If we don’t get a strong climate deal, the Sustainable Development Goals are doomed

By Professor David Hulme

The imminent announcement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is generating real debate amongst researchers, NGOs and academics about their level of ambition and the likelihood success. Will they be business as usual for the aid industry, or something truly transformational?

At the World Social Science Forum earlier this month there was a consensus that the SDGs are an advance on the MDGs, yet they still met with major criticisms. As one conference delegate told me, “they are just the MDGs with knobs on – these are not about global justice!” The MDGs focussed largely on reducing extreme poverty – according to Thomas Pogge seeking only to secure a minimalist set of basic needs for the world’s poorest people.

The SDGs are definitely more ambitious. With 17 Goals and 167 targets (the MDGs had 8 goals and 20 targets) they have to be. The SDGs seek to eradicate extreme poverty, not simply reduce it; to move the world toward environmental sustainability; to create economic growth and jobs in poor countries; to reduce inequality; to achieve peace and justice in all countries and much more.


The starting point has to be asking whether having a lot more goals and targets is an improvement. The many NGOs who got their pet target into the SDGs draft might think so. But some, particularly the UK Government, have argued that 17 goals and 167 targets is a dysfunctional number. How can countries identify national priorities when the list is so long? How can aid donors explain to taxpayers and voters what ‘foreign aid’ is, and why it’s a priority when it takes five minutes to read the goals – and thirty to read the targets? The public in rich nations work on rolling 24/7 media reports and sound bites. They need messages in bullet points, or so the argument goes. Too long and people will just ‘switch off’.

The G77 thought differently, however, and were annoyed at the UK’s efforts to intervene. They saw attempts to consolidate the SDGs into a shorter list as a covert attempt to reopen debate on goals that richer countries have found to be problematic – such as reducing inequality across countries and encouraging sustainable consumption.

So what has been added to the SDGs? In terms of poverty reduction they are a great advance on the MDGs. Where the latter were framed to halve income poverty and hunger, the SDGs take poverty as multi-dimensional – measuring it in terms of income and hunger, but also factors like access to potable water and sanitation, basic health services and education – and seek to eradicate it in all its forms.

The SDGs also go beyond poverty and seek to “reduce inequality within and among nations”. With the exception of several Latin American countries, most countries have seen inequality rising in recent years, so Goal 10 lays down a significant political and economic challenge. It’s not just aimed at developing counties, but also tasks rich nations to address the growing wealth gap in their own populations.

However, what does reducing inequality “among nations” actually require? Will rich nations redistribute their wealth, or slow their own economic growth so that convergence between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ economies can occur? In their present form, the Goal 10 targets avoid specifically addressing this question, and it remains to be seen whether the indicators designed to measure inequality reduction will be further diluted so that rich countries and rich people are not directly challenged about their current control over global assets and income.

As might be expected, the SDGs also exhibit a much greater focus on sustainability than the MDGs did. Five goals pursue environmental sustainability, including Goal 12: “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” (will we all get individual carbon allowances?) and Goal 13: to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”.

Beyond poverty, inequality and sustainability the SDGs include several other goals that are significant advances on what the UN could agree in 2000/01. Economic growth and job creation figure strongly in Goal 8 – and are to be sustainable, inclusive and decent. A goal for peace, justice and effective institutions appears toward the end of the list, albeit with very weakly-specified targets. Negotiation of this 16th goal was very contentious; OECD members argued for ‘good governance’, while G77 members saw this as an attempt to reinforce a Western form of liberal democracy as the global norm. Discussion about what indicators should be used to monitor Goal 16 could run up to the last minute.

While the content of the SDGs can be argued to be a great advance on the MDGs, they are ultimately political output produced by the UN’s Open Working Group through a filter of multiple compromises. They are not a carefully theorised and operationalised form of human rights. That said, I believe the SDGs do have the potential to be transformational – because of how the process of negotiating the Goals took place this time around.

While the MDGs were very much driven by OECD members and donor agency preferences, the SDGs have been produced through a formal UN process, involving negotiation across all 193 members. The G77 – or more accurately, the G77 and China – have played an active role in creating these goals. Emerging powers (especially Brazil), which pushed the sustainability/Rio agenda – have taken strong positions. The world has changed: development is no longer officially defined by aid donor countries but by all UN member states. ‘Developing’ countries now have a big say in what development means!

Two final points must also be observed. First, will the SDGs actually be implemented? Often the MDGs existed only on paper, and the SDGs are a resolution and not a legally binding treaty. Though they represent a global super-norm there are no penalties for countries that do not pursue them. More meaningful commitment to transformation has already been resisted by all sides. Admittedly, there is a goal, with 19 targets, that provides guidance on implementation. Maybe that is progress; the 130 countries that comprise the G77 certainly fought strongly for it.

Secondly, the SDGs are not the only game in town and they will be agreed in the shadow of the climate change treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Paris in December.

Climate change has the privileged status of being addressed with a treaty; countries that ratify it must honour it and countries that do not sign up lose status in international terms. This is why one European envoy to the UN told me, “It’s all about Paris”. While the SDGs will be agreed in September, COP 21 will determine how seriously they are taken. If a strong treaty to tackle climate change can be agreed, it will serve as stimulus for energetic pursuit of the SDGs in many countries. If climate talks stall or produce a weak, inconclusive treaty then one can expect enthusiasm for the SDGs to be low. What is the point of a set of Sustainable Development Goals if climate change makes sustainability a joke?

The newly announced Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester is based around the pursuit of social justice. As a supporter of this aim, I hope UN members gets the deals right in both New York and in Paris.

Read David’s earlier post: Are the SDGs the world’s biggest promise… or the world’s biggest lie?

Universal access to sanitation requires a revolution in understanding

By Professor Diana Mitlin

Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) makes a clear commitment to universal access to sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. This wording may have been tricky to negotiate, but it will be considerably trickier to turn into practice.

One of the most difficult aspects is determining how access to improved and adequate sanitation is measured. The scale of the task is immense, and it is equally evident that ‘progress’ appears to have been abysmal to date.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) of WHO/UNICEF estimate that only 40% of the urban population currently use improved sanitation; in 1990 that figure was 39%. Many other things have changed since 1990 – the development and spread of mobile phones, the rise of the BRICS, the expansion of social protection programmes with hundreds of millions benefitting from cash transfers – yet most urban dwellers in Africa still don’t have access to safe (improved) toilets.

Some might respond that urban population growth means that almost 100,000 additional households in sub-Saharan Africa have been reached with sanitation. But urban population growth means that the number of people in need has also risen in absolute terms. The number living in sub-Saharan Africa’s urban areas without adequate access to sanitation is estimated to be 225 million, an increase of 85 million since 1990.

In light of this, anyone serious about addressing urban sanitation needs will probably recognise that improved sanitation figures are very likely to be overestimations. Current JMP definitions of “improved sanitation” do not take into account the realities of urban living.

One problem is that the definition of improved sanitation does not account for residential density. In many urban neighbourhoods, it really does not make sense to talk about sanitation without also talking about residential densities and other living conditions. A pit latrine can be perfectly safe in one context and very risky in another. While on-site sanitation works at low densities, as densities increase some ‘improved’ technologies can prove problematic. For example, there is a high risk of contamination if water and sanitation facilities are in close proximity.

High densities also mean that there can be a lack of alternative sites to dig a new pit when the existing pits are full. Managing faecal sludge requires planning at the city scale. Faecal sludge needs to be removed from a given area and disposed of safely. Both the JMP and city governments are now thinking more about this, but the challenges are immense. City authorities have to work with private collection services, illegal dumping must be prevented and solutions must be identified for those who cannot afford to pay. A further challenge, exacerbated by high residential densities and a lack of waste management services, is that sanitation technologies need to be ready to withstand the high risk of flooding in many urban centres.

A final problem has more to do with data collection than definitions. Aggregated city figures do not appear to represent the realities in informal settlements, perhaps because those collecting formal data do not spend enough time actually in these locations, or perhaps because their significance is understated by city authorities.

In Kenya, for example, JMP data indicates that 31% of the urban population have access to improved sanitation, but other research suggests that only 5% of Nairobi’s population have a private (non-shared) toilet, and there are a high proportion of households with tenants living in one or two rooms of 10 square metres or less. In Malawi, the JMP report that 47% of urban dwellers have access to improved sanitation – with a further 37% sharing improved sanitation – but community data from Blantyre groups affiliated with Shack/Slum Dwellers International indicate that an estimated 67% had no or inadequate sanitation.

However, the definitions may be too restrictive in other respects. At present, shared toilets do not count as improved sanitation – and shared toilets may be perfectly adequate. The JMP is open to this challenge. Their 2015 report identifies and discusses the additional numbers reached with shared sanitation. The priorities of organised groups in informal settlements suggest this makes sense. I have learnt from Shack/Slum Dwellers International groups in sub-Saharan Africa that shared sanitation is often acceptable – urban households regularly organise themselves to clean and maintain the facilities.

If we are serious about universal coverage of adequate sanitation then we have to recognise that global data collection processes are inadequate. In order to properly understand what is happening, two steps are needed.

First, the definitions of “improved” and “unimproved” need to be revised to take account of residential densities. Second, local monitoring systems, sensitive to local conditions need to be established. This second step is going to be an immense task, but it will be possible if the United Nations and its global partners invest in grassroots data collection. Frustrated by the inadequacy of official figures, organised communities are developing their own systems of data collection. Shack/Slum Dwellers International have recently launched their own data portal, with information on over 6,000 informal settlements.

Universal access to sanitation is a fitting global ambition for the 21st century. We need to make sure it happens.

Diana Mitlin has appointments at both the University of Manchester and the International Institute for Environment and Development. This blog draws on research supported by the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre and the Sanitation and Health and Applied Research for Equity. She has co-edited current and forthcoming issues of Environment and Urbanization that bring together a body of research on sanitation.

Business as usual on migration & climate change won’t produce sustainable development

By Professor Uma Kothari

The impacts of climate change are likely to be severe. Extreme weather events, heat stress, rising sea levels, infections and disease are just some potential results, which will hit poor and vulnerable populations in developing countries hardest. Yet the current ways in which international climate policy is incrementally formed through elite conversation is proving totally inadequate to deal with the growing threat.

Read more →

From the MDGs to SDGs: Has Anything Changed?

Professor David Hulme is currently at the World Social Science Forum in South Africa, where he delivered the following presentation, charting the shift from the Millennium Development Goals, to the Sustainable Development Goals.

You can also watch a recording of the presentation.

For further detail on Professor Hulme’s research in this area, please read ‘The Millennium Development Goals: A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise.’ 

Social accountability or social transformation? Working ‘with’ and ‘against’ the grain

By Sophie King

Social accountability has become an important ‘buzzword’ among development actors seeking to understand the forms of state-society relations that may be supportive of better public services. Malena and McNeil (2010: 1) define it as: ‘the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account’. The trouble is that the focus has become the mechanisms, rather than the inequality and social and political relationships shaping public goods expenditure and quality.

Some findings from my own research into NGO-led social accountability initiatives in rural Ugandaresonate with those recently published by Care International and ODI about community score card initiatives in Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania. However, our interpretations of what these findings tell us may differ. Drawing on my Uganda study, but also a systematic review of how context shapes outcomes from social accountability initiatives, here are some questions which those seeking to intervene within agrarian, neopatrimonial and semi-authoritarian contexts like Uganda’s could consider:

  1. What is the history of state-society relations and popular mobilisation in this context?

The Rwenzori sub-region, where this fieldwork took place, had a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, leading to the exclusion of particular groups from social services and economic opportunities, and a legacy of resentment, which continues to shape both political and civil society relations. Civil servants are often not socially embedded within the community, being subject to frequent transfers – meaning they are not subject to informal accountability pressures on the basis of kinship or longer-term relationships. Decades of conflict and authoritarianism and state monopoly over cooperative production, followed by the collapse of the cooperative sector, has left a legacy of deference to authority and mistrust of collective action. 

  1. What is the socio-economic status of the breadth of people using the public service in question, and what relationships do they have with other social groups?

In this particular region, some of the poorest families did not send their children to school, wealthier households made use of private provision, and the socio-economic spectrum of small-scale farmers, labourers, and traders in between used state services. Few would be educated beyond primary level. In Uganda as a whole, only approximately 12 percent of school-aged children complete secondary education.  Mechanisms for social accountability require parents and service users to report problems to a community management committee, head teachers, or their village council chairperson. The village chair also presides over land transactions and the village court, while those educated enough to work as head teachers, nurses, or to occupy leadership positions, are often friends. There is also a strongly entrenched culture of conflict avoidance, which was partly linked to concerns about the use of witchcraft in response to perceived slights. This is an unpromising context for monitoring, reporting or complaint.

  1. What are the formal and informal institutional incentive structures throughout the service delivery system?

In Uganda, a system of ‘inflationary patronage’ – where ever-increasing amounts of resources are required to keep different power bases in society happy – depletes resources for public goods. Levy and Waltonprovide a helpful framework for analysing the web of relationships that shape incentive systems within particular sectoral machineries. In rural western Uganda, teachers and health workers are on low salaries and experience frequent delays in receipt of salary, with few prospects for professional development. In cases of wrong-doing, District officials simply transfer workers elsewhere, rather than enforce sanctions. MPs and councillors are focused on votes garnered through favour and the cultivation of connections to extensive kinship networks, and are not usually interested in rocking boats.

  1. Over which public goods has a strong social contract emerged among citizens? How have the terms of delivery of particular services been framed?

Universal Primary Education has been framed in Uganda as a gift from the President. Where once parents kept schools running during Amin’s reign of terror, in rural western Uganda, few parents are now prepared to contribute anything to the running of the school and have interpreted the policy – framed in populist terms in advance of successive elections – as meaning that everything about school attendance is free. Children go to school without lunch, falling asleep in lessons after eating nothing all day; buildings and premises are not maintained; children lack books and pencils to work with; and PTAs – in this area at least – were all but defunct.

  1. What forms of autonomous collective agency exist among low-income groups in this context, and are there any examples of effective collective organising specific to this context?

In such a context, where social stratification, unequal power relations and adverse incentive structures work so strongly against inclusive development expenditure and downwards accountability, those interested in changing things for the benefit of lower-income groups cannot think about service accountability in a vacuum. While shifts within the wider political settlement and wider structural transformation are of course critical to substantive change, there is still much that can be done at the grassroots to build democracy from below.

With the landholdings of middle- and low- income groups shrinking in Uganda while those of the higher socio-economic groups increase, and the great African land-grab continuing seemingly unabated, it seems to me that smallholder farmers can only accumulate the socio-economic and associated political power to advance their interests in social provisioning terms by acting collectively. Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union is an inspirational example of what can be achieved when farmers adopt a social justice and savings-based approach to social, economic and political change.  Smallholders here are transforming relations between men and women; between farmers and the state; and between farmers, traders and buyers. Ben Jones also describes a range of associational forms that are alive and well in Uganda, including clan structures, Pentecostal churches, and burial societies. Other forms of self-help group are increasingly present in rural villages and a gradual revival of the cooperative sector is taking place… can smallholders be supported to exploit these opportunities in progressive and inclusive ways, or will such opportunities be lost to competition and clientelism?

  1. What is the history of external intervention in this context and what opportunities exist for accountable alliances to be built between professionals and low-income groups?

That donor-driven development interventions have frequently undermined rather than catalysed and strengthened grassroots agency and autonomy is surely no longer in question. So the question now becomes what forms of intervention can offer marginalised and low-income groups support and solidarity without creating dependency or reinforcing clientelist relations?

One Ugandan research and development institute I worked with had moved away from channelling donor aid and towards information provision, knowledge generation, networking and relationship building, convening alternative spaces for multi-stakeholder dialogue, and attempting to convene channels through which context-specific grassroots experiences could reach senior decision-makers. This was only possible with the partnership of a Northern co-financing agency with the room for manoeuvre to create space for experimentation over the long term. This agency’s financing has been seriously cut, in response to negative public attitudes to aid.

Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union have had guidance from an activist-consultant for over a decade, who has supported them to develop their own home-grown gender justice methodology without becoming directive. The BJCU Coordinator has been adept at managing relationships with external actors – taking loans not grants, or only accepting donor aid in support of those in extreme poverty, or for international learning exchange. Mitlin and Satterthwaite offer another case study of how IIED have worked with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and donor agencies to break down the hierarchy of donor aid. There are many good examples out there.

In summary, perhaps as well as ‘working with the grain’ and working through elites, we need to think about how to integrate such strategies, with a focus on strong, value-driven local associations that also have tangible economic benefits for their members. Associations that can federate, that can ally with professionals while remaining autonomous, and that can have the kinds of ripple effects that, as an increasing number of studies are beginning to show, can contribute towards building democracy from below. This requires arethinking of the role of external actors in such contexts, and new modalities of aid and development finance, but it also, critically, requires a change in public attitudes internationally.

Development in 2015

By David Hulme,

As we enter 2015, Professor David Hulme looks ahead to the next twelve months in international development as the Millennium Development Goals come to an end and plans take shape for the next phase.

This year, 2015, will be an important year for ideas and policies about international development.  It marks the completion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era and there will be many reports and meetings to deliberate on ‘what’ has been achieved, ‘why’ those results occurred and identify the ‘gaps’ in achievement. It is also the year in which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be negotiated into existence. The SDGs will marry poverty eradication with environmental sustainability…but, will they also include growth, creating decent jobs and other initiatives to reduce inequality at the centre of the global agenda? A set of key meetings will move these negotiations forward…or stall them – the Finance for Development in Addis Ababa in July, the post-2015 Summit in New York in September, and the climate change Summit planned for December in Paris.

Global bullshit?

What should we make of such meetings? There are three main perspectives I can identify. At the cynical extreme one can see them as ‘global bullshit’: international bureaucrats, political leaders and think-tankers flying around the world, staying in nice hotels, making grand speeches and pontificating …but not making any contribution to making life better for disadvantaged people on the ground or to the fostering of social justice. This is what I thought of the MDGs in the early 2000s…but I was wrong.

In the middle ground, one can see the meetings as genuine negotiations: complex processes of threat, promise and discussion between actors (in theory UN member countries but also political leaders, corporations, banks, wealthy individuals) and groups of actors. Some actors are very powerful (the US, OECD, G7, China, the BRICs, Google, ExxonMobil and others)…some are influential (the UN Secretariat and Ban-Ki-Moon, the UK, Bill Gates, Nobel prizewinning economists, the Vatican, Bono)…and some are more marginal (ministers from low-income countries, peasant and slum dweller associations, refugees and others). From this perspective, 2015 will be viewed as a year of strategic political struggle. The negotiated promises and deals that will be agreed will probably permit the powerful and rich to maintain ‘business as usual’ (exploiting workers, mis-using public resources, and ensuring private gain) but it creates opportunities for progressive advance (dare one say ‘transformation’) that must be pursued by whoever can make a difference.

A third perspective, perhaps more optimistic, sees the negotiations and meetings as the unfolding of international social norms: battles of ideas that can lead to moral advances – ending slavery and apartheid, poverty eradication, human development, gender equality, sustainable use of natural resources and others. From this viewpoint academics, teachers and scholar-practitioners (who professionally ‘trade’ in ideas) have a key role to play in developing the concepts to support social progress and disseminating them to students and the public more widely.

Whichever perspective one takes one thing is very clear – the nature of the negotiations and goal-setting processes in 2015 is very different than it was in 2000. Fifteen years ago the drive behind the MDGs came from OECD countries and multilateral agencies: telling poor countries what their goals should be and imposing PRSPs (‘owned’ by developing countries but needing the approval of the IMF and World Bank). Today this is not the case. Developing countries – emerging powers, emerging middle powers and poor countries – are actively driving the agenda. Brazil (with the support of other G77 members) has built on the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and Rio+20 and has made sustainability a twin focus of the post-2015 agenda, alongside poverty eradication. The African Union has insisted that economic growth and job creation have to be in any future set of goals. And G77 members are pushing for the goals to be universal (all countries will agree to pursue the goals) and for ‘means of implementation’ to be incorporated in the SDGs. The latter will identify the responsibilities of key players and especially how poor country access to finance and technology will be achieved.

Reducing poverty

In 2015 the goal-setting process will not be developing countries adding a goal or two to the rich world’s agenda as in 2000. It is a much more balanced negotiation with poor and middle income countries pushing their national interests, forming groups to achieve common interests and re-claiming their right to shape what ‘development’ means and how it will be pursued. Many factors have forged these changes – the rise of the BRICs and emerging middle powers (Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh and others), new sources of finance (the New Development Bank, Contingency Reserve Arrangement and mega-bilateral finance for infrastructure), burgeoning middle classes in middle income countries and others. So negotiations are more balanced, but that does not mean that they are representative of humanity or fair.

I anticipate 2015 with hope for my academic colleagues to engage with the SDG processes and negotiations. The SDG process needs us. We have the research and evidence to demonstrate if the MDG process has succeeded in reducing poverty. Importantly we can work to find ways to address if inequality is actually being tackled. We have the rigorous approach to methodologies to ensure that the right data is being collected to measure new goals and indeed to choose the new goals. Too often academics are said to not engage with the policy process or that research is not used enough to change things in the real world, but 2015 is the year that we can change that and create a lasting impact in reducing the gap in inequality.

This post was originally published on the Manchester Policy Blog.