WMPR Symposium: U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

April 21, 2016

The William & Mary Policy Review held its second annual Policy Symposium on Friday, April 8, 2016. The Symposium focused on last year’s passage of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a list of seventeen goals with 169 targets meant to replace the successful Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Though the SDGs are a successor to the MDGs, which ran from 2000-2015, those goals had only eight main goals and twenty-one targets, rendering the SDPs much more comprehensive and, potentially, much more difficult to achieve.

Participants in the Symposium included Ingo Keilitz, currently the principal of the CourtMetrics consulting firm and previously Vice President of the National Center for State Courts and Senior Justice Reform Specialist at the World Bank. Keilitz’s new article, “The Trouble with Justice in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2016-2030,” was a main topic of discussion at the Symposium. Also participating were Professor Steven Sharp of the College of William & Mary’s International Relations Department, formerly a USAID Urban Development Officer, and Jeremie Amoroso, a Consultant with the World Bank.

Keilitz’s article focuses on the ways that the SDGs are not “SMART Goals,” meaning they are not specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-bound. Keilitz doubts that the SDGs will be as effective as the MDGs because “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” He argues further that the goals and their individual targets are not only broad, but that the sub-goals actually broaden the main goals. To illustrate his point, Keilitz compared Goal 4, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all,” and then compared it with Target 4.7:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote    sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

Keilitz points out that this Target actually expands the education and learning opportunities to include broader targets for skills, adding increased education for sustainable lifestyles, non-violent education, and appreciation of cultural diversity. Keilitz questions whether this goal or others in the SDGs, which are far broader and more expansive than the MDGs, are really measurable, and thus whether they are achievable. His chief recommendations were that the goals be operationally and narrowly defined, streamlined and pared down to their essence, and structures such that local institutions take ownership over their completion.

Professor Sharp echoed many of Keilitz’s concerns, highlighting the way the goals were written comprehensively to appeal to many different constituencies, which in turn makes it difficult to state what exactly a goal proposes. For instance, Goal 16 urges members to “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” This goal is specifically structured broadly so as not to take a Western or democracy-first view of what constitutes an inclusive society, and promises access to justice rather than justice. Professor Sharp did, however, note that the SDGs, though broader than the MDGs, are mostly broader because they split existing concepts rather than including new ones, reflecting all U.N. goals, but not necessarily prioritizing those goals. Echoing Keilitz’s calls for local ownership, Professor Sharp concluded by noting that the SDGs indicators and targets ought to be reduced and streamlined both for individual country buy-in and general cost control.

Amoroso flipped Keilitz’s analysis on its head, asking whether the goals even need to be “SMART goals” at all. Describing the SDGs as a historic approach to systemic problems, Amoroso said that directly comparing the MDGs and SDGs might be in appropriate, particularly since the SDGs apply to all member nations and not merely those developing, and embrace a wider gamut of problems. It is furthermore simply too early to tell, in his view, whether 169 targets are unwieldy or unmanageable. Reflecting on an emerging school of thought in education that qualities such as perseverance and self-reliance are not traits, but rather skills that can be developed, Amoroso noted that the SDGs embrace this view and that by setting these traits as achievable, they reflect a broader and systemic approach to these international problems.

The Symposium was a great success and concluded with Keilitz acknowledging the persuasiveness of some of Amoroso’s reasoning. The William & Mary Policy Review is grateful to our participants and attendees and looks forward to continuing our annual Symposium in the future.