Op-Ed

17 goals, 169 targets too much of good thing at UN summit

Activists stand on the Millennium bridge in London to demand action on poverty, inequality and climate change on the eve of a United Nations summit.
Activists stand on the Millennium bridge in London to demand action on poverty, inequality and climate change on the eve of a United Nations summit. AFP/Getty Images

Usually, discussions about aid to poor countries remind me of the joke about the bad restaurant: “The food here is terrible, and the portions are too small.”

When world leaders gather at the United Nations this weekend to discuss a new set of aid and development goals for the next 15 years, their agenda reminds me of a different admonition, often heard from mothers warning their kids off sweets: “Too much of a good thing is not a good thing at all.”

The international summit is set to adopt no fewer than 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 accompanying targets. According to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the goals are meant to “leave no one behind” and are designed to end all forms of poverty everywhere, providing access to water, energy, education, health and jobs.

Despite the laudable goals, the end product is anything but focused and strategic. If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. At a time when refugees fleeing extreme poverty and violence are desperately trying to reach Europe and the U.S., this broad agenda may be a luxury the world community can ill afford.

Unmet goals

What this well-intentioned process illustrates is how difficult it is to establish priorities at a global level among stakeholders with vastly differing views. Who will finance this agenda is also far from clear. The $135 billion or so of annual aid provided voluntarily by the U.S., Japan and mostly European countries won’t go very far given the breadth of the agenda. Other funds could come from increased taxes and trade in developing countries, private investment and international loans; so far little in the way of new money has been identified.

The SDGs are the successors to the eight Millennium Development Goals established in 2000, which called for less poverty and more health, education and clean water. These goals are being put to rest this year, but not because they were achieved. While progress was made globally, thanks especially to rapid growth and improved social conditions in Asia, most of Africa was unable to meet the majority of the goals.

Some, like William Easterly of New York University, said it was a rigged game from the start that ensured most African countries would not be able to meet the goals. Others, like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, said there was a mismatch between the goals’ ambitions and the amount of aid actually received. Others point to conflict, corruption or lack of capacity in African nations. Most likely, Africa’s slow progress, despite decent economic growth overall, is a combination of all of it.

But rather than focus on one or two crucial goals this time around, the attendees at the U.N. Summit will consider tackling 169 targets. That makes it next to impossible to measure results and hold anyone accountable, let alone make break-through progress.

Fortunately, things look much more doable at the country level. Governments with limited resources – especially those that depend on aid from abroad – have no choice but to be selective. Some of their priorities may fortuitously coincide with the global goals. (With so many of them, how could they not?)

The country level

The worst result would be if nations providing aid insist that poor developing countries do things simply because they are part of a global agenda. That’s a recipe for “aid fatigue” in both donor and recipient countries, with little to show for the money spent.

If we truly want to help poor nations develop and reduce poverty, maybe it is time to stop this global chatter on goals and redouble efforts – selectively and strategically – at the country level and with country leadership. It would be unfortunate if we traveled back to the era before we recognized the value of country-specific knowledge, country ownership of development efforts, and aid aligning with recipients’ specific strategies and priorities. A country-focused approach is probably the only way the international community won’t wind up hurting the world’s poor instead of helping them.

Some will say there are recipient governments that will not or cannot lead the way. True, but as long as national sovereignty is still the reigning concept in international relations, ultimately the countries themselves need to act.

The sheer number of goals and targets is likely to produce impatience and gridlock in the aid and development world. As your mother might have said, “Too much of a good thing.”

Phyllis Pomerantz teaches at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and is a former World Bank official.

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