20 March 2017

Universality and the SDGs: transforming development as we know it?

The SDGs have been in place now for 18 months. But already there is some disquiet over the attention that is being paid to them by some countries.  

The BOND Annual Conference took up this theme and one of the sessions, which I chaired, asked the panelists “how do we make the SDGs matter more?” It was framed as how are the SDGs connected and how do we leverage the opportunities they bring?  But really it was about how to make the SDGs matter more.

The SDGs are really different from the MDGs.  The SDGs focus on sustainability, on all people within a country and on all countries.  Many of the SDGs talk about ending a problem e.g. “ending malnutrition” rather than halving its rate. Plus the process of generating the SDGs was much more inclusive than the process that generated  the MDGs. This is all great.

But for the audience and the panel the key distinction was the fact that the SDGs apply to all countries—that they are “universal”. 

This means that it is not DFID that reports on the UK’s performance in meeting its own SDG targets, but the Prime Minister’s Cabinet. 

Universality opens up lots of opportunities:

* An understanding of how difficult it is to achieve lasting change in, say, the UK or the USA or the Netherlands within the strictures of typical 3-4 year funding cycles

* An appreciation of how intrusive and disrespectful the metrics culture can be in terms of naming and shaming high income governments, businesses and NGOs that do not meet their commitments

* Learning across contexts that seemingly have no connection (what about addressing the unaffordability of safe nutritious food in some neighbourhoods of Leeds, Lagos, Lima and Lahore?)

* Connecting and engaging the global and local realities of trying to improve development outcomes.  What do the SDGs mean to someone living in Geneva or Washington DC as well as rural Mozambique and slum dwellers in Dhaka?

But is there a risk from this universality? If those who work on international development perpetuate the divide with domestic development then, I think, yes. If these two worlds remain separate there is a real risk that one will cannibalise the other for attention and resources. If, for example, we draw attention to poor school outcomes in deprived areas of the UK without drawing out commonalities and contrasts with, say, deprived parts of Africa then we run the risk of losing resources for development but we also lose a sense of context and humanity, not to mention opportunities to foster a sense of solidarity.

True universality of the SDGs should challenge international development actors to bridge the easy “us and them” dichotomies. It should disrupt our thinking and organisation sufficiently that we gradually move from international development driven by aid to global development driven sustainably by domestic resources—public and private.

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