2015 may be important but it’s the long haul at the national level that counts

May Miller-Dawkins, Head of Research at Corelab, discusses the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Our thanks go to May for this blog, and to the Overseas Development Institute for whom this research was originally published.

The SDGs are due to replace the MDGs at the end of 2015.  The Institute is interested in the potential effects of the SDGs on those engaged in social change; for example, whether the incentives provided will facilitate or undermine progressive social change activities, and whether the goals will help or hinder collective action.

31 March 2015

Much ink and sweat has been spilled on the subject of the content of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their accompanying targets. It is only more recently that more attention is being paid to their form: the ways in which they will be made real in particular places around the world.

As it happens, when you look at which international agreements have had certain effects, and under what conditions, it can make you question some of the current wisdom about what needs to be reflected in the goals for them to be effective.

For example, there is much talk of the need in the final stages of negotiation to make sure that goals are practical. This reflects an underlying assumption that the SDGs are a “project” to be implemented, and that such a project requires SMART goals. This thinking builds on rich veins of technocratic thinking in development, as well as reflecting the more technocratic origins of the MDGs.

However, the SDGs are a distinctly different exercise to the MDGs. They are universalist, ambitious, and grounded in international human rights law. In fact, they resemble international human rights and environmental law more than the MDGs themselves.

The experience of past international agreements and initiatives that have had significant effects – in the form of political commitment, compliance and policy change; normative shifts; and diffusion of approaches – points to two particularly salient lessons for the final negotiation stretch of the SDGs.

Firstly, the effects of the SDGs will be highly contingent on domestic political and policy processes. When I reviewed 150 pieces of literature on the effects of international agreements and initiatives at the national level, the most consistent factor was how those agreements were used in processes of national mobilisation and problem solving.

As the effects of international agreements are “highly contingent” on the dynamics of domestic social mobilisation and existing institutions, it is better that both goals and targets are not overly prescriptive as to how they should be achieved (although it would be good to have well formed global targets and national targets that are set in each country). Successful national problem-solving requires intensive debate and dialogue amongst diverse stakeholders to create a platform for experimentation, not just “implementation”. These national processes will need time and should be built into the timeframe for “implementation” and “results”.

Secondly, high ambition could prove to be a strength of the SDGs. In both human rights and environmental law, high ambition yet low enforcement agreements can sometimes lead to greater change than lowest-common denominator high enforcement agreements. This is particularly the case when governments are committed to action but face uncertainty about what they are capable of achieving (for example, in the case of hazardous waste). This point is clearly linked to the first, in that ambition is useful when it emboldens, enables, or legitimises national groups who can engage in mobilisation or collective problem solving to achieve change. Moreover, the majority of aspirations that the SDGs articulate present complex, even wicked challenges to achieve. As such, it is local problem solving and experimentation that has the best chance of mustering the political, social and economic resources that may be needed to make such aspirations real.

If the SDGs are to be made real country-by-country, and ambition is a strength, what does this mean for the negotiations over coming months? It will mean holding the line while refining the goals and targets to make sure that they are meaningful, grounded in human rights and environmental law, and ambitious but not overly prescriptive as to implementation. Moreover, it means that we need to shift focus to the national level soon, and pay attention to what kinds of platforms and processes are set up for engaging citizens about how to adapt the SDGs to their aspirations, and realise them.

As the rhetoric ramps up about how critical a year 2015 is, we shouldn’t forget that the hardest work will take place step-by-step over coming years in countries around the world.

May Miller-Dawkins


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