What We Are Doing

The Sustainable Development Goals - challenges and choices 19 Oct 2015

By Patrick Watt, Global Campaign and Advocacy Director, Save the Children

At the UN General Assembly in New York in late September, at the biggest ever gathering of heads of state and government under one roof, world leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals, focused on ending poverty by 2030 and protecting the planet.

The SDGs, or ‘global goals’, are the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals (‘MDGs’), which had a 2015 target date. The MDGs, which included a two thirds reduction in child mortality, and getting every child to complete a basic education, have been an important organising framework for a lot of Save the Children’s programming and advocacy, including the EVERY ONE campaign. And while at a global level, the MDG targets have mostly been missed, few would dispute that they have helped to catalyse some spectacular gains for children.

So how do the SDGs measure up, compared to the MDGs? First of all, the SDGs are much broader. We’ve jumped from 8 to 17 goals, and the number of targets has mushroomed, from 18 to 169. Depending on who you ask, this either reflects a much more holistic view of development – the targets cover pretty much everything, from the rule of law, to violence against women, to sustainable use of the oceans – or is the fudged outcome of far too broad a consultative process. What the SDGs’ breadth probably does mean is that many countries will take a ‘pick and mix’ approach to which goals they implement, and there’s likely to be a de facto winnowing of targets in the next few years. We need to make sure that we don’t lose the key child-focused goals and targets that we’ve advocated for over the past couple of years.

Secondly, the goals are much more ambitious than the MDGs. Whereas the 2015 targets talked about reducing social ills, the SDGs commit us to getting to zero – ending poverty, ending preventable child deaths, ending violence against children, ensuring that every child learns (sounds a lot like our organisational breakthroughs?). Achieving the 2030 goals is going to require different approaches from those used to get us to 2015: we know that many of the children bypassed by progress towards the MDGs face deep structural disadvantages and live in the very toughest environments. As the Japanese proverb has it, ’when you have covered 95 percent of your journey, you’re only halfway there’.  Our 2030 strategic focus on the most deprived and marginalised children, and our priority campaign on the children left behind, are the right framing of the challenge. But the real test – for us, for our partners and the governments we’re trying to influence – will be in relentless, disciplined application.

Thirdly, the goals are universal. Which is to say, in principle they’re applicable to rich countries like the USA and Japan, as well as less rich countries like India and poor countries like Malawi. In practice, most richer countries are only now starting to think about what the goals mean for their own domestic social, environmental and economic policy, and there’s a heavy lift required to get OECD governments to take the goals seriously as something for which they’re accountable. Within Save the Children, we similarly need to work through what the goals mean for our domestic programmes and advocacy in high income countries.

Finally, the SDGs pose some important implementation challenges. How the goals will translate into policy is unclear: the MDGs became an important framework for development, at least in sub-Saharan Africa, because they were championed by progressive donors and backed by aid dollars. Today’s official donors have a much less explicit poverty focus, and developing countries are much less aid dependent (and the ones that still do depend heavily on donors tend to be fragile states, where progress is most elusive).  There’s also a major data challenge - partly because there are so many SDG targets, and partly because some of the targets are fuzzy. Getting the right measures of progress agreed by governments at the UN, and ensuring that data is gathered regularly and in a way that enables us to track progress for the poorest and most excluded children, is a major advocacy challenge in its own right, and something we need to work on in 2016.

In sum, the new global goals provide us with a potentially powerful platform for focusing political and policy attention, financial resources, and public support on our 2030 breakthroughs. The challenge will be in the execution, and in continuing to promote the visibility and accountability of the goals at community level, in national capitals, and on regional and global stages like the African Union and the UN. The SDGs have the shortcomings of any global set of targets. But they also have the virtue of giving us a clear benchmark for progress towards a world in which every child’s right to survival, development, protection and participation is realised.