by the five generic peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, all of which ought to be reflected. Legitimate Politics, Security and Justice are more or less captured by the targets attached to goal #16. Services are covered throughout, and Taxation in goal #17, and Participatory Economic Growth is also clearly there. Good.


  1. Will the model work?

Even if the concept of development or progress is understandably not yet clear, I would have expected a little more clarity about the hierarchical structure of the goals and targets. After all, for a goal or target to make sense, there must be some hint as to how it will be used, who is responsible and who is accountable, etc. Otherwise, how to judge its utility? As I have written before, this new SDG framework should be built on the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. the idea that goals, targets and plans are set at the most appropriate level, with the default level as near to the ground as possible. In subsidiarity, each layer of authority is presumed to be subsidiary to the layer below it. In Alert’s earlier work on this issue, we recommended that the top level goals should be kept to a minimum number – we suggested six, and certainly not 17 – and should be drafted in terms of a broad vision of a more developed society (at whatever level), rather than as 15-year achievables. This, we felt, would allow easier global agreement, and would also reflect the idea of subsidiarity in that other entities below the global level would in most cases need to set their own plans, goals and targets every few years, in the direction of travel of the global vision. Elsewhere I’ve explained in more detail how this might work in practice.

But given that decision to opt for 2030 goals, I would have expected the goals and targets to make sense within a 15 year timeframe. Unfortunately the wording of the goals alone, let alone the targets, makes it clear that these are not really 15 year goals at all. End poverty in all its forms everywhere, by 2030? Attain gender equality everywhere, by 2030? End hunger and achieve adequate nutrition for all, by 2030? What planet are they living on? Have they not seen what is happening in Syria? Have they not seen the statistics from India, from Africa? Do they not understand how the barriers to these goals work, and how hard they will be to lift, remove or overcome? While I understand that political incentives within the UN pull in the direction of creating such unattainable goals, this kind of language will seriously undermine the credibility of these goals, just as happened with the MDGs years ago.

This problem can easily be fixed: by removing the idea that these goals will all be met by 2030, and changing them into aspirational aims, with no pre-determined end date. Thus for example, we agree on the need to end hunger for all, we recognise it is a major endeavour that will take several decades: now, what can we do over the next 15 years to make strong progress in that direction, at global, regional, national and sub-national levels?

As explained earlier, this change would also reinforce the idea of subsidiarity. And in respect of subsidiarity, the language of the preamble is already encouraging: the goals are to be global in nature and universally applicable in all countries, while taking into account different national capacities and levels of development, and respecting different national policies and priorities. I see the possibility of subsidiarity in that text. And the framing of many of the goals and targets also supports that interpretation. The actions needed to meet some goals are more clearly global in nature (e.g. climate, marine conservation) and the language to some degree reflects this. And on other – less “global” – areas too, many of the targets are quite rightly about the development and implementation of policies and systems – most of them national – which can enable progress towards the goal. Many of these are broad and leave plenty of room for national priorities and policies to be defined. Some, however, are a bit too prescriptive: Reduce retail and consumer food waste, and production and post-harvest food losses, by 50%; equal access for all to tertiary education; improve water efficiency by x% across all sectors….


So where does this leave us? The optimist in me says that the OWG’s initial list contains within it the potential for a framework with narrative meaning and coherence, with the right measure of ambition and realism, valuing peace and good governance as core public goods, and with the potential to be built around an incentives model which emphasises subsidiarity. If those involved in turning this list into the actual framework can wield Ockham’s razor with purpose, dexterity and a firm hand, they could achieve such a result. And to some extent the politics of this SDG process have the potential to support that: because national governments will in general – and quite right too – resist the call to sign up to globally defined prescriptions they do not have a democratic mandate for.

Meanwhile however, the sceptic in me says Ockham’s razor works best, wielded in a quiet space by one or two people, rather than in the crowded market place of the UN. So a more likely outcome will be a hodge-podge of goals and targets not brought together in any kind of real narrative, not making sense as a 15-year incentives and monitoring framework, but probably one which is quite comprehensive, and in which peace and governance do survive. And although the ancient sage whose advice I seek died long before William of Ockham sharpened his tool, I think he would probably agree.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Smith permalink
    June 6, 2014 8:23 am

    Phil – that’s a really good post. I’ll tweet it and all sorts. But you have a misprint in your 4th criterion where you’ve put subsidiary instead of subsidiarity. I assume that’s auto spell at work. Dan

    Dan Smith International Alert

  2. David Hallam permalink
    June 6, 2014 9:16 am

    Great post Phil – very observant analysis and great to see someone taking a step back to look at the forest, not just the trees. On your point about aspiration vs 15 years, I think we agree: we need aspirational long-term goals, together with more specific 15 year targets that combine stretch with achievability. (I also think that’s the general understanding, but can see that concept isn’t clear in what the OWG has produced so far. Perhaps something for the Chapeau). I agree it is bizarre that the co-chairs haven’t referenced the Millennium Declaration. I don’t think anyone will take the report seriously unless this is rectified.

  3. June 6, 2014 2:40 pm

    Generalising about “classical sages”, they were often very concerned with ideas of justice, wouldn’t you agree?

    Roughly speaking, I think the further we were from a just world, the more these sages would not say “don’t do it” but “you MUST do it”. Doesn’t this framework have to assessed from an account of what a (realistically) just world would be, how far we are from that, and how responsibility for who should do what towards that end should be assigned?

    Not that I wholly disagree with this post – the form of this agreement and its legitimacy are just as important as its content, and coherence, realisability are important considerations. But I wanted to offer an alternative perspective.

    Roughly speaking, the more something is a matter of justice (or, say, rights and duties) the less it should be an open-ended aspiration. Vague non-time-bound aspirations don’t reflect the urgency of our obligations to other human beings, and they don’t facilitate accountability for failing to fulfil them. Furthermore, justice should define progress, at least in part (since something that leaves injustice untouched, or makes the world we have more unjust, looks a bad candidate for “progress”).

    Part of an account of justice is an account of a worthwhile or decent human life. From such a perspective, the pressure for very demanding goals looks more understandable, surely. If the wellbeing of every human being matters (and matters equally), then why set the end-point at a level that leaves some people – avoidably – not living decent or worthwhile lives? – “avoidably” does some work here, to be sure. There’s a tacit understanding amongst the framers of these goals that “eliminate” means “eliminate persistent” or “eliminate as far as possible” and a host of other qualifiers too.

    I’m not sure about having specific, time-bound targets and vague, open-ended goals. In a way, aren’t the goals the sum of the targets in any case? I tend to think that the targets should be individually necessary, and jointly sufficient, for achieving the goals. I do think you’re right that these – perhaps less obvious – issues about the form of the framework need consideration. There’s a demand for coherence between the goals and targets that I haven’t seen anyone really think through yet (and this comment isn’t the place to do it). I think your sage would be in favour of this kind of thinking, too.

    Of course, at the bottom(/top) level of the subsidiarity pyramid should be the world’s people, and it is by them that every level of authority has to be ultimately authorised. Aren’t the goals of this framework, in part, about what makes that authorisation possible, and genuine? Perhaps you’re more of an optimist about the state system we currently have than I am, but there are surely grounds to worry that leaving priorities and choices to governments, or goals vague and targets pick-and-mix, might mean sub-optimal progress, or the hardest to reach/most costly/least popular getting ‘left behind’.

    One point where we part company, perhaps – you say that national governments would be “quite right” to resist global prescriptions. But this, from my perspective, depends on the justice of the global prescriptions and the just or unjust status of the government’s position. Suppose all countries have a collective duty to maintain global peace. Surely it would not be “quite right” for a particular government to resist an insistence that it do its fair share towards this goal? You won’t find many sages – and you won’t find many contemporary moral or political philosophers – who think that it is ‘quite right’ for people to reject their responsibilities. This might turn on your account of democracy or legitimacy I suppose, but it still looks problematic – not least, in a world where many do not live in legitimate, democratic states (bringing us back to justice again)…

  4. June 6, 2014 3:21 pm

    Thanks Graham. The main thought that comes to my mind is, these issues are too nuanced and complex for a blog or comment of any length!

    On justice, I think I would argue that the ethical approach is to be striving for a more just world, in a way that imbues everything we do, even while accepting that it will always be some distance out of our reach. Hence, my preference for the broad vision rather than narrower goals.

    Onmy rose-tinted specs: far from it, I tend to be sceptical about governments. But they are the ones who are representing their countries in the UN discussions, and even if they are not particularly democratic, it does seem profoudly anti-democratic to define the next 15 years of progress in New York somehow on their behalf. Hence my comment that governments should resist global prescriptions for actions they ought to take over the next 15 years. But that does not mean rejecting their responsibilities at all.

    I suspect that we don’t part company all that much. I am a western liberal with a fairly clear sense of how I’d like the world to be, a partly formed sense of how it might stumble towards that place, and a clearer (but not crystal clear, I admit) sense of the ethical issues involved. But I am clear magic wands waved in general assemblies in New York are only a very small part of the answer, and can do harm.


    • June 9, 2014 8:53 am

      No disagreement here that sometimes attempts at action can be harmful (sometimes in foreseeable ways, sometimes less foreseeably). Equally, though, inaction where there should be action is also a harm. On my view, every human right that could be fulfilled through this framework, which is not fulfilled, should be counted a failure. Progress is a contentious idea, but some of its basic building blocks or preconditions are not (or should not be). Shouldn’t these basic preconditions should be the primary focus of the post2015 framework? I agree that ‘progress’ beyond this minimum should be the subject of intense democratic debate. However, up to that point any deliberation should be about HOW to bring about these preconditions, not WHETHER to do so, and it should be conducted in terms of responsibility, fairness and efficacy, not the national interest. (Maybe you wouldn’t disagree with this – your critique is about means rather than ends?)

      To labour the point on democracy a bit: to the extent that people are starving, afraid, oppressed, there is no ‘true’ democracy (before even starting on the preventable deaths of children, or what should be left for future generations, both groups who don’t even get a say). This point could be put in blunter, starker terms, but I won’t do it here. Generally, democracy is of more moral significance when it is just, and includes all those affected. And, incidentally, this is a reason to be hesitant about ancient sages…

      To be sure, the structure of the UN is a pragmatic issue here, as is the state system. The basic problem, of how to bring about justice from the platform of an existing set of (radically?) imperfect institutions, isn’t one that humanity is ever likely to crack, perhaps. But to set the end goal itself, – “the future we want” – we should take “men as they are, and laws as they might be” (Rousseau).

      (although lets not get started on Rousseau, democracy, and women…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: