Goals, or goalposts?

Credit: UN.org

Credit: UN.org

Women of the world, unite: we have a brand-new set of international goals which, by 2030, will render this blog entirely unnecessary!

But of course you already knew that, didn’t you?

What? You missed it?

Tsk. Well, actually, it’s understandable that the UN negotiations passed you by: two years of delightful diplomacy, grandstanding, consulting, arguing over semi-colons; all a bit other-worldly.

But the end product is worth your attention, because each of the new goals is about YOU.

Yes, you!

Let’s start with the basics: we’re talking about the Sustainable Development Goals, or the SDGs (aha, another acronym! I’ll have to create a ZeFWord glossary soon.  Or a quiz.  Shall we have a quiz?)

We could spend another two years attempting to unravel the why and eh? of the SDGs, but I assume you’d rather not (if I assume wrongly, the Guardian does a good beginners’ guide).

Instead, how about I just give you the three things you need to know to bluff convincingly about the SDGs down the pub (be careful to enunciate properly, or your mates will wonder why you’re telling them about herpes over your Friday pint).

Here we go:

  1. The SDGs are the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs. I won’t put that one in the quiz, since they’ve expired).  The MDGs guided international poverty reduction between 2000-2015, with some successes (reducing monetary poverty, education enrolment) and some peut-mieux-faire (infant mortality):Capture d’écran 2015-10-05 à 22.10.44
  2. The SDGs are double the size and scope of the MDGs: 17 goals, 169 targets, some 1025 indicators, etc. They add new subjects such as justice, climate, healthy and sustainable lifestyles.
  3. They are universal: the UK will be just as accountable, as, say, Niger.  

Here are the SDGs in all their glossy newness:

Source: UN

Source: UN

Aren’t they pretty?

Pretty, yes, and as I said, pretty important: the future of your planet, your city, your government, your money, your dignity, your health, your education.

Especially if you happen to be a woman.


For two main reasons:

  • the SDGs take a much broader perspective of gender equality than their predecessor, with a stand-alone goal that covers violence, harmful practices (including FGM), recognising value of unpaid work, political and economic participation, sexual and reproductive health and rights (or SRHR, another one for the glossary), equal access to assets
  • they incorporate a gender “lens” across other goals (such as focusing on needs of adolescent girls, pregnant and lactating women in Goal 2 (End Hunger).


But (sorry to be so demanding) not good enough, since:

  • the gender “lens” doesn’t appear to have been applied very thoroughly. Take Goal 3 (Health and Wellbeing). We could have done with some recognition that the burden of care of family members often falls to women. Or think about Goal 6 (Water and Sanitation) (or, if you’re down with the kids, WatSan): women do most of the water collecting in developing countries. Two of the (many) immediate implications of this are the physical burden and the frequency of sexual violence at water-collection points, but there is no explicit consideration of such angles
  • Maternal mortality – which was a standalone goal under the MDGs (and the one that made the least progress, NDLR) – has been subsumed into the new health goal. Nice and tidy, perhaps: but sensible? Call me cynical, but I don’t think dying-in-childbirth is an appropriate antonym of “wellbeing”. And in fact, we actually need to go in the other direction (as I have argued elsewhere).  It’s not (duh!) enough to avoid women dying while they give birth; we must also prevent the horrendous debilitating injuries that come from unsafe/unattended births.

Of course, this the problem: how do you decide what gets a goal, or a target, or nothing at all, when there are so many worthwhile issues out there?

Governments got away with deciding the answer to that question when the MDGs were first drawn up in 2000, since nobody was paying much attention (yawn. another UN thingy).  But the MDGs ended up becoming quite successful at channelling money and attention to specific causes. Consequently, this time round, many more people have wanted to have their say (hey, the UN thingy worked, guys, let’s get that protecting hedgehogs goal on the list).

This has been heightened thanks to a real effort by the UN to consult the entire planet on what sustainable development should look like (commendable, certes, but bound to make consensus a little tricky).

So it’s hardly surprising that there are twice as many SDGs as MDGs.  It’s a miracle, actually, that we only ended up with 17 goals (and not 170).

But just 17 (remember the magazine?); well, that’s still beaucoup.  Even developed countries are going to struggle to make progress across all of the goals. So, if you’re a sensible government with either limited means or no real desire to do anything about the difficult issues (cf those pesky women dying in childbirth) you’ll just cherry pick what’s easy and/or useful to you.

And, frankly, who’s going to stop you? Although the new goals are universal (as opposed to the MDGs, where we focused only on developing regions), they are not universally binding. There is no menacing (wo)man with a rottweiler who is going to come knocking at your door asking why you’re not making progress on all 17.

Let me also highlight two other criticisms of Gender and the SDGs (another almost-Harry-Potter-esque title), as discussed by Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development at the LSE, in her paper this month.

The first is the omittance of a rights-based approach to the goals (too complex to delve into here) and the second is a continued hangover from the MDGs in fussing over measuring targets instead of actually tackling issues:

we need to pay more attention to the substance of the changes we want to see, not just their form; to the quality of the solutions we achieve, not just their number

That said, the clarity of the goals is paramount to paving the way to results. And you only need to scan the list of proposed targets to realise how, well, unclear they sometimes are.  Take Goal 4, Target 4.6:

By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy

What is a “substantial proportion”, do you reckon? 55%? 63%? 87%?

Anyhow. I’ve probably exhausted you by now, and international development frameworks (and their ensuing acronyms) require much more space for analysis than the rudimentary discussion above.

So let’s close there. But in a nutshell (one you can offer thoughtfully as your conclusion over that Friday night pint) the SDGs are Good News.  How much they are Great News depends on the (devil of) detail, as well as implementation, from now until 2030.

And neither can be taken for granted.

I won’t get my coat, just yet.


One thought on “Goals, or goalposts?

  1. Pingback: I.O.U | Ze F Word

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