“As Is” Adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Without Correction Is a Mistake

On September 25, 2015, the United Nation’s General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” The 2030 Agenda was hailed by then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as nothing less than “a defining moment in human history.”  Many critics, on the other hand, argued that the details of the SDGs – not necessarily their grand ambitions - do not bear close scrutiny.

Leading up to the adoption of the SDGs, the prolonged debate about the goals the world set for 2030 had been heated, fraught with seemingly endless consultations. Nonetheless, in a surprise to many if not most informed observers, the sprawling package of SDGs, including 17 overarching goals and a mind-boggling 169 associated targets, was adopted virtually unchanged from that proposed on August 12, 2014, by the Open Working Group of the UN General Assembly on SDGs.

The SDGs Are Not SMART

In an article in the current issue of the  William & Mary Policy Review, and in a conference sponsored by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) last month in Tashkent, Uzbekistan focused on Goal 16 of the SDGs, the “justice and peace” goal, I joined scholars and commentators who have criticized the SDGs as sprawling and misconceived, difficult to understand, unmeasurable and unmanageable in their present formulation. I pointed out that the sprawling package of the of 17 goals, 169 targets or sub-goals, and 230 indicators of success simply does not meet the goal setting “SMART” criteria, i.e., most are not specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. I argued that the SDGs need to be made so in order for them to make a positive impact on sustainable development by 2030 comparable to that of the narrower predecessor Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expired at the end of 2015. I concluded that it can be achieved by taking three courses of action that promise to result in a cohesive framework with a limited set of indicators that constitute a balanced scorecard to assess progress toward justice outcomes:

1)      formulate detailed operational definitions and instructions for the provisional indicators and associated targets;

2)      streamline the proposed provisional indicators to a more limited number of measures, i.e., a vital few; and,

3)      ensure that countries and their statistical offices and performance measurement departments take ownership of the framework of indicators.

Adoption “As Is” Without Correction

I assumed that the flaws in the current formulation of the SDGs would be self-evident to countries and stakeholders at the global, national and subnational levels as they prepare to implement the SDGs. Indeed, it is difficult to see how nations can, without serious revision of most of the 17 goals, 169 targets (sub-goals), and 230 tentative indicators, incorporate the SDGs into their national planning processes, policies and strategies, as envisioned by the UN. I expected UN member nations to make the SDGs SMART before they adopted them. That is, I did not expect implementation initiatives to adopt the sprawling package of the SDGs “as is” before making them SMART, akin to the costly mistake of automating a seriously flawed manual process such as case management “as is” without correcting the flaws prior to automation. Alas, there are some alarming signs that such mistakes are happening.

For example, with the support of UNDP, Albania is embarking on a comprehensive implementation of the SDGs in line with its national and subnational strategic plans (including its National Strategy for Development and Integration 2015-2020 and European Union integration agenda).  While it is difficult to know precisely how many flaws of the SDGs were identified and corrected before integration into Albania’s national and subnational strategic frameworks, the evidence points to the assumption that the SDGs were largely adopted “as is” without much correction.

This kind of use of the SDGs “as is” is not restricted to countries and their public institutions. For example, in a recent article by Valerie L. Karr, Jacob Sims, Callie Brusegaard and Ashley Coates (researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s School for Global Inclusion and Social Development and AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary which tracks who is funding what, where, and to what effect in order to inform development policy) reported on a study designed to test whether the World Bank’s efforts to align its work with the SDGs in one area -- the inclusion of people with disabilities in development efforts --  is effectively translated into inclusive development projects on the ground.  The researchers combed the World Bank online project database and identified projects that involved people with disabilities using an analytical tool that produced concrete examples of World Bank initiatives from 2009 – 2015 corresponding with the SDGs. What is telling is that, like the efforts in Albania, the researchers did not seem to have made any effort to ascertain whether the SDGs as articulated were sufficiently SMART to align with the World Bank’s efforts which, in contrast, were carefully screened for relevance.

Opportunities and Risks

Countries seeking to implement the SDGs face both opportunities and risks.  On the one hand, collaboration and cooperation with United Nation agencies such as UNDP and other donors, partners, and stakeholders hold out both promises of international support and assistance for national and local sustainable development efforts and elevating a country’s stature and standing in the global community. In what I might be characterized as a “bandwagon effect,” it may be tempting for countries and organizations at the national and global level to hop on board without knowing in advance where the bandwagon is heading.

On the other hand, efforts to integrate and coordinate the sprawling package of the global agenda of the SDGs – including 17 goals, 169 targets or sub-goals, and 230 tentative performance indicators – with national and subnational strategic frameworks are fraught with daunting difficulties and significant risks that stand in the way of meaningful implementation of the SDGs. In Albania, for example, national and subnational frameworks include over 50 strategies, national plans and policy documents. Simply mapping the elements of these frameworks against the ill-defined SDGs, which the Economist declared were a “mess” and possibly “worse than useless,” without first making them SMART risks being a meaningless wasteful exercise. It also may mire Albania into the kind prolonged debate, disagreements, and bureaucratic infighting over special interests that plagued the long drawn out process of formulating the sprawling package of the SDGs.

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