Article written

Africa: Hot Air or Real Hope? the Radical Potential of the SDGs 0

Putting aside the goals and targets, the wider politics of the Sustainable Development Goals might just about create some space for genuine transformation. Later this week, heads of state will assemble in New York to launch the Sustainable Development Goals. The agreed text lays out 17 goals and 169 targets. It is an ambitious agenda for all of humanity.

But will they make any difference? We have had the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were launched with similar fanfare in 2000. These focused on ‘development’ and ‘poverty’, but were similarly high-sounding. Promoted heavily by Jeff Sachs, we were told that bed nets, vaccines and agricultural technologies were going to save the world. Big money from international donors and philanthropists came behind them.

I must confess I was a deep cynic in 2000. The ‘aid’ frame of the MDGs meant that implementation was subject to the usual top-down impositions and there were many limitations, with the added burden of the target-oriented audit culture and all the distortions this creates.

Was aid going to be a saviour or band aid unable to address the real structural causes of poverty and inequality? Did the MDGs just reinforce a world order where underdevelopment was the consequence of capitalist power and control in some parts of the world? Maybe.

So what happened since 2000? There have been major changes in the world economy, and with this geopolitics. The old aid frame with Western nations and rich philantrophists from the US setting the agenda has gone (or at least partially).

The declines in aggregate poverty achieved since then were not largely the result of MDG interventions at all, but the growth of China (and also India, parts of Latin America and more recently some countries in Africa). These changes were not driven by goals and targets, or village pilot projects such as Sachs’ much criticised Millennium Villages, but by economic aspiration, capitalist expansion and growth.

But I must admit that my cynicism for the MDGs has waned over 15 years, and this gives me hope for the SDGs.

The MDGs: political space and an alternative outlook

There are a number of reasons for this attitude.

Investment linked to MDG targets has in some places resulted in significant gains. Ethiopia was one country, for example, that took the MDGs seriously and its statistics are impressive. Child mortality is down by two-thirds from 1990, and various other targets – on women’s empowerment, nutrition and food insecurity – have been met.

Yes, there have been distortions – sometimes a blind focus on a target, forgetting the wider picture – but the effect has been galvanising. A commitment to a new state-led developmentalism is especially apparent in Ethiopia, but it’s evident elsewhere too. And in a period dominated by the neoliberal mantra of economic discipline, the retreat of the state and reliance on the private sector and voluntarism, the efforts of states like Ethiopia have been impressive.

Perhaps most importantly, the MDGs opened up a political space for a debate about development too. The UNDP’s MDG ‘campaign’ was important in keeping a development agenda on the radar of governments around the world.

These commitments were amplified, extended and supported by the major efforts of NGOs and civil society groups. Without such collective action and political pressure, the temptation to cut aid budgets in the face of the late-2000s financial crisis would have been even greater.

Summits and grand UN meetings may have been performative circuses, but they have also provided a focus for advocacy and challenge. The politics of global summitry can be one where new ideas emerge, creating spaces for more radical alternatives.

Moving beyond target culture and shifting towards generating globally-agreed norms for policy and action – as has happened around human rights, women’s rights and the environment – is perhaps a more appropriate focus for advocacy, rather than getting hung up on all the goals and targets.

In a period of financial crisis, austerity, inward-facing nationalist politics and a geopolitics overtaken by the ‘war on terror’ post-9/11, the MDGs were in some way an important counter, offering a more internationalist vision of development and a confirmation of UN ideals. 15 years on, I have emerged with a somewhat less cynical view.

But what of the SDGs? Might these offer the same?

Continue reading on African arguments

Ian Scoones is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and co-author of the book Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities.

This post was originally published on Zimbabweland.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are no comments for this post

Please, feel free to post your own comment

* these are required fields

P.IVA 11273390150
Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi