The world’s agenda is being redrawn in New York today as leaders agree to a new set of “global goals” for the next 15 years. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as they have been known until now, have been years in the making. The United Nations has led an admirably inclusive process that has resulted in an agenda which reflects the competing challenges facing humanity. It is a great achievement and a moment of celebration. But when copies of the planet’s new to-do list hit the in-trays of governments around the world, the real work will only just have begun. Without turning this desirable long-list into an essential shortlist, national leaders will struggle to get to grips with the SDGs.
Make no mistake about it, the SDGs are commendably ambitious: “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”, “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”, “provide access to justice for all”, are the tip of the iceberg. One reason for these lofty aims was the success of the SDGs’ predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals. Broad, global agendas like these will always have their challenges and can never be 100% successful, but the MDGs have provided a focal point for development efforts over the last 15 years. We saw this transformation across sub-Saharan Africa, where AGI works. Millions of people are free from the oppression of poverty, maternal mortality has fallen by 50 percent and 80 percent of children attend primary school compared to 52 percent in 1990. Cities once known for their slums are now known for their stock exchanges and democracy is strengthening its grip, as we saw in Nigeria earlier this year.
So why not set our aims even higher this time? Indeed we should. But it cannot all be done straightaway; and if national governments don’t have the chance to start by prioritizing for themselves what to focus on first, the perfect will end up the enemy of the good. Here’s why.
First, because by being more comprehensive the reality is the SDGs gloss over the tension between competing goods in development. A country which chooses to invest in boosting agricultural productivity in order to feed its population and grow its exports could face environmental consequences which hold back its progress on green goals. Conversely a focus on climate change mitigation and biodiversity could hinder efforts to achieve food security or create jobs through large-scale production of biofuels. These issues don’t need to be zero sum and the tension can create the space for innovation and creative solutions. But to pretend there aren’t also tough choices is to ignore the reality of development and the reality of government. Countries will not be able to have it all at the same time, and to govern is to choose.
Second, this matters because delivering on the SDGs requires more resources, in particular in many countries in Africa, and governments will need to choose where to direct their finances and, maybe more importantly, their best people. Take Sierra Leone, for example: whatever the SDGs say, the reality is President Koroma is hugely constrained by the combined toll on economic growth and government finances of the Ebola crisis and the fall in iron ores prices. The financing needed for thee the Global Goals is significant – an estimated $11.5 trillion per year. Aid won’t be enough to reach this which is why the recent Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa looked at strategies to increase domestic revenues. That’s the right focus, but in the immediate term nations will have to make do with what they have.
And third, because all of these choices are political. Democracy requires accountability and for that there must be local decision making. Too often development is still seen as a technical exercise, where governments just need to do the “right” thing. But the reality is that there is no single right answer, just choices made by leaders who are accountable to their people. Strengthening the foundations of Africa’s burgeoning democracies requires governments to deliver change that affects peoples’ lives on a daily basis whether that’s new roads, better health clinics or reliable electricity. But a piecemeal approach to delivering on all 17 of the SDGs is unlikely to deliver the kind of tangible improvements people expect and demand – no one benefits from half a road built, or a power station with no one to invest in the network, or schools with no teachers. Democracy will only take hold if governments are given the space to make the choices this entails, even if the priorities of outsiders get set aside in the process.
This week marks the end of the beginning for a new era of development. The vision is bigger than ever before. As the Global Goals move from paper to practice we need to work with national governments to lead this agenda and to respect the choices they make. Ultimately these countries know best the people who stand to win or lose when politicians get things right or wrong. If the international community is willing to step back and allow national governments to choose the right ‘framework within the framework’, then the SDGs will truly be something to celebrate.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.