Sustainable Development Goals – do we really need another set of international targets?

14 May 2012

In his opening remarks to the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI) jointly convened debate on the future and feasibility of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the chair David Laws MP posed two key questions. Do we need a set of SDGs and can we realistically expect the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) taking place next month to deliver them?

What are the SDGs?

Paul Ladd, an Advisor to the United Nations Development Programme, highlighted the fact that multiple definitions of the SDGs exist. Some define them in purely environmental terms while others talk about them in the context of a broader sustainable development agenda which incorporates social, economic and environmental dimensions. Paul Ladd argued that this lack of common understanding and discourse around the proposed goals would make political negotiations around an international agreement more difficult. The situation would be further complicated by widespread confusion over how the SDGs fit within the wider post 2015 process of replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

In his contribution James Mackie, Senior Adviser at the European Centre for Development Policy Management argued that a more integrated approach towards tackling resource scarcity and poverty reduction was essential. He proposed that the EU, alongside other major donors, could play a crucial role in helping to strengthen the necessary governance structures in developing countries.

Do international targets make a difference?

Matthew Lockwood was clear that domestic politics were at the heart of accelerating poverty reduction and sustainable development progress. He argued that global progress towards international targets such as the MDGs had been limited by their failure to secure domestic political traction and national ownership. Moreover, reductions in income inequality and growth in clean energy markets in recent years had been achieved in spite of, and not because of international targets.

Claire Melamed, Head of the Growth Poverty and Inequality Programme from ODI, concluded the contributions from the panel by defending international agreements and targets. She argued that they could help address particular problems or challenges and increase the likelihood of solutions been identified and adopted at the national level. She also said that Rio+20 should be seen as the beginning of the process towards 2015 and replacing the MDGs. She argued that poverty reduction and development progress should remain at the heart of a new post 2015 framework, but these ambitions need to be achieved in the most resource efficient way.

Read more about IDS' work on these issues in the run up to Rio+20.