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No butterfly effect: will the UN's 17 new goals take us anywhere?

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 25 September 2015, 16:38 IST
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What are Sustainable Development Goals?

  • The UN General Assembly will adopt new sustainable development goals this weekend
  • The 17 goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals, which were meant to end this year
  • SDGs, with 169 targets, will guide all development action for the next 15 years

Are the SDGs any good?

  • Lessons from the MDGs should\'ve been taken to formulate new goals
  • Instead, the SDGs do not seem to offer anything radically new
  • For instance, it looks at poverty as a disease to be eradicated, not as a symptom of economic inequality
  • The goals are also not inclusive enough, for example in its gender goals

In the last weekend of September, the world will witness a once-in-15-years phenomenon. Seventeen sustainable development goals (SDGs) will be adopted by the United Nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also be present at the General Assembly session that will adopt these goals.

These goals replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which lasted from 2000 until 2015. Beginning in 2016, the new goals will guide the development agenda of not just the United Nations but also funding by philanthropist organisations and multilateral institutions, with activities across the world.

The goals are concrete and time-bound, with over 169 targets. These goals are the proverbial flutter of a butterfly that can cause tornadoes around the world.

Who's manning the goalpost?

But who got to decide the goals? Was any role given to the poor and the marginalised for whom the entire effort is in the first place?

The 17 goals suffer from two crucial defects: First, they are not participative enough. Second, given the focus on sustainability, they don't offer any fresh solution to development problems.

The SDGs appear to be simply a new bottle for the old wine that is the eight MDGs they replace. It's as if we haven't learnt any lessons over the last 15 years.

Inherent biases in the development paradigm may end up ensuring that the sustainable development goals are not as sustainable as they are thought to be. This, experts say, will hamper the success of the process.

The frontline theme of the goals - sustainable development - was also the seventh goal in the MDGs: 'ensuring environmental sustainability'. It targeted to "integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources."

Instead, carbon emissions jumped more than 30% in the first 10 years of the MDGs. This was led by steep growth in emissions in India and China. At the same time, it was a period of economic growth for the two developing countries.

Such growth was, in fact, the core principle of the goals as they were seen to be the means to end poverty. What was never considered was how sustainable such growth was.

Burning fuel currently leads to more than 90% emission. And we are most likely to keep depending on fossil fuel for growth despite the SDGs' aim to double energy efficiency by 2030.

What is needed is an entirely different way of achieving economic growth or development as to achieve the SDGs, the global economy would have to grow 15 times. But the SDGs do not think in this direction.

Missing the forest for the trees

"The entire model is based on continued growth in the absence of changing the structure of the global economy, including wealth distribution," said Alnoor Ladha, executive director at The Rules.

According to a study by the research organisation, radical shifts in the goals are not possible because of biases inherent in the process of framing the SDGs. The study uses a method known as frame analysis, which reads between the lines of policy documents - especially recurring phrases - to uncover the core thinking behind it.

The conclusions are interesting, e.g. the study found that SDGs do not consider poverty as arising from the economic system, but rather as an existing disease that has to be eradicated.

This is apparent in the continuous use of the word "poverty eradication," which implies that poverty, like a disease, simply exists in nature. Because of this, the SDGs overlook any issues within the system that cause poverty.

The study also found that the SDGs place the objective of reducing poverty on a higher pedestal than other objectives, such as global warming. But these are often interrelated.

Praxis, a participatory research organisation, has conducted independent consultations on the SDGs with farmers, children, dalits, tribals, sexual minorities, and the homeless, among others.

.@sowmyaa_b says #SDGs are top-down. They don't even pretend to have any legitimate space to engage

The participants highlighted the relationship between poverty and global warming. They also spoke about foundational changes needed in the system - such as ending patriarchy and breaking the government-corporate nexus. They also found that the SDGs were silent on the participation of the poor.

"All these goals are top-down. There is no legitimate space to engage. They don't even pretend to have such a mechanism," said Sowmyaa Bharadwaj, deputy director at Praxis.

The omissions are many, but one particularly stands out: Participants at the consultation discovered that the goal on gender equality has left out transgenders. This means that for the next 15 years, millions of dollars will be spent on gender equality, but there will be nothing to help transgenders. That's 18 million people left out - equal to the entire population of the Netherlands.

The SDGs fail to impress on several counts. But as an agenda they will define all big-ticket development action over the next 15 years.

First published: 25 September 2015, 16:38 IST
 
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.

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