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Unsustainable Development Goals

ARUSHA – At the end of this month, one of the most consequential political conferences of the decade will take place, with more than 150 world leaders gathering in New York to set the path for global development spending – more than $2.5 trillion – between now and 2030. But, in fact, heads of state are not expected to do much at the conference at all. With the so-called Agenda for Sustainable Development having been quietly finalized by diplomats and United Nations bureaucrats last month, the leaders are expected just to smile for the cameras and sign on the dotted line. Unfortunately, they are missing a one-in-a-generation opportunity to do much more good.

The agenda is the result of years of negotiations. Aiming for inclusivity, the UN talked to everyone. But, however admirable that approach may be, it did not prove successful. Indeed, looking at the agenda they produced – more than 15,000 words and a headache-inducing 169 development targets – one might conclude that they simply threw everything they had heard into the document.

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Compare this to the last global development agenda, the fairly successful Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs included just 18 sharp targets, promising essentially to cut hunger, poverty, and child and maternal mortality, while getting all children in school and improving access to water and sanitation.

It is not that the new promises are not well-intentioned. The problem is that they do not reflect effective prioritization, which is critical when resources are limited.

For example, the agenda calls for the provision of “universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities” by 2030. Green spaces are nice, but at a time when 1.2 billion people still live in abject poverty, 2.5 billion lack access to water and sanitation, and almost a billion people go to bed hungry each night, are they really a top priority? Funds are limited, after all.

Some promises seem to be based on an alternate reality. One of the ten global promises on education is this contorted formulation: “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Yet research shows that more than one-third of all school-age children – a quarter-billion in all – currently fail to learn even the fundamentals of reading and mathematics. Should we really divert resources away from basic education to ensure that we can promote sustainable development in schools?

Other targets assume that helping “small-scale artisanal fishers” and “to promote sustainable tourism” are among the most important goals for the world. There is even a target to “ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature”. Should we really be diverting resources away from efforts to tackle poverty and hunger in developing countries to raise awareness about environmentally conscious lifestyles?

Some targets are even more misguided. One promises to achieve “full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities.” While promising full employment might be politically popular, it is impossible, unnecessary, and sometimes even detrimental. After all, every economy needs some unemployment to allow workers to change jobs. Moreover, all functional governments are already focused on boosting employment. And studies show interest groups use “decent work” policies to create great jobs for a minority, while leaving the rest out, often pushing vulnerable workers back into the informal economy and increasing poverty.

In short, many of the targets are either marginally useful or highly problematic. Making matters worse, collecting data on the 169 promises could cost almost two years of development aid. As a result, the agenda will leave the world’s poorest far worse off than they could be.

It is a rather unlikely prospect, but instead of signing the Agenda for Sustainable Development as is, leaders should forego the photo opportunity and spend their time in New York cutting it down to just 19 key development targets. That is the number of targets that a panel of Nobel laureates identified in a project for my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

The panel studied more than 1,800 pages of peer-reviewed analysis, in order to determine which potential targets would achieve the most good – something that the UN never did. The targets they selected include cutting tuberculosis deaths by 95%, halving the prevalence of malaria, completing the Doha Round of global trade talks, and ensuring universal access to family planning. Channeling the entire development budget to the 19 targets that the panel identified would do four times more good than if we spread it across the UN’s 169 targets, with a large share of those benefits going to the world’s worst-off people.

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In lofty language, the UN claims that the Agenda for Sustainable Development’s 169 targets are “integrated and indivisible.” This is nonsense. Cutting them back is what should happen.

And that is exactly what will happen, the day after the UN conference, when leaders return home and recognize – as many quietly do already – that they cannot work on 169 grand targets simultaneously. Inevitably, they will choose a smaller number on which to focus. We can only hope that they choose those that promise to do the most good.