LIRNEasia is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific

Why do we engage with SDGs?

When I said on Facebook that I was on my way to Manila to speak at the 2017 International Conference on Sustainable Development Goals Statistics, a colleague said: “Aren’t SDGs an over-rated self-indulgence by the UN system? True, member states have endorsed them but how many are taking them any more seriously than they did those MDGs? How many captains of industry are familiar with SDGs (never mind the public)?”

I have been accused of expedient pragmatism. Never considered it an insult because that’s a necessary part of policy engagement. I guess I could give that as the short answer. Because all the world’s government endorsed the SDGs and are using their considerable agenda-setting and attention-focusing powers to get people to think about 17 goals, 169 targets and 200+ indicators, many of which are important to the work we do, it seems silly to sit on our hands. That’s a luxury open to those who do not want to engage in real-world policy because that would sully their pristine profiles, not to us.

I have, with people like Bill Easterly, been critical of the SDGs when they were being worked up and when they were adopted. My objections were twofold. One was that there were too many. I am a strong believer in doing a few things well. My second objection was that there was little point in goals and targets, without effective ways of measuring progress or lack thereof.

I began to soften on objection 1 when I heard that Sri Lanka had tried to insert traditional medicines into the SDGs and had been rebuffed. Instead of blaming the UN for including everything but the kitchen sink, I now started to appreciate how difficult it must have been to stop bureaucrats with no skin in the game from adding more trivial pet subjects. Here in Manila, a UN official heard my criticism over lunch and explained that the SDGs were very much shaped and formed by the member states, not the technocrats who had been in control of the definition of the MDGs. I agree there is value to giving the member states ownership even if the end result was a mess. He said that Goal 16 (Justice, Peace, etc.) had not been included in an earlier draft, but had to be inserted at the insistence of the African members. My colleague should be overjoyed to hear that, given his preoccupation with such matters.

On Objection 2, I understood from some comments made by Sandy Pentland at a workshop I participated in that they had purposely pushed for the inclusion of targets that lacked indicators. Sitting in this room, surrounded by hundreds of people from national statistical organizations, I begin to see his point. The UN has created the demand. Suddenly NSOs are high profile and getting attention from governments as well as donors. They have been quietly minding their own business, imperfectly, for too long. We should all be happy that these apex evidence suppliers to government are finally on everyone’s radars.

I would rather live in a world where modernized and energized NSOs do their job well, rather than a world where nobody pays them any attention and policy gets made on whim and fancy. So I will continue to engage with SDGs and NSOs, telling them what can be done better and supporting them when they do try.

So I hope this serves as an adequate response to my idealistic/cynical friend.

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