Why the SDGs are Dangerous

If the world's citizens take the SDGs seriously, down to the detail and commitment, they become a powerful tool with which to hold governments to account.
10/08/2015 10:10 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2016

On September 25, one of the most important global agreements in recent history was inked in New York. World leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals during the Sustainable Development Summit at the United Nations. These goals represent an ambitious plan to set the world on a vastly different course defined by a desire to achieve collective economic prosperity, environmental protection and universal well-being.

But barely anyone outside of the small development community seemed to notice.

It's understandable. News reports last week were dominated by Syria, the Pope's tour of the Americas, the Volkswagen scandal and the European migrant crisis. But if we dig into the details of Transforming our World, the 28-page document that lays out this new development agenda, we see that it is far from your average international agreement.

First, it is vast. It covers five Ps -- "people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership" -- and topics ranging from economic growth to thorny issues like universal peace and human rights to finance and technology.

Next, there is the approach and language: leaving no one behind, promoting gender equality, development from a universal perspective, a "bold and transformative agenda." This is not the usual development speak. And in contrast to its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are not just a deal between the rich and the poor, exchanging aid for reforms. Rather this time we are preparing for a collective journey that implicates everyone from Seattle to Delhi, Tokyo to Timbuktu.

What strikes me, however, is not just that the wider public is not celebrating this radical document, but that a particular interest group has not yet seen how dangerous it can become for them. I am speaking, of course, of governments, specifically those wanting to carry on with business as usual.

If the world's citizens take the SDGs seriously, down to the detail and commitment, they become a powerful tool with which to hold governments to account. Many national, regional and, most importantly, local issues could score major advancements as a result of the new agenda. These include things like building schools, granting social protection, offering private entrepreneurs a space for development and protecting local public goods, such as clean water. All of this is now an obligation for decision makers and governments at every level.

Armed with these goals, engaged and organized citizens can challenge existing models of government and citizen participation. The SDGs could hence set in motion a process that in fact threatens those governments, who just think this is yet another piece of paper to be celebrated in New York and forgotten the day after.

In addition to the fact that adopting the SDGs and implementing them are two different things, there is another, related risk. The monitoring and measurement of 17 goals and 169 targets through more than 300 indicators could easily turn into a nightmare, with no national follow up at all. The underlying data is simply not there -- or at least not yet -- nor is the capacity of countries to collect, process and disseminate it. And without data, there can be no accountability and, ultimately no action.

The hope is, however, that countries can -- and are willing to -- produce more timely, reliable, accessible and relevant data and analysis between now and the SDG deadline in 2030. If they do, the guessing game will be over. Real country data will take the place of estimations provided by international organizations. Everyone will know who is moving forward and who is sliding backwards. Everyone will know where to provide support and where to provide pressure.

I am as excited by the aspirational nature of the goals as I am by the fact that so many countries reached consensus on them. Now let's get governments the support the need to make good on the commitments, whether it comes in the form of dollars, infrastructure, training or capacity building. I look forward to 2030 when we can look back and say we dreamt big and we delivered.