07 July 2014

Are the SDGs really like fairytales?

Last week Richard Horton, the formidable editor in chief of the Lancet wrote a piece in the journal entitled " Why the Sustainable Development Goals will fail".   

Based on his reading of the latest zero draft (rev 1)  of the "Proposed Goals and Targets on Sustainable Development for the Post-2015 Development Agenda" he states:

"The SDGs are fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucratese of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure. Yet this is served up as our future."

My reading of his critique is that it centres on 2 related things (1) there is little attempt to think about what sustainability really means and how it should shape the SDGs (Horton's list:  intergenerational equity , externalities, resilience, wellbeing, capabilities, and the strength of our civilisations) and (2) many of the goals are "negotiated wish lists" that focus on business as usual. 

At first when I saw the title of his piece I thought he was going to complain that the SDG process was thinking big impractical thoughts.  But on reading the SDG zero draft and his review, it is clear that he thinks the SDG process is not doing this.  I agree with him.  The SDG process does not seem to have started with ideals and worked towards a result.  Rather, like some of the teams at the World Cup, the process is being ruthlessly pragmatic, wishing not to fail than daring to succeed.   

However I am not quite as pessimistic as Horton about what the SDGs may look like.  There is still time for a really good SDG outcome.  The deadlines will focus the minds.  The process is too open for mediocrity to prevail.  We may not get the expansive and symphonic vision that Horton calls for but we might just get what we need: a set of goals that balances the needs of the current generation with those of the future ones, one that balances outcomes and accountable choices and one that injects a little more poetry into the, so far, rather dull prose.  

Thanks to Richard for injecting some poetry into the debate. 

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