Utopian agenda misses local context, no lessons learnt from MDG experiment
ISLAMABAD: The consensus reached by world leaders on the ‘Sustainable Development Agenda’ last month represents a major milestone: UN successfully completed the largest consultation exercise ever to set goals and targets at the highest political level.
Hailed as the ‘people’s agenda’, the goals will help improve livelihoods and fight poverty for the next decade and a half.
The agenda has built on eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which though were much criticised for their top-down approach, were nevertheless appreciated for simplicity, precision and clarity of vision.
In a surprise twist, the process of engaging stakeholders to set Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) has, however, guaranteed the very opposite outcome.
304 indicators, 169 targets, 17 goals
How did the SDGs end up becoming such a mess?
It is probably because the UN has strived hard in bringing all partners on-board and getting them to agree on a utopian agenda merely for the sake of agreement.
Against a backdrop of slow economic growth and unwillingness of donors to continue pouring billions as aid money, 150+ targets would not only result in a lack of focus, but they would also be self-defeating. The whole exercise in consultation was like the ‘Snow White taking a bite of a poisoned apple from the evil queen and entering a state of sleep to dream about Heavens for the next 15 years.’
There is no mentioning of the ticking population bomb, the need for rollout of democracy in least-developed countries (LDC) and the importance of values such as freedom of speech and abolishment of forced labour.
There has also been no attempt to investigate the root-cause of chronic poverty in LDCs and to identify the key success factors associated with any successful poverty alleviation programme. In brief, few lessons were learnt from the MDG experiment.
In Pakistan, for example, the landed elites have continued to dominate politics and the distribution of benefits from economic growth has remained highly concentrated. The marginalised population that is denied credit facilities from banks often ends up getting a loan from their local elite and then subsequently are forced to work for them.
There are thousands of stories about people falling prey to these loan sharks and working on their fields for the rest of their lives (just to repay a $20 loan) without any remuneration. The legitimacy of these loan sharks is further endorsed by the local jirga – a parallel justice system headed by the elites themselves.
Which SDG could rescue these poor peasants?
The whole concept of a global agenda is flawed and if MDGs has taught policymakers one thing, it is that the local context matters.
Why a country like South Sudan is caring about sustainable consumption when 4.6 million people there sleep hungry every night amid a country-wide violence and hyperinflation?
What should countries like Afghanistan take away from these goals?
It seems that the agenda and the so-called SDGs still represent the interests of a few rather than the most marginalised – leaving the governments clueless about the challenge of making complicated trade-offs.
Global consultations often put ‘real’ issues on the backburner to avoid a negative impact on the process itself. The participants of the world’s biggest consultation process seem to have fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect: people who were not well versed with the dynamics of third-world problems apparently suffered from a false sense of confidence – taking great pride in achieving consensus through the largest consultation programme in UN history.
This has made the SDGs inherently contradictory – a framework that is so broad and narrow at the same time. The subject matter specialists seemed to be held hostage by a pluralistic ignorance bias – as they publicly support the majority’s view due to a fear of rejection of their ideas.
Sustainable development agenda is definitely not the ‘tipping point’ for Pakistan. Instead of blindly integrating the SD agenda into our national planning frameworks, policymakers should first look into the case of MDGs and see why some regions of Pakistan have flourished yet others have performed poorly.
Lessons from European and US history teach us that a strong judicial system based on principles of common law, public awareness about rights and equal opportunities for growth are the key success factors, if not a pre-requisite of any development-related programme.
The writer is a Cambridge graduate and is working as a management consultant
Published in The Express Tribune, October 26th, 2015.
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