How Useful Are Global Development Goals?

  • 2015•09•17

    Adam Szirmai


    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Halfway through our series, we step back to reflect on the bigger picture — with a special focus on goal #9.

    Goal #9: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation

    After an extensive process of consultation and lively online debates, world leaders will now meet to adopt a new set of post-2015 global development targets. These targets will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had defined the development targets for the year 2015.

    Whether global development targets are really useful is subject to debate. They represent an international tradition of “development by declaration”, which critics consider to be a meaningless exercise in political correctness. One important criticism is that the MDGs lacked a theoretical foundation. They simply provided a list of targets, with no clear priorities and no theory on how such goals were to be attained.

    Thus critics — including myself — argued that the key to achieving the MDGs is economic growth and rapid increases in productive capacity in poor countries. But productive capacity was hardly mentioned in the MDGs, and under baneful influence of the 2009 Stiglitz, Fitoussi and Stiglitz report, economic growth has become increasingly suspect.

    The proponents of development goals argue that the MDGs have been successful in focusing the attention of policymakers, politicians, and the broader public on a well-defined set of targets. Though not all targets have been met, there has been substantial progress in reducing poverty, reducing mortality, combating aids, and increasing access to education.

    Critics counter that the improvements attained have little to do with the MDGs, but are instead the by-products of successful economic strategies in Asia. Thus, the reductions in global poverty rates have more to do with growth in China and India than anything else.

    Though I share many of the positions of the critics, I do think that on balance the MDGs have played a positive role in the past 15 years. Economic growth does not automatically translate into desired social outcomes. The MDGs have helped promote social policies that, in turn, affect how resources are employed and distributed. They provide a framework for the monitoring of socio-economic performance and have been instrumental in mobilising resources for development.

    SDGs vs. MDGs: A Comparison

    How do the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) compare with the MDGs? First, there is a lot of continuity. Almost all of the old goals — for example, further poverty reduction, and improved nutrition, health, and gender equality — are included in the new goals. Many of the 18 MDG targets have become goals in their own right.

    Second, in the process, the 8 goals, 18 targets, and 48 indicators of the MDGs are blown up into an unwieldy list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals with no fewer than 169 associated targets. This is clearly a negative development. One of the strengths of the MDGs was having a rather short list of clear goals. When everything is to be included without priorities, this becomes a recipe for inaction.

    Third, given the challenges of global warming there is a fully justified emphasis on sustainability. Of the 17 new goals, 10 mention sustainability and 4 focus exclusively on sustainability (sustainable consumption, combating climate change, sustainable use of oceans, and sustainable ecosystems).

    Fourth, the new goals respond to the criticism about the lack of theoretical foundations for the MDGs. Two of the new goals explicitly have to do with economic growth and how to achieve development: these are goal #8 (growth and productive employment) and goal #9 (resilient infrastructure, inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and innovation). While this is a welcome development, these new goals are not really goals, but means to achieve goals.

    Viewed through the lens of SDG #9

    Let us consider some of these problems by discussing goal #9: “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”

    Let me start by stating that I am in sympathy with the mention of industrialisation. In the past, successful economic development has been closely associated with industrialisation, and I am convinced that it is still important in the present conjuncture.

    But it should also be noted that the role of industrialisation is presently contested. Many authors argue that service sectors have become more important as engines of growth — not only in the advanced service economies, but also in low-income and emerging economies.

    It is one thing to define “industrialisation” as a target, but in fact we are witnessing a global process of “deindustrialisation”. Some of the poorest economies in Africa are experiencing a process of premature deindustrialisation, which will not be easy to reverse.

    Further, industrialisation strategies may be appropriate in one country, but less so in others. One of the major lessons of the past 15 years is that we need to avoid “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

    Finally, the concept of inclusive and sustainable industrial development (ISID) is a nice example of “development by proclamation”. While no one will disagree with the notion that industrial development should be as inclusive (through employment-creation) and as environmentally sustainable as possible, in reality it is not always so.

    Iindustrial growth has very negative impacts on pollution, emissions, and climate change. We also know that growth of the manufacturing sector will not solve all employment problems, because the capital intensive nature of production limits the amount of jobs created.

    ISID is the topic of a forthcoming UNIDO Industrial Development Report (2016). On the one hand, this report will contain interesting examples and cases of inclusive and sustainable industrialisation. These examples can provide sources of inspiration for future policy.

    But the report also discusses the potential trade-offs between industrial growth and the environment, or industrial growth and inclusiveness.


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    How Useful Are Global Development Goals? by Adam Szirmai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.