The transformative potential of the #GlobalGoals

The following essay was a final assignment for a global development module, entitled “In what ways did the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail as a framework for transformative global development, and to what extent do the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address such shortcomings?”

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are widely credited as setting the agenda for development in the 21st century and creating a global movement for poverty alleviation and the achievement of social goals (Bandara, 2012; Olukoshi, 2013). Their practical achievements, however, have been mixed and it is difficult to determine whether reductions in poverty can be attributed to specific MDGs or wider global economic factors (Clemens et al, 2007; Solheim, 2010). In this context, the debate around the MDGs has been a practical one: did they achieve their stated aims?

There are, however, other perspectives that question more deeply the goals themselves; in particular, how the goals were created in the first place, and the paradigm in which they operate. As the post-2015 development agenda aims to integrate the MDGs with the parallel global aspirations around sustainable development, most notably articulated at the Rio +20 Summit (Adams and Tobin, 2014), an analysis of these structural questions is essential in assessing the transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals. Defining “transformative” as challenging the structures that underpin the status quo, this essay will therefore take a broad overview and examine the structure of the MDGs, in terms of how they were created and how they framed development issues, to suggest that their failure to create transformative global development was due to the values framework that underpinned them. It will then consider the potential the SDGs have to provide an alternative, transformative paradigm for development, focusing on the crucial question of what concept of “sustainability” underpins them. It will argue that if the SDGs are based on a “strong” concept of sustainability linked to human rights, they can reconcile environment and development tensions and provide a vision for development that can address the structural shortcomings of the MDGs. How realistic such an alternative framework is, however, is questionable.

One key criticism of the MDGs has focused on the process by which they were created. It is often highlighted that the goals were formed at a UN-level, with minimal consultation, and have often operated as a “top-down” agenda that seemed “external” to many countries in which the goals were aimed (Adams and Tobin, 2014; Kelly, 2013). This process meant that the goals were not fully integrated into national and local development plans and did not necessarily match up with the ongoing work of governments and NGOs on the ground (Kelly, 2013). Many social issues require ongoing and structural change, and without an approach integrated into the governance at this level, the MDGs are only addressing the manifestations of deeper rooted problems (Olukoshi, 2013; Waituru, 2013). This limited participation may also have affected the choice of targets and indicators. The MDGs omitted a significant number of elements that were included in the broader Millennium Declaration, notably climate change, peace and security and reproductive and sexual health (Fehlig et al, 2013; Langford 2010). Some of these omissions have been attributed to behind-the scenes political decisions aimed at making the goals less politically controversial (Fehlig et al, 2013). More fundamentally, however, it is arguable that core issues were omitted because without a participatory link to those who the goals were aimed at helping, the targets were created without full understanding of the issues or the priorities of the people they were meant to benefit, or the governments who would be implementing the goals.

The implications of this are highlighted by Easterly (2009), who examined the record of the MDGs in Sub-Saharan Africa. He argues that the choice of indicator for a number of MDGs portrays actual successes as failures, and thus doesn’t recognise the nature of the changes needed in many nations. For example, the MDG1 has a proportional target: halving the number of people in poverty globally. This means that on a national level, those nations with a lower baseline (ie. more people in poverty in absolute terms) had to lift more people out of poverty to achieve the target. Furthermore, targets such as this encourage governments to help those people just under a given indicator line, as this will be recognised more than lifting a greater number of people closer to, but not over, the line (ibid).  Additionally, targets such as MDG2’s universal enrolment in primary education only measure participation and not the quality of social service being provided. All of this may very well be linked to the MDGs being created as a technical, not participatory, exercise. The process has led to goals that do not reflect the lived experiences of individuals, treating issues in silos rather than as interconnected and failing to single out specific at risk groups (Sen, 2013; Waituru, 2013). Overall, the problem is that many of the goals focus on “outputs, not outcomes” (Loewe, 2012, p.2).

Langford (2010) argues that in some cases the MDGs have, as a result of their focus on quantifiable results, led to human-rights violations in the pursuit of their aims; forced evictions in slum clearance and large-dam projects are just two examples where activity that is aimed at meeting MDG targets has been undertaken at the cost of human rights and the wellbeing of specific groups in an area.  Langford links this linked to the lack of a “bottom-up” approach to creating the goals, which has also omitted the perspectives and voices of the poorest in global society. He argues that the problem with the goals and indicator framework of the MDGs is that it exists in a “value free policy space” (p.88), and therefore the absence of positive values about how goals should be achieved, or the values which should be attached to certain ideas, limits the transformative potential of the MDGs. Bello (2013), however, would disagree with the assessment that the MDGs are value free and would identify these problems as arising out of the MDG’s adoption of a neoliberal framework that does not address the structural problems and root causes of poverty. This is also at the core of the lack of consultation in the MDG creation process: the structural inequalities of neoliberalism were reproduced in the institutional structure of the goals themselves. Both authors would agree, however, that a new values framework is required in order for the SDGs to achieve their transformative potential. Langford proposes that this is where the human-rights discourse plays a crucial role, and Bello’s vision of post-2015 development merges the human rights and environmental sustainability discourses; in both cases the proposed paradigms provide an overarching values framework to re-focus the goals on human and environmental outcomes, instead of statistical outputs.

With the creation of the SDGs there is the potential to address these concerns about participation, values and outcomes. At a practical level, the SDG process has already been more participatory, with wider consultations and involvement of national governments and NGOs (Adams and Tobin, 2014), and may facilitate the local focus called for by several commentators. However, much of the discourse surrounding the SDGs has focused far more on the inclusion of wider issues, such as inequality and climate change, than the more structural concerns articulated above. Alongside human rights, climate change and environmental sustainability have been consistently highlighted as significant omissions from the MDGs, and they are welcome additions in the proposed SDGs; the draft goals are far more explicit in linking human and environmental concerns, seen in particular in SDGs 13 (tackling climate change) and 15 (protecting ecosystems) (Adams and Tobin, 2014). Although these are undoubtedly important additions to the SDGs, and the choice of issues to address does itself influence the metrics and values articulated in the goals, broadening the participation and scope of the goals is not sufficient to enable more transformative development to take hold. The key issue is the values framework that underpins the SDGs, and whilst the increase in participation in the process may help push the framework towards a more rights-based understanding of the issues, a significant question remains. If the absence of participation and human rights frameworks has been a barrier to transformative global development through the MDGs, does a refocusing on environmental issues risk further marginalising these frameworks and inhibiting the shift in values needed to realise more transformative goals?

Historically there has been tension between environmental protection objectives and human development goals, with conservation policies that evicted people from their homes to create protected areas linked to a policy discourse that saw environmental and developmental issues as separate spheres (Adams et al, 2004; Adams and Hutton, 2007). This discourse has changed over time, however, to view environment and development issues as essentially interlinked, with conservation necessary to support rural livelihoods and vice versa (Roe and Elliot, 2003). Furthermore, addressing the most pressing global sustainability challenge, climate change, is a pre-requisite for further progress to be made in development goals (Griggs et al, 2014). Sustainability, therefore, is not a rival to or distraction from human development goals: it is an essential part of the international development agenda, and reconcilable with a human rights framework. The potential for this interlinked sustainability-human rights framework to have a transformative effect on global development, however, depends upon the way in which sustainability defined.

Though sustainable development is often discussed as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987), this broad definition is open to a number of different interpretations. Daly (1990) makes a distinction between “weak” sustainability, in which natural capital can be substituted by human capital, and “strong” sustainability, where no such substitution is possible, meaning that there are limits to how the natural and social environment can be exploited. This distinction is crucial for assessing the transformative potential of the SDGs; in essence, weak sustainability sees the “three pillars” of social, economic and environmental sustainability as equal, whereas strong sustainability sees them as a “nested” concept, with the economic system nested within the social system, which is in turn nested within the ecosystem (Griggs et al, 2013, p.306).

If the SDGs utilize a “weak” approach to sustainability, then arguably they will be compatible with a “business as usual” neoliberal approach to macroeconomics and resource use, with natural resources being valued in solely economic terms. However, framing the SDGs in terms of “strong” sustainability offers an entirely different way of valuing natural resources that has implications for the macro-economic and political structures that underpin the goals. This reinterpretation of the value of natural resources links extremely well to multi-dimensional assessments of poverty and a move toward more holistic measurements of human wellbeing, which offers a solution to the problem of the MDG’s targets and indicators highlighted previously in this essay (Giovannini, 2013; Dietz and O’Neill, 2013). Though this presents a new challenge in creating measurable targets, the final indicators would better reflect aspirations to a better quality of life for citizens and incorporate the value of natural resources in supporting this. It also creates an additional political challenge, both in terms of international actors actively moving away from the current political frameworks in environmental and developmental governance, and in terms of translating such alternative frameworks into practical action. Neoliberal frameworks of development remain dominant in the global system, whilst many areas of sustainability, from climate negotiations through to biodiversity conservation, are also heavily influenced by neoliberal thinking and market-based approaches (Holmes, 2011; Jordan, 2007).

Despite these challenges, there is potential for alternative development pathways, especially in relation to fossil fuel and natural resource extraction, to be practically realised. One particular example of this is the idea of low-carbon development (LCD), a pathway that can combine environmental concerns and a rights-based approach to development. Whilst LCD is commonly discussed in terms of climate change mitigation, and thus in relation to industrialised countries, it also offers a vision of economic development for countries in the Global South that does not create a trade-off between poverty alleviation and action on climate change (Urban, 2010). LCD incorporates the concepts of green jobs, focuses on sectors at specific risk in terms of climate change (such as agriculture) and also raises the issue of redistribution of wealth and public expenditure, all of which have been highlighted as crucial issues for the SDGs going forward (Bello, 2013; Urban, 2010). Because the focus on policies that require national government action, a LCD approach would be enhanced by a rights-based understanding of development, changing the focus of accountability from the distribution of international aid to the demands of citizens for their government to provide basic living standards and social services in an environmentally sustainable way (Langford, 2010; Waituru, 2013).

Whilst this is certainly not the only vision of development that a sustainability-human rights framework creates, such a paradigm that links a strong concept of sustainability with the accountability of the human rights approach, offers a strikingly different vision of global development to the MDGs. The enabler of this is the values framework that the goals adopt, underpinned by a strong participatory process and wider consideration of the core issues that need to be addressed by the post-2015 development agenda. The factors that may support the adoption of such a framework are in place; the SDG process is already far more participatory than the MDGs were, and a global sense of urgency around the UNFCCC negotiations in Paris at COP21 may move international actors to adopt stronger concepts of sustainability than have previously been accepted. However, as has been mentioned previously, there remains a political challenge in moving away from neoliberal frameworks for environmental and developmental governance. It is ultimately these wider considerations that influence how the proposed SDGs will be interpreted and measured, and which will influence whether the SDGs are able to address the structural shortcomings of the MDGs.

To conclude, the failure of the MDGs to provide a vision of transformative global development can be attributed to the values framework upon which they were created. This led to a non-participatory process for the goals’ creation, which in turn contributed to a limited set of goals, targets and indicators. Though an increase in participation in the MDG process may have rectified some of these omissions and limitations, it was ultimately the neoliberal values framework that prevented the goals from being truly transformative, and so for change to occur the SDGs must operate in a different paradigm. This essay has suggested that a combination of a human rights approach, highlighted as a particularly problematic omission from the MDGs, and a strong concept of sustainability, which reinterprets the values of natural resources and links to more holistic indicators of human wellbeing, could provide for the foundations of this more transformative vision. Whether such a framework will underpin the SDGs is, however, uncertain. The foundations for such values to be adopted have already been laid in the discourse evaluating the MDGs, with human rights taking a central focus in much of the literature, and the demands of climate change mitigation may impose a strong interpretation of sustainability through the UNFCCC. It remains to be seen whether the interests of the environment and the global poor will be prioritised over that of the free market.


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