When the United Nations approved a massive agenda of sustainable development goals last week, it over-rode pointed warnings by two international science councils that the program is in many ways uncoordinated, unmeasurable and unrealistically ambitious.
Managers of the vast exercise in setting the global, progressive agenda for the next 15 years known as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) decided it would be “too dangerous” to reopen the sprawling package to improve it, according to Anne-Sophie Stevance, lead coordinator of the critical analysis and a science officer with the International Council for Science (ICSU), the most prominent voice of the international scientific community.
“I know our report was considered by the U.N.,” Stevance told Fox News. “I participated in meetings in January and February about it.”
Nonetheless, she said, “the governments involved did not want to compromise any of the work they had done to agree” on the SDGs to make them more efficient, achievable or even coherent.
“Many sets of goals and targets do not provide any pathways to how to achieve them,” Stevance declared. “Nor do we know if we will achieve global prosperity if we do meet them.”
The virtually unaltered SDGs were hailed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “a defining moment in human history” as he opened the summit meeting on Sept. 25 that introduced the goals, as well as a “universal, integrated and transformative vision for a better world.” Two days later President Barack Obama pledged U.S. support for the effort “whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes” is likely to be very big challenge. A better description of the SDGs than a “transformative vision” might be a sprawling and shapeless bid to establish a truly global socialist and progressive agenda, not to mention a blank check required for trillions of dollars annually in development spending to achieve—if even achievable.
They were originally intended to be the global successor to the U.N.-sponsored Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, a much simpler anti-poverty agenda that is now touted as having cut in half the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty—even though much of that accomplishment took place in China and India, as a result of unrelated market-opening policies .
The SDGs, by contrast, after years of glacial U.N. planning and negotiation , have become a megalopolis of ambition, even as their implementation is touted as being a matter for each of the U.N.’s 192 nations to decide.
They consist of 17 over-arching “goals” and 169 subordinate “targets”—that aim to do everything from end the remainder of extreme poverty to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”—without too clear a definition of what “sustainable” means.
The “targets” range from an aim to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all,” to cutting in half “per capital global food waste at the retail and consumer levels,” to “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities”—all by 2030.
They also include such curious milestones as “by 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents”—difficult to achieve or even estimate when the number of people able to buy cars around the world is going up.
Nations are also urged by 2020 to “implement the Global Jobs Pact of the International Labour Organization.” That is a reference to a document put together six years ago by the ILOL, a U.N. offshoot, amid the world financial crisis to “reduce the time lag between economic recovery and a recovery with decent work opportunities.” Like many other U.N. initiatives, the Jobs Pact is “a call for urgent worldwide action: national, regional and global,” that so far has not been addressed urgently.
Looking at whether all the vociferously espoused goals and targets, taken together, make any effective sense was the main goal of the analysis commissioned by ICSU and its sister organization, the International Social Science Council, in order to bring a “scientific perspective” to the perfection of the SDGs.
According to the 92-page ICSU/ISSC report, there was a lot of perfecting to do.
Among the 169 targets, for example, the report’s authors—40 of them, from 21 countries—declared that only 49, or 29 per cent, could be “considered well developed (i.e. thought out), 91, or 54 per cent, required more specificity, and 29, or 17 per cent, required “significant work” to be useful.
In other words, well over two-thirds of the targets that are supposed to reorganize much of the world’s sweeping self-improvement over the next 15 years are not deemed particularly useful or specific as currently laid out and approved.
Some of the targets, the report noted, tended to cancel each other out, at least to some degree: “For example, an increase in agricultural land-use to help end hunger [Goal 2] can result in biodiversity loss [Goal 15], as well as in overuse and/or pollution of water resources [Goal 6]and downstream (and likely negative) effects on marine resources [Goal 14], which in turn could exacerbate food security concerns [back to Goal 2].”
The report suggested primly that some vaporous SDG targets—e.g., “by 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, including women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers”—would be “challenging to monitor,” and should be merged or otherwise disposed of.
That advice apparently went nowhere.
Other targets—e.g. “reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 births” were dismissed by the scientific analysis as “too much country variation for this to be meaningful.” (In fact, in 2013, according to the World Health Organization, maternal death rates ranged from an average of 260 per 100,000 in developing countries to an average of 16 in developed countries.” The original language stayed.
On sweeping commitments, such as “ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services,” the scientific analysis suggested pointedly that much depended on what “access” meant, as well as the services involved, and suggested deletion of at least two wordy sub-targets. It did not happen.
A bigger problem with many of the targets is what, if anything, can be measured to see if anything resembling progress is being achieved. One such unfathomable, according to the ICSU report, is a commitment to “promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation,” among other things.
The ICSU analysis noted tersely that it “is not relevant in this form because it can’t be measured.”
Measurement of the SDGs is liable to become a new growth industry, and a U.N. inter-agency group is looking at hundreds of potential indicators that will be put to use in quantifying the huge tapestry of ambition they encompass. One social science expert told Fox News that the planners were “trying to contain themselves to some 300 indicators for the 17 goals.”
By contrast, the U.N. planning process generated only 68 indicators to measure the achievement of 8 MDGs.
Indeed, SDG-related bureaucratic employment is one of the few certainties that the fuzzy objectives seem to promise.
Social scientists, economists, consultants, new breeds of sustainable-development educators and a myriad of other experts will be hauled into the process of further designing and monitoring the billowy goals.
Moreover, the ICSU reports that the SDGs do not “identify the wide range of social groups that will need to be mobilized”—another unspecified term —“to deliver on the goals as agents of change alongside governments.”
Atop everything else, the SDGs are further linked to other convoluted and expensive U.N. processes aimed at enforcing global change. Among them: the negotiations, already years in the making, to produce a successor to the battered Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. Another U.N. climate summit in December is expected to create a successor climate treaty, which the Obama Administration staunchly backs.
Climate change is also included as SDG No. 13, “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”
(Reinforcing the notion that the U.N. should have much to do with the future of everything under the SDGs, the climate goal makes special mention of the fact that the U.N. agency responsible for the new climate treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.”)
Nonetheless, despite the U.N.’s reluctance to take the scientific community’s best advice so far, the ICSU’s Stevance, for one, remains optimistic that the lengthy and expensive process of winching the SDGs into a more realistic framework will happen if they are moved toward a “more systems approach,” as the ICSU report recommended.
“A whole architecture still needs to be built,” she told Fox News. “The process needs to be managed.”
How long that degree of clarity will take to emerge remains to be seen, along with many of the rest of the specifics that nations will apply to the SDGs.
But then the question may still remain of what difference the vast exercise in global priority-setting will make—and there, some of the evidence from the past exercise of setting and achieving the Millennium Development Goals is not entirely auspicious.
An examination published late last year by a Columbia University researcher that looked at how 50 nations integrated the MDGs into their subsequent planning notes that in many cases they apparently made no difference in how governments allocated social spending.
In the case of spending on health, for example, the study notes, “the probability of a country increasing its health budget…was the same for countries that aligned their reports with MDGs and those that had not aligned them.”
The researcher who did the study, Elham Seyedsayamdost, told Fox News that her conclusions still required further field work. Nonetheless, she added, “the way it stands now, the data indicates that the MDGs did not necessarily translate into real changes.”
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell