Child obesity  in India Barcroft/Getty Images

The Mis-Measure of Development

Today’s global development agenda is trying to be all things to all people. The Millennium Development Goals worked because they were few in number and sharply focused. By contrast, the MDGs' successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, comprise an eye-popping 169 targets, which means there is no focus at all.

BERMUDA – A new scorecard that purports to grade countries on development progress tells us little about how we are faring against humanity’s biggest challenges. Instead, it highlights the shortcomings of today’s unfocused global development agenda.

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The major new report, led by Jeffrey D. Sachs and issued by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung, provides a color-coded dashboard to demonstrate how well every country is doing at implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the hugely important agenda that succeeded the highly effective Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 18 months ago. Green indicates success across all indicators of a goal; yellow, orange, and red point to increasing distances from achieving the goal.

You might expect to discover from the rating how well rich countries are allocating their development aid, and how successfully poorer countries are spending their own funds, to make sure more people have access to education, healthcare, food security, and a safe, clean environment – the planet’s fundamental development challenges.

Instead, the index shows us that Cambodia – where more than 20% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day – gets a green, outperforming an orange Spain on implementation of SDG 1: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” On government efficiency, the report claims that Italy is doing worse than all countries except Venezuela – much worse than Burundi or even Syria – in a ranking topped by Singapore and, more surprisingly, Rwanda.

The United States scores a surprising number of reds and yellows, ranking 42nd out of 157 countries overall. In fact, the US fails to achieve a single green ranking for any of the 17 SDGs, sharing this dubious honor with only Greece, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey, among OECD nations. (War-torn Yemen, by contrast, scores green for both “Climate Action” and “Partnership for the Goals”.)

America-bashing is popular and easy. But US taxpayers do give nearly a quarter of all the money spent on direct development aid by rich countries. A report that gives the world’s biggest donor the lowest possible rating for “Partnerships for the Goals” would seem to have some underlying issues. (Myanmar, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia all score green marks in this category.)

A larger problem is behind the report’s oddities: today’s development agenda is trying to be all things to all people. The MDGs worked because they were few in number and sharply focused. The SDGs comprise an eye-watering 169 targets, which means there is no focus at all.

The US gets a less-than-stellar yellow for SDG 3, which covers health and wellbeing. Why? Life expectancy in the US is relatively high, and neonatal and maternal mortality rates are relatively low. It turns out that the overall US score is dragged down by the poor mark given for the country’s high number of traffic deaths. But conflating car accidents in Ohio with neonatal mortality rates and HIV prevalence merely muddies the global development agenda.

And Australia gets a red on the “End Hunger” SDG, not because of significant starvation or micronutrient deficiency, but because its obesity rates are too high and its extensive agriculture has lower yields.

Obesity and agricultural efficiency in rich countries are certainly important. But in the attempt to make sure both developing and developed countries have problems to solve, we’re losing sight of what really matters: Some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. That’s about one of every nine people on Earth. The vast majority live in developing countries, where 12.9% of the population is undernourished.

Solving micronutrient deficiencies was one of 19 specific targets identified by a panel of Nobel laureate economists who studied the SDG targets for the Copenhagen Consensus, the think tank I direct, and identified the most cost-effective ways to help people, protect the planet, and boost prosperity. Targets such as achieving universal access to contraception and family planning, ending tuberculosis by 2030, freer global trade, ending fossil-fuel subsidies, and protecting coral reefs would help the environment and improve billions of lives.

Analysis showed that focusing on the panel’s top 19 targets would achieve about four times more in terms of welfare gains than would trying to distribute funds among all 169 targets. Instead, governments are laboring with the sheer number of SDGs. As the SDG Index admits, “countries appear to struggle with implementing the full range” of indicators.

Countries themselves are now doing the prioritization that the UN failed to do. They cannot possibly achieve all 169 targets at once, so they focus on only some of them. The real danger is that their selection will not be those targets that could do the most good per dollar, pound, rupee or peso spent, but those that have the most media appeal, NGO attention, or corporate interest.

We need to strip back the development agenda to its core issues, and focus on those areas where each dollar spent can achieve the most for humanity. Only by doing so can a scorecard help us maximize development progress.

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