Just prior to the gathering of world leaders in New York City for the UN Sustainable Development Summit (25–27 Sept. 2015) to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we asked Dr David M. Malone, Rector of the United Nations University (UNU) and UN Under-Secretary-General, for his take on the transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the SDGs — and how UNU can contribute to the post-2015 development agenda.
Rachel Schindelar (RS): Looking back on the MDGs, one critique is that they lacked a theoretical foundation: that there were no clear priorities among the targets and no prescription of how they would be achieved. Do you think this is true?
David M. Malone (DM): Governments don’t sit around worrying about theory a great deal. Perhaps they should, but they don’t. From that perspective, it is no surprise that there wasn’t a particular theory.
In fact, neither the MDGs nor the SDGs are ordered — and that isn’t a coincidence. The SDG process involved 193 countries negotiating with each other, making it hard enough to reach a consensus on goals and targets. If they were to get into ordering them by importance or urgency, the negotiating process would never end. We would never actually achieve anything.
The wisdom of the MDGs was that there were relatively few goals, and relatively few targets. Not all of those targets have been achieved, but many very important ones were. Even with only eight MDGs, it is clear that certain countries focused on selected goals or targets, often with considerable success.
With the SDGs, because of the negotiating dynamics — which were additive without any editing process that one can discern from the outcome — there is a multiplicity, not so much of goals but of targets. This helped the negotiations to reach an end point, so it is understandable, even if it isn’t particularly praiseworthy.
It will be very easy for all countries to subscribe to these goals. But for any given government, the question is: “What can we do? Where shall we focus our efforts?” Governments will have to choose.
I see the large menu of options as not necessarily being a bad thing. Actually, the process governments will have to go through to choose will be a helpful one. The conversation that cabinets will have, that people surrounding heads of governments will have, that parliaments will have — the conversations about which of these areas are the most relevant to them as societies and economies will be very relevant on a national level.
RS: One strength of the MDGs was that it was a shorter list. The longer list of SDGs, and much longer list of targets, will require States to pick and choose. This process may be beneficial at the national level, but what about on a global level? Will the longer list and lack of clear priorities lead to inaction?
DM: I don’t think so. The MDGs could have resulted in inaction, but they didn’t. Societies in the developing world are on the move. The developing world has been marked — coincidentally, since about the year 2000 — by broad success in the development process. In Asia there has been very convincing economic growth, accompanied by progress in a number of policy fields. Africa has achieved much more growth than it is ever given credit for, though with great unevenness in the distribution of the benefits of that growth. In Latin American, while there has not so much economic growth, there have been very interesting social policy developments.
The economies in the industrialised world are, by and large, very mature and likely to grow at slower rates. So, it is the developing world that has dynamism, not the industrialised world. One thing that was largely ignored in the SDG negotiations was this degree of success in the developing world. It is the industrialised world that, since 2008, has been grappling with very big problems.
RS: In an article for the UNU-CPR website, you said that in the negotiation process for the new development agenda, issues of quality were starting to be recognised alongside those of quantity. Does this reflect the larger problems of industrialised countries?
DM: Yes. The problems of the industrialised world are rather different from those of the developing world. Some issues they have in common, one of which is quality of employment. What sort of jobs are young people being offered? That is a universal challenge. But in a way, in the developing world that is still a “luxury” problem whereas it is becoming a bedrock issue for economic and social development in the industrialised world.
This notion of quality is a sign of great progress. The MDGs were essentially quantitative targets. Now, much has changed — for example, with regard to education. The MDGs focused on ensuring the universality of primary schools. Now, there is a wide consciousness that better quality education is urgently required in the developing world. The focus on vocational as well as classic schooling and university education in the SDGs is extremely positive.
The reference to lifelong learning is also important. When I was young and beginning my professional life, we could still reasonably expect to have lifelong careers. That is gone now, because our economies are changing so quickly. And, also, individual ambition is growing.
This illustrates that a lot of thought went into all of these goals and targets. It is just because they are additive, it is a bit overwhelming for individual governments that will have to pick and choose. If you think about it, even the richest governments have to pick and choose what they are going to prioritise. So the problem remains largely one of choice at the national level — although this is also an opportunity — and some very big countries like India will even need regional variations.
That is not a bad thing! It could even be a very good thing. Because if you are going to try to do 169 things at once, you are likely to fail at all of them.
RS: The “17 Days, 17 Goals” article series on the UNU website has shown that the work of UNU aligns quite closely with the 17 SDGs. Is it by design, this focus and relevance?
DM: When UNU was conceived through debates in the General Assembly in the late 1960s, which led to the opening of UNU in Tokyo in 1975, the focus was very much on the developing world, its needs and its interests. I am very proud that we have more or less remained true to that in our programming.
I am a great believer in focus. I don’t believe you can do 900 things well at any given time; if you do one thing really well, that is much better than doing lots of things indifferently. So what I like in UNU’s institutes is that most of them have a very clear sense of what they are doing (as well as what they are not doing).
Clearly, a great deal of work went into the SDGs. The delegates involved had to think about what issues were most important for them and their countries; that’s what resulted in the diversity of the targets.
How is it relevant to UNU? We are certainly not going to try working on 169 issues. That would be to condemn ourselves to mediocrity, which is the last thing one wants with regard to research. I think it validates many of the choices we have made in the past, and it could provide lines of thought for any future institutional developments.
RS: How will the new development agenda influence future research at UNU?
DM: It would be delusional to think that the SDGs are the sum total of everything that needs to be done over the next 15 years. They are simply indicative of what we think in 2015.
New issues will arise between now and 2030, and UNU will be ready to respond. Some of them will be very urgent, and will have to be dealt with immediately. We need to keep an open mind for that, and continue to be alert to change. We cannot predict change. It usually happens to us unplanned, rather than being planned for brilliantly.