Are the SDGs a major reboot or a sequel to the MDGs?

By Jan Vandemoortele, PhD, Co-Architect of the MDGs and a critical friend of the SDGs

The main reason for putting together the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was to prevent the Millennium Declaration from falling into oblivion. A declaration issued by a world summit has a shelf-life of about six months. Beyond that period, its life is reduced to a small world, usually the summit’s sponsoring agency. A few months after the Millennium Summit, once the declaration started to fade away, a group of experts from across the United Nations convened to go through the Millennium Declaration. Experts from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development also took part. Eighteen targets were selected and placed verbatim in a stand-alone list. They were grouped under eight goals, and 48 indicators were added for global monitoring. That list of goals, targets and indicators was submitted to the UN General Assembly in late 2001 under the heading Millennium Development Goals. And the rest is history.

The selection took extensive discussions and negotiations, but it was never the intention to represent a global agenda for development. We simply saw the MDGs as a way to maintain the Millennium Declaration’s relevance. Two criteria, though not strictly applied, played a role in the selection: clarity and measurability.

The purpose of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), however, is totally different. From the beginning, stakeholders aimed for a global agenda for development. In this sense, the SDGs are not the sequel to the MDGs; they represent a major reboot. Since the SDGs are more comprehensive than the MDGs, and resulted from an extensive and participatory process, it is normal that considerably more targets (169 versus 18) and more words (about 5,000 versus about 300) are needed to spell out the SDGs than the MDGs.

Yet, a closer examination shows that, despite their comprehensiveness and wordy nature, the SDGs lack sufficient specifics to qualify as a major reboot. To be valid, a target must contain three elements: (i) a numerical outcome, (ii) a specific deadline and (iii) a well defined domain.

Item 3.1, for example, is a valid target: By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.

On the other hand, item 17.2 does not contain a deadline: Developed countries to implement fully their ODA commitments, including the commitment by many developed countries to achieve the target of 0.7 percent of ODA/GNI.

Item 16.5 — Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms — lacks all three elements.

The SDGs actually contain many such items as 16.5. The list is a mixture of ideals and norms, values and principles, generalities and oddities, and some repetitions; a few valid targets are sprinkled in. Indeed, the SDGs may contain 169 bullets, but actually fewer than 30 are concrete targets. Not only does their complexity turn the SDGs into a difficult storyline, but also their fuzziness will create leeway and latitude for non-objective narratives.

The concrete targets are not dissimilar from the MDGs, since they mostly cover issues such as poverty and hunger, child and maternal mortality, safe water, education and gender equality. In short, the SDGs are not quite a reboot or a paradigm shift. Neither do they represent a universal agenda that addresses inequality and sustainability. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!

Such a critical assessment often provokes an angry response. But a healthy dose of objectivity is warranted. Otherwise, we risk falling victim to the tyranny of an acronym, suspending critical thinking because it could endanger the agreement about the SDGs.

Our criticism does not imply that the SDGs have no worth. But their practical implementation requires that we move beyond appearances. Implementation needs to start with each country selecting and adapting those aspects of the SDGs that are most relevant to their national context. This is often dismissed as opening the floodgates to cherry-picking, which is only valid if the selection and adaptation were done through a non-participatory process. Besides government, such selection and adaptation need to include civil society, academics, think tanks, trade unions and employers federations, and other important groupings.

At the global level, implementation of the SDGs requires addressing three aspects.

First, the way of aggregating the global narrative needs to change radically. This was mostly driven by global statistics and world maps for the MDGs, with off-track countries coloured in red. This time around, the global assessment needs to pay more attention to how global targets make a difference at national and sub-national levels.

Second, the choice of indicators must help remedy some of the flaws in the formulation of the SDGs. The inclusion of the Palma ratio, for instance, can fix target 10.1 about inequality. The inclusion of body mass indices can fix target 2.2, which ignores the growing challenge of being overweight or obese.

Third and last, one of the few truly universal targets in the SDGs cannot be left orphaned. It concerns bullet 1.2 – By 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions. The global narrative is already focusing on extreme poverty and hunger, which are not universal targets. Who will be championing target 1.2? Who will compile the register of national definitions to help clarify the domain?

By addressing these aspects, the considerable time and efforts invested in the SDG negotiations by countless stakeholders will not have been an exercise in futility.


This article should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD, the OECD Development Centre or of their member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed are those of the author.

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The SDGs call for a revitalised global partnership: What should we do differently this time?

By Nicola Harrington, Deputy Director, OECD Development Centre

Partnerships were central from the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000.  Public, private and civil society entities forged ties, leading to some outstanding results. This was notable in health, where path-breaking co-operation across governments, companies and foundations improved millions of lives through medicines and vaccines. Given this track record, why do the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 15 years later require revitalising global partnerships? What was missing the first time, and what should be different now? Continue reading

Measuring discrimination will bring the gender equality global goal a step closer

By Keiko Nowacka, gender coordinator at the OECD Development Centre

A warning often repeated since the Rio+20 summit is that lessons learned from the millennium development goals (MDGs) should not be forgotten when the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – the new development framework adopted at the United Nations general assembly – replace them. Such concerns seem warranted given the mixed report card on the MDGs.

While there were substantial improvements in poverty reduction and education, other goals showed patchier progress. The MDGs were praised for focusing the development community’s attention on eight priority areas, but also criticised for leaving out other key sectors. Many lessons have been learned over the past 15 years on how to make development more effective and help those most in need. As we look to the next 15 years, which of these key lessons should we take to heart to turn the promises of the SDGs into reality – particularly when it comes to gender equality and women’s empowerment (MDG3)?

First, focus matters. A standalone goal on gender equality has been retained (SDG5). A dedicated goal makes a big difference in mobilising action and resources. Furthermore, SDG5 includes many ambitious targets left out of MDG3. Tackling gender-based violence, unpaid care work, early marriage and harmful practices, among others, are now high on the gender and development agenda.

Second, strong indicators that can monitor the SDG commitments, inform policy action and ensure accountability on gender equality are just as important. After the adoption of the SDGs, all eyes will be on the selection of indicators to track progress on the 17 goals and 169 targets. Over the past year, representatives from governments, UN specialised agencies and international organisations, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), have worked on establishing a list of provisional indicators, which will be adopted at next year’s 46th UN statistical commission. While this list shows how much better we have become at measuring complex areas, gaps in data coverage and availability present real challenges to the SDG enterprise.

Indicators and data on gender equality are a case in point. A data revolution, strengthened national statistical systems and other statistical initiatives have already given us a very detailed understanding of remaining gender inequalities in the labour market or in education, just to cite two areas, and what policy interventions have worked to reduce them. Still, so much is not captured systematically by regular social or economic surveys, which are critical for measuring gender equality, and also for tracking progress towards SDG5. Here, the MDGs taught us another valuable lesson: what gets measured, gets done.

Addressing discriminatory social norms and institutions has become a new development priority and features strongly across the SDG5 targets. Yet, this area needs much more statistical work and investment. Data reveals how formal and informal laws, practices and attitudes shape women’s ability to enjoy their rights and take advantage of empowerment opportunities.

Results from the OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), for example, highlight how a discriminatory social practice such as early marriage adversely affects girls’ educational attainments, or how an unequal share of unpaid care work between women and men can exacerbate gender wage gaps. These examples demonstrate the value of including targets in the new framework; quantifying and measuring discrimination against women is challenging, but possible.

Indeed, the OECD Development Centre recently completed its first SIGI survey in Uganda, where new data on social norms was generated for the first time at the local level, providing evidence on how these norms can exacerbate inequalities despite the introduction of gender-sensitive laws. The survey showed that one-quarter of Ugandans agree that women and men should not enjoy equal land rights. Close to half of the population (45%) agree that early marriage is acceptable for girls (but not for boys). Such data is critical and a valuable resource for identifying how to make laws more efficient, and target the root causes of inequalities between women and men.

So what will it take to step up to this statistical challenge? Financing and technical support for statistical agencies is key. Most of the proposed indicators for SDG5 are classified as tier two (methodology exists, data not easily available) or tier three (methodology needs to be developed). For example, unpaid care work is measured through time-use surveys. However, less than half of the world’s countries have conducted such surveys in the past 10 years. Designing surveys, harmonising methodologies to ensure cross-country comparability or including indicators in existing surveys can be costly. Worryingly, this summer’s Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa did not include increased commitments for statistics, even though it is estimated that at least an additional $200m (Paris21) is needed.

 The silver lining is that data on gender is getting better all the time. We now know much more about the prevalence of and attitudes towards violence against women than in 2000, thanks to demographic and health surveys. Political will has proved critical too. Colombia and Uruguay, for example, have passed legislation to mandate regular time-use surveys. Innovative projects, such as the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality initiative led by agencies, including the World Bank, UN statistics directorate, UN Women, the OECD and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, have shown exciting results in advancing our knowledge of women’s asset ownership through new approaches and thinking around data collection. This is promising for future measuring of results for the SDGs: more reliable data and innovative methodologies will help truly capture and track women’s empowerment in the home, the workplace and in public life.

While these investments in indicators and data may appear formidable, the promise of a high return if we are able to achieve SDG5 by 2030 is certainly worth it.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on September 28, 2015. Read it anew here.


This article should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD, the OECD Development Centre or of their member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed are those of the author.