Simon Maxwell

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A challenge on the SDGs

The Development and Environment Committees of the European Parliament organised a public hearing on the SDGs, on 22 June. A joint event by two Committees, and as a public hearing: two innovations in one, which other parliaments could learn from. One for the new Select Committees in the House of Commons? And well done to Linda Mcavan and Benedek Javor, the MEPs who co-chaired this event.

There were three panels, mostly celebrating the universal and integrated nature of the SDG framework, and the level of ambition, and bringing people up to date with the latest developments. Amina Mohammed, the UNSG’s Special Adviser on Post-2015, had flown in from the Financing for Development negotiations in New York, with negotiators still locked in the conference rooms three days beyond the deadline at the time of our meeting, and still stuck, mainly on issues of taxation and finance.

It was obviously valuable to gee up MEPs on the transformational potential of the SDGs. It was important to hammer home the development-environment link, and also to emphasise that the SDGs apply to the EUEuropean Union itself as much as they do to developing countries. A number of speakers made these points, including Amina herself, the EUEuropean Union Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, and the Deputy DG of Devco, Klaus Rudischauser. There were useful technical contributions, especially on the integrated nature of the goals: Kate Raworth was not there, but her doughnut (Figure 1) was much in evidence.

Figure 1

The SDG Doughnut


In addition, however, I thought there were some complementary points, and made four, each with implications for the work of MEPs and their support teams. Plus there is a coda at the end.

The four points are

  • Celebrate the SDGs as an aspirational framework, but watch out for the SDG police
  • Climate trumps the SDGs this year
  • The choreography of 2015 needs to be managed
  • There should be the equivalent of INDCs for the SDGs

And the implications for the EUEuropean Union are

  • We should keep our promises
  • We need to act internally as well as externally
  • The 2020 strategy should be pushed out to 2030, as the EU’s SDG INDC
  • A new way of working is needed in Brussels

And the coda: we’re riding a tiger of rapid global change

Celebrate the SDGs as an aspirational framework, but watch out for the SDG police

First, it is important to be realistic about the scope and purpose of the SDG framework, as currently summarised in the Zero Draft, published at the beginning of June – and, by the way, rather unlikely to be changed very much between now and September. Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I am enthusiastic about integration and universality, but irritated by the failure to distinguish ends and means in the 17 Goals and 169 Targets, sceptical about the feasibility of some individual targets, and disappointed by the paucity of work on sequencing and trade-offs. I’m not alone in voicing these concerns: try Charles Kenny for similar views. I’ve tweeted previously, and expressed the view in the meeting, that if Heads of State were told they would go to prison if they signed up to the SDGs as drafted and they or their successors didn’t deliver, very few would sign.

The escape hatch on this is the wording in the document that says the SDGs will be global in scope, but that individual countries will shape their own programmes. This is best expressed in Para 19 of the zero draft, which says 

‘The new goals and targets will come into effect on 1 January 2016 and will guide the decisions we take over the next fifteen years. All of us will work to implement the Agenda within our own countries and at the regional and global levels. We will at the same time take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development. We will respect national policies and priorities and provide adequate policy space for economic growth, in particular for developing states. We acknowledge also the importance of the regional dimension: regional frameworks can facilitate the effective translation of sustainable development policies into concrete action at national level.’

This makes the global SDGs aspirational, a guiding normative framework rather than a foundation of action. Charles Kenny has made a similar point, calling the SDG framework no more than (and no less than) a document which ‘provides an authorising environment’; and Amina Mohammed more or less said the same. During the meeting, she talked about a framework or checklist. In a Twitter exchange after the meeting, she clarified that ‘the SDG framework should not undermine but be fully integrated into national plans and help lift the ambition’.

I think this is fine as far as it goes, but warned the audience that they could be sure the SDG police would be on the job as soon as the deal was signed, generating indicators, and publishing lists of who was and was not on track. What do you mean, you have not eliminated all marine pollution, but that’s an SDG target for 2025! And why is growth not 7% p.a., you promised! And, excuse me, have the incomes of the poorest 40% in your country risen faster than the average every single year? I think not!

This is not to decry the very important work that has been carried out on improving data, for example ODI's work on the data revolution. However, what price national self-determination when mounds of comparative statistics are being generated and pored over? Or, to put this another way, how do national politicians, developed and developing, benefit from an inspiring and comprehensive global vision, but also regain control and ownership of the agenda? And how do they define and use the data they will need for this purpose?

Climate trumps the SDGs this year

Second, another challenging proposition, one I have put forward before, is that the really important discussions in 2015 are not to be found in Sendai (disaster risk), Addis Ababa (finance) or New York (SDGs), but in Paris (climate). This is partly because the climate talks are the only ones not about normative frameworks but rather about legal commitments, but also because without a satisfactory settlement in Paris, there will be no, repeat no, chance of reaching the SDGs. CDKN, which I chair, commissioned some modelling on this. The results show (Figure 2) that a low ambition climate deal would put at risk the possibility of achieving poverty, gender, water and energy SDGs. Conversely, a high ambition deal would be consistent with achieving the SDGs.

Figure 2

Risk of failure to achieve SDGs associated with high and low ambition climate deals


The best way to understand the required outcome of the Paris talks is that the world, collectively, should commit to emitting no more than 42Gt of greenhouse gases in 2030. According to UNEP, in its Emissions Gap Report, as of the end of last year, the total of all pledges so far made, including those of the EU, added up to about 57 Gt – and not all those pledges were being met. So, further reductions of around 25% are needed to avoid catastrophic warming (Figure 3).

Figure 3

The Emissions Gap in 2030


The choreography of 2015 needs to be managed

Third, then, what matters most is managing the various negotiations and meetings so that they contribute to an overall package in 2015, rather than treating them separately. This means thinking about the choreography of 2015, and in particular what bargaining chips to deploy and when to deploy them. For example, I have been very exercised about the shortfalls from pledges to reach 0.7 by 2015, and keen that countries should make formal declarations of additional finance, but have also suggested that announcements of new money should be phased throughout the year, and perhaps made conditional on the final outcome in Paris.

There are, in addition, other cards to play. Technology looks like a very good bet, especially given the need for large-scale investment in renewable energy. There may also be options in trade, linked to the WTOWorld Trade Organization Ministerial later in the year.

I drafted a cut-out-and-keep guide to 2015 negotiations, reproduced in Figure 4.

Figure 4


There should be the equivalent of INDCs for the SDGs

Fourth, there is an interesting lesson to learn from the climate negotiations, the idea of each country submitting its national plan for mitigation, called, in the climate context, its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, or INDC. This forces countries to think hard about what level of mitigation they can manage, given other objectives, and generate a good deal of technical analysis. Why, I wonder, is there not a similar exercise for the SDGs: a library of SDG INDCs? Preferably, these would have been prepared before the SDGs were agreed, and might have thrown up some of the issues critics have identified. At the very least, they should be prepared as soon after New York as possible.

A key feature of climate INDCs is that they operate in a dynamic framework, looking at the likely trajectory of emissions under growth scenarios with Business As Usual (BAU) technologies and policies. Thus, they take account of growth and development, before estimating the impact of emission measures. The Ethiopia INDC is an example (Figure 5). It shows the reduction possible, from 400 Mt at 3.0 tons per capita under Business As usual, to only 145 Mt and 1.1 tons/capita in 2030. It would be fascinating for SDG INDCs, or whatever they are to be called, to adopt the same approach, and work out what it would take to achieve the goals.

Figure 5

Ethiopia’s INDC


What does this all mean for the EU?

So: an aspirational framework rather than a globally-determined blueprint; one in which climate is central; a negotiation process carefully managed to give satisfactory outcomes across all the negotiating fora of 2015; and a practical approach to implementation planning, focusing on managed deviations from Business As Usual. What does all this mean for the EU?

We should keep our promises

First, it is just amazing to me that EUEuropean Union countries think they can get away with the 39 bn euro shortfall in oda which currently prevails (Figure 6). This is not a shortfall from some aspirational 0.7 target, but a specific shortfall from targets agreed in 2005, that older Member States would reach 0.7 by 2015, and new Member States 0.33 by the same date. Charles Goerens MEP talked in the meeting about the EUEuropean Union needing to save its honour in 2015. Quite right. Heidi Hutala MEP, the former Finnish development minister, made a similar point, referring to her country’s plan to cut oda by 43%. And is there an offer on the table relating to technology or trade? The relevant Committees should be pressing the Member States to step up in Addis, New York and Paris. However, my strong advice is that any offer in Addis should be conditional on ambition in Paris.

Figure 6

EU aid performance


At the same time as oda is provided, it is important to target it well, especially to the poorest countries and the least developed. Other Means of Implementation also need to be on the agenda, including migration, trade, and other aspects of the policy coherence agenda. Ambassador P.I. Gomes, the new Secretary General of the ACP, made these points.

We need to act internally as well as externally

Second, it is constantly necessary to be reminded that the new agenda is both domestic and international, and within the EU, both national and at EUEuropean Union level. An interesting example arose in the meeting when Karmenu Vella spoke about the importance of reducing fossil fuels subsidies, which amount to some $US 400 m in developing countries. I was able to point to ODI research which showed that G20 countries (not all developed, of course, and with many EUEuropean Union countries excluded), spent as much as $88bn a year subsidising fossil fuel exploration, fossil fuels that might well have to be left in the ground. Other examples cited in the meeting included agriculture and health.

It is worth saying that the need to think both internally and externally was a key theme of the recent EUEuropean Union Think Tanks Report, ‘Our Collective Interest Why Europe’s problems need global solutions and global problems need European action’. Introducing the Report, the Directors of the four institutes said:

‘The key message is that the EU’s ambitions for its own citizens – for prosperity, peace and environmental sustainability – cannot be divorced from its global responsibilities and opportunities. As the title of the report suggests, Europe’s problems need global solutions, and global problems need European action. A shared collective effort is in our common interest.

International development will always have poverty reduction and human security at its core. However, it is no longer simply about a one-way relationship of support to developing countries – and especially not only about aid. We understand international development in this century to be about all countries and their citizens tackling shared problems of sustainable development, and with each partner playing its part.’

The 2020 strategy should be pushed out to 2030, as the EU’s SDG INDC

Third, and following the previous point, adopting the SDG framework imposes an obligation of the EUEuropean Union to map its own path to achieving the SDGs. I observed that there has been debate about revising the EU’s 2020 growth strategy, and that a 2030 timeframe might be more appropriate. It will also be worth asking whether the five priorities of the EUEuropean Union 2020 strategy, designed to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, as well as the associated indicators (Figure 7), are fully consistent with the SDG focus on inclusive growth and decent work.

Figure 7

Europe 2020 Targets


A new way of working is needed in Brussels

Finally, the integrated nature and universality of the SDGs implies a different way of working for parliaments, including the EP: less focus for the development committee on oda, more on policy coherence; and less work in silos, more cross-cutting work by multiple committees working tougher. These were also themes of the recent enquiry by the UK International Development Committee into the Future of UK Development Cooperation. It is worth adding that the EU’s results framework will also need to be broader in scope – see my recent piece on this.

And the coda: we’re riding a tiger of rapid global change

All this amounts to a real challenge to the mission and work programme of the European institutions. I said as much in the meeting, and added a final point, which was to emphasise that the new approach to normative frameworks and practical planning has to take account of exceptionally rapid change in the world economy: ageing, urbanisation, and technical change, to name but three. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s book, The Second Machine Age, was one of the best I read last year, and I now find myself lapping up debates on whether the robots will eat all the jobs. The transition to a green economy will cause major disruption, with both winners and losers. There are also rapid changes also in geopolitical power. I told the meeting I had just made my very first visit to China, and come away deeply shocked, I actually said frightened, by my own failure to engage with the progress China has made and its impact on the world economy. We study China in Africa, I said, but don’t we need to spend much more time studying China in China? Some of ‘us’ do, of course: IDSInstitute for Development Studies, Sussex in Sussex has a research centre on Rising Powers and Global Development , DIE in Bonn a programme on Managing Global Governance, ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) a range of relevant work. Globalisation need not be a zero sum game, I guess, but managing partnerships and synergies, both political and economic, is surely one of the great challenges we face to the SDG horizon of 2030.

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