Last week, Bill Easterly called the sustainable development goals (SDGs) senseless, dreamy, and garbled. He has a long list of specific quibbles. I disagree with him on many fronts, but I think we would both agree that the proof of this pudding is in the eating, not in how it looks. It does not matter what Bill thinks or what I think, what matters is whether anything actually changes as a result of the U.N. agreement.
So rather than getting into a discussion of what the SDGs might be, think instead of what has already been accomplished as a sign of the promise of things to come.
- For too many years, the peacekeeping, development, and environmental communities have been siloed, each one fighting with the other for limited resources. This was unnatural and unfortunate; the SDGs, and the process through which the SDGs were determined, have underscored the intertwined nature of the challenges of conflict, poverty, and climate change and have brought the three communities together to fight for a common cause of sustainable development. One outcome: it was during the SDG Summit that countries pledged to increase the resources and troops that they would make available for peacekeeping. Around 30,000 more troops were committed last week, amounting to a very substantial increase over the 100,000 currently participating in the 16 U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world. China, by itself, has pledged 8,000 more troops. If indeed the SDGs help to make peace, jobs, and resilience the new frontiers of sustainable development, it will be a big accomplishment.
- In describing his government’s commitment to the SDGs, U.K. Prime Minister Cameron emphasized a determination to make transparent the owners of all companies and trusts. This is potentially a major breakthrough in the fight against corruption and illicit capital flows, and will be all the more powerful if others follow suit.
- In addition to the parade of government officials and bureaucrats, a group of high-powered CEOs also came to New York to discuss what they could do. Some, like Unilever’s Paul Polman, are longstanding champions of the need for business to partner more with governments to achieve change. But this time there were many more faces—Andrew Liveris from the Dow Chemical Company, Richard Branson from Virgin, and Mark Wilson from Aviva to name just a few. All were eager to explore how to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the SDGs. None are inclined to waste their time on “vague and utopian” causes, as Easterly calls the SDGs. They wonder if there are better ways for allocating private capital (perhaps $300 trillion worldwide) that would be more efficient in the long term for the global economy. Even small shifts in allocations toward companies that perform better on sustainability and long-term profitability benchmarks would have very dramatic consequences for global development.
- A single private company, Planet Labs, committed $60 million worth of geospatial imaging data last week. As an anchor partner of the new global partnership for sustainable development data, Planet Labs will take pictures of the entire world, every day, and provide these for free to advocates for the global goals. The global partnership for data has many other champions (disclosure: including myself), all dedicated to the notion that better evidence will revolutionize decision-making at all levels. I’d be surprised if in the next few years the availability of and access to actionable data does not exponentially increase.
There is more too: a new EU initiative to provide better weather forecasting and improve preparedness and early warning systems against natural disasters; consumer goods industries working with NGOs to develop harmonized protocols on how to measure food loss and food waste in a consistent way; supermarket chains coming together with governments to be able to ensure that fish catches are properly regulated.
The simple point is that a lot is already happening. The SDG Summit was a political forcing moment that gave impetus to many of the initiatives listed above.
In fact, what is remarkable about the SDGs is the variety of new partnerships that have sprung up to implement them. Some are global, some national, others local. But because of the SDGs they now have a North Star to guide them. They have a sense of orientation and common goals to be pursued.
It is important to understand that the SDGs are not adding anything new to the development agenda. They are reflecting what people all over the world have actually been doing in development for many years, but in uncoordinated and isolated ways that could now change so as to harness the power of collective action. They are a product of a massive, intense, and inclusive consultation. Yes, in some places the goals are aspirational, but even in these cases they will give legitimacy and ammunition to advocates in countries to push for legislation that in turn could result in real change. At its heart, what the SDGs are designed to do is to give voice, legitimacy, and maybe even assistance to those fighting in the trenches for sustainable development. There are many of these groups and many need to be heard and deserve support. This is one reason for the big tent.
Most of the attacks on the SDGs have come from Western traditional media and academics. Social media has been far more excited and favorable. We won’t be able to assess whether the goals are making a difference on the ground for some time to come. But judging by the variety, scope, innovation, scale, and ambition of many of the new partnerships that are being formed, I expect great outcomes to emerge from the historic agreement on the sustainable development goals. I’d like to get Bill’s list of where resources and energy have been pointlessly wasted, or of the damage done by the SDGs. Then we can compare whether, on balance, they are a positive or senseless contribution to development. Shall we compare notes in 5 years’ time, Bill?