The Sustainable Development Goals: Too restrictive? Too wordy? Or simply dadaist?

I looked at the Sustainable Development Goals for fun last week, became blinded by their Biblical length and decided that I’d revisit them when my sight returned. I still can’t really see, but managed to get through them anyway.

The SDGs are a replacement for the now-expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of benchmarks that serve as a guide for the development trajectories of developing countries. The MDGs were widely criticized for lacking proper justification and for not providing proper means to measure the items suggested.

The SDGs take the opposite extreme. Instead of a concise eight goals, we now have 17, with numerous amendments and subcategories. In some ways, it resembles the Ecuadorian Constitution.

The items range from standard development goals such as “elimination of poverty” to far more complicated items such as number 12:

Rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.

Good god. It’s like the SDGs went out of their way to create titles for every development proposal for the next ten years so people wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, this particular proposal will be incomprehensible to the common person. It is ironic that item 17.14 is “Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.”

Living in Africa, it’s pretty easy to get cynical about international development projects. One of the effects of the SDGs, however, will be to stifle craetivity by being too specific. It is a reality that a lot of NGO work is redundant or ineffective, but the MDGs were at least broad enough to allow locals to come up with ideas to address them on their own that took local conditions into account. I’m not sure the the SDGs will allow that level of freedom.

I’m going to end this short post with Kurt Schwitters. It seems appropriate.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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