The science of building a perfect world

Science, technology and medicine are of course integral to the development of economies. Indeed, fundamentally, development is about wider access to precisely these things. But what does science have to tell us about the development process itself, about whether the objectives we choose are achievable, desirable? Is there a ‘more scientific’ approach to the goals we set ourselves?

The global leaders and stakeholders behind the forging of a new, universal set of goals that are to guide international development and transform the world into a single prosperous, modernized unit by 2030 certainly think so. Crafted by representatives from some 70 United Nations member states in consultation with civil society over the past two years, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or just SDGs, are the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals that had been agreed by governments in 2000. This year, 2015, was the date by which the planet was supposed to have achieved the eight MDGs: eradication of extreme poverty and hunger; universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reduction of child mortality, improvement of maternal health; combatting HIV/Aids, malaria and “other diseases”; ensuring environmental sustainability; and development of a global partnership for development.

But it is now February, 2015, and while development aid has risen over the last fifteen years, most of this has gone towards debt relief, disaster assistance and military spending. The greatest success has been with respect to the target aim of halving global poverty, a goal that was achieved five years early. This is largely down to rapid economic growth in the world’s two most populous nations, India and China, thanks to a mixture of central planning and market-based efforts. And the People’s Republic, which never endorsed the MDGs, is responsible for three-quarters of this feat. This is nothing to sneeze at. China’s lifting of more than 700 million people out of poverty since 1978 is plainly one of the most humanitarian feats ever achieved, even if high inequality has accompanied this process.

But for much of the rest of the Global South, MDG success has been uneven. The sub-targets for extreme poverty reduction, access to safe drinking water and improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers have been reached ahead of deadline, and gender equality in primary and secondary education and reduction in the incidence of malaria are projected to be met this year. But when it comes to access to improved sanitation, maternal mortality, infant mortality, under-five mortality, primary education completion and prevalence of undernourishment, a majority of countries are off target, in most cases significantly off target. Critics of the original process lamented the lack of specificity, analysis and measurement.

This time, ahead of an expected agreement by world leaders at a summit in New York in September, the United Nations hopes to get it right. Where the MDGs were cobbled together by a small group of bureaucrats in the basement of the UN headquarters in Manhattan, the world body has engaged in reportedly one of the largest consultation processes in history, a global discussion whose granularity even involved knocking on doors around the world and asking people directly what they thought was most important. Marc Levy, a political scientist from Columbia University, feels that this effort is a major advance over previous efforts. Indeed, he feels that it is difficult to find similarly comprehensive endeavours in history: “The SDG process was vastly more open and democratic than the MDG process. There were good-faith efforts to consult people all over the world, including the first global survey about the future of the world. These efforts are without precedent.”

A new, independent report, coordinated by the International Council for Science in partnership with the International Social Science Council, provides an independent assessment of these 17 goals. Over 40 leading researchers from across the natural and social sciences have critically analyzed the proposed targets beneath the goals, which cover everything from the elimination of poverty to the spread of advanced healthcare services and a transformation of the world’s energy and transport infrastructure away from its dependence on fossil fuels. The report focuses on the 169 targets under the goals which are intended to operationalize the goals. It is the first independent review of the targets conducted by the scientific community, and authors found overall that the SDGs offer a “major improvement” over their predecessors, with a greater understanding of the interplay between the social, economic, environmental and governance dimensions. And where the MDGs only dealt with developing countries, the new set of goals cover all countries in the world.

But once the compliments are out of the way, the scientists feel obliged to point out problems of repetition, a lack of integration of the various topics, “weakly formulated targets” and, almost everywhere, far too much of a dependence on “vapid”, “timid”, “bland”, qualitative language instead of hard, measurable, time-bound, quantitative targets. The word “vague” is actually used a full seven times in the report, while phrases such as “more specific”, “more concrete” and “more focused” pepper the recommendations on how to improve it. The scientific review even uses quantitative language to describe how much more effort is needed to improve the SDGs: 71 percent of targets need work.

Relatedly, the researchers also stress that in order to be able to assess whether goals are being achieved, a gargantuan and possibly very expensive data-collection effort will be required, including in places where data-gathering is difficult, dangerous or just non-existent. Data-gathering isn’t cheap or easy.

The goals tend to focus on what needs to be done by governments and NGOs, with little discussion of what action must be taken by the private sector. There is “a low level of integration” of the 17 different goals, which in a multiplicity of ways “overlap”. “The goals are presented using a ‘silo approach’, that is, they are addressed as separate elements, mostly in isolation from each other,” complain the researchers. Most importantly along these lines, without such interlinking, there is a danger of conflict amongst different targets, most notably, trade-offs between overcoming poverty and shifting toward sustainability. Climate diplomacy watchers will be very familiar with this conundrum: One of the easiest ways to counter poverty is cheap, coal-powered electrification, but this of course means we can wave goodbye to keeping below two degrees of global warming, and perhaps even three, four or five degrees.

As a result, the first SDG, the goal of ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, needs to be placed at the centre of all the other goals, “to avoid either an inequitable transformation to a low carbon future or the use of the poor as a trump card for preventing needed change towards a sustainable future.”

Fundamentally though, the main problem with the process, say the scientists, is that the end-goal remains obscure. “[A] ‘narrative of change’ is missing, both in terms of how the pursuit of specific goals would lead to broader outcomes of social change and in terms of how this change actually takes place,” the report says. “There is no clear means-ends continuum or ‘theory of change’ underpinning the framework. The ‘ultimate end’ of the SDGs in combination is not clear, nor is how the proposed goals and targets would contribute to achieving that ultimate end.” What would the world look like once all the goals are fully achieved? Policy makers need to “formulate an overarching goal”, and how the 17 goals would contribute toward this end. They suggest that this meta-goal be “a prosperous, high quality of life that is equitably shared and sustainable”.

But the researchers also say that if they weren’t being rigorous, they wouldn’t be doing their job. Levy, one of the authors and deputy director of Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, told Road to Paris: “The toughness of our review should not be construed as a lack of appreciation for the draft goals. They are nothing short of remarkable. It is the first time since 1945 that the world’s nations have come together to articulate a common, comprehensive vision for the future.” “We are tough on it precisely because we take it very seriously and recognize its great potential–the same way a coach is toughest on her best athlete.”

More specifically, elimination of poverty needs to focus more on concrete social policies—notably basic income schemes—with a universal approach to ensure society-wide buy-in. Uniform global metrics of poverty will also be required to ensure comparability and consistency. Targets relating to topics such as property, microfinance, inheritance, and access to basic services are “far too complicated and multi-faceted to be useful and measurable”. Instead, this should be replaced with a simple target of equal access by all by 2030 to social, health, education services.

The researchers also note that the vexed and deeply political question of equitable wealth distribution also goes unaddressed, despite increasing evidence that equality and sustainability go hand in hand, with more equal countries tending to have stronger environmental legislation. With respect to the goal of ending hunger, the researchers note that the goal of sustainable agriculture is not the only important factor, but, crucially inequality, which is “essential but … not explicitly included”. The targets here are not comprehensive, they warn, with only two directly addressing the hunger and malnutrition “and even for these the formulation is confusing and potentially contradictory.” They recommend an extra focus on the first 1000 days of SDG implementation due to the irreversibility of undernutrition suffered at this stage. Further, policy makers need to understand that malnutrition is not simply undernutrition, but also obesity and the presence of micronutrient deficiencies.

In addition, care must be taken to simultaneously defeat hunger, increase agricultural productivity and avoid adverse impacts on the natural resource base. And as another example of the interlinking of goals, the researchers note that defeating hunger cannot be addressed without ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation—which is goal number six. The biggest bang for the development buck here will come from a focus on small-scale producers, where there is the most acute vulnerability and greatest potential for productivity increases.

The health-focused SDG suffers from a lack of distinction between the wildly divergent starting points of different countries and makes no mention of inequalities within countries. The sub-target focus on HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis and water-borne diseases “sounds like a catch-all for infectious disease”, but neglects emerging infections such as Ebola and new strains of the flu. Researchers feel that the SDG related to access to water and sanitation does not recognize the need for a step change in water management governance, data collection and sharing. State-of-the-art remote-sensing and modelling will be necessary for global monitoring, yet few countries keep reliable records of wastewater, treatment and re-use.

The SDG also avoids discussion of what is required at the local level in terms of improved planning. Countries with different income levels should have different targets: low-income countries may wish to focus on controlling solid waste discharges, emerging countries may focus on wastewater treatment, and all countries may focus on recycling and reusing water. Instead, there should be three overarching themes: sanitation; reducing pollutants and untreated waste discharge; and reduction in water scarcity.

The seventh goal, access to energy, is “weak” and vulnerable to “loopholes” without a precise definition of the word access. Instead of an overall physical quantity of energy produced, the types and amounts of energy that every human should have access to should be explicitly mentioned. Furthermore, a new target should be added that aims to overcome indoor pollutants from cooking and heating using traditional biomass, currently responsible for millions of deaths of women and children.

The energy efficiency target is too vague and should instead piggy-back on the International Energy Agency’s target of a doubling of global energy intensity improvement of 2.9 percent a year. With respect to the goal of economic growth and full employment, to avoid trade-offs with the environment, the researchers recommend new economic metrics beyond gross domestic product (GDP), and a focus on “radical” structural shifts to enable a decoupling of the economy from the environment through greater resource use efficiency. The analysts also worry that no mention is made of the millions of slum-dwellers and their participation in the informal economy.

The tenth goal, reducing inequality, has neither qualitative nor quantitative endpoints, say the researchers, and suffers from a danger of focus on social inequalities as the expense of economic inequalities. This imprecision can be addressed by targeting growth in the income share of the both 40 percent and a reduction in the share received by the top 10 percent. Inequality is not merely a question of reducing poverty, but the proportion of wealth allotted to elites. To achieve this, the researchers recommend inclusion of language seeking an improvement of regulation of multinational corporations and the financial sector while boosting the democratic influence of citizens over policymaking and within the workplace. In place of an emphasis on foreign direct investment, the researchers recommend a focus on debt relief, shutting down illicit financial outflows and preventing tax evasion.

The goal of sustainable production and consumption is simply “too ambitious to be fulfilled” by 2030. How is this to be measured, wonder the scientists. A whole new set of metrics, with clearer quantification, will need to be developed before progress can be assessed. It is also left unmentioned how this can be achieved. Far better would be to establish specific, time-bound resource-use efficiency targets.

Action on climate change gets its own goal, but the drafters of the SDGs as well as the researchers recognize that the UNFCCC process is the primary vehicle for this challenge rather than the global development agenda. Similarly, the goal that concentrates on biodiversity, deforestation, and desertification have other venues whereby international action is to be mounted.

The assessment is not all bad. The targets relating to oceans and seas are largely cheered by scientists, who describe them as “ambitious, timely and backed by a significant body of natural and social science,” although here too, researchers would be more comfortable with greater specificity and quantification. They also note that references to ‘blue carbon’—CO2 captured by oceans and marine ecosystems—and bioprospecting—the discovery of new products from biological resources—are absent, even though these areas are likely to increase in consequence in the future. Likewise, the goal could be enhanced by a target focusing on the impact of invasive alien species such as killer algae and the zebra mussel.

For the SDGs to avoid becoming a “wish list with little prospect of implementation”, the framework governing the entire exercise is perhaps its most important aspect, the authors conclude. This will be difficult however, without specifics on financial resource mobilization to pay for this grand endeavour and more detail on how to engage citizens, civil society, scientists, the private sector and especially national and local governments. Geographer Susan Parnell of the African Centre for Cities with the University of Cape Town and one of the authors on goal 11 on sustainable cities, told Road to Paris that the process is likely to encounter criticism along these lines: “These non formal processes are likely to grow, but they are also going to be increasingly the object of criticism – precisely because they are not fully accountable and not everyone has access.”

For her part, sociologist Asun St Clair, a former research director of the International Centre for Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo (CICERO), wants the process to deepen its democratic undertakings: “We need more citizen participation in issues that are not only solved by science, such as climate, sustainability or biodiversity. We need to enhance local democratic processes and participatory forums. Governance is an evolving term.”

And finally, the elephant in the room, the researchers hint at is related to a sub-target within goal 17: “enhance global macroeconomic stability”. In plain language, this target aims to avoid the sort of economic crisis that has ravaged the world for the past seven years. Somewhat understatedly, the scientists merely say about this ambition that it is “potentially important” but “unlikely to happen.”

In the end, the recommendations come from researchers who remain full of hope that despite their limitations, the SDGs will be a significant advance on what has gone before. Arnold Tukker, an industrial ecologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said of the effort: “We know that international policy processes are by definition agonizingly slow. The fact that all nations gathered in the UN agree on the SDGs, some of which are quite concrete, is an achievement in itself.” And right now, we must work to move humanity with the governance tools we have at our disposal and not wait for the democratic optimum before trying to change things, he believes: “There is no parliament for the globe, so by necessity agreements on climate change, biodiversity loss, and the SDGs have to be made in ‘post democratic’ negotiations between countries.”

“A process of negotiations between diplomats with input of science and civil society groups is the only realistic way. “

Editor’s note: The International Council for Science, sponsor of Road to Paris, is one of the sponsors of the report “Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective.”


Download the report “Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development Goals: The Science Perspective” and the accompanying supplement “Sustainable Development Goals and Targets” which lists all 17 goals and 169 targets.

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