Sustainable Development Goals and Our Fascination with Mega-targets

2013•03•20 Christopher Doll United Nations University, Robert Blasiak Stockholm Resilience Centre

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish…” (John F. Kennedy, 1961)

Just four months had passed in John F. Kennedy’s presidency when he made his famous “man-on-the-moon” speech before a joint session of the United States Congress. It was a dramatic target and, when astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on 20 July 1969, it was crowned as a dramatic success that continues to inspire the world and bolster the nation’s sense of exceptionalism.

So, why did President Kennedy’s goal draw such a strong response and how does it continue to resonate 50 years later? For one thing, the Space Race between the Americans and Soviets was built on equal parts of soaring rhetoric and fear. The Cold War had been in full swing since the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, by the Soviets who soon recorded another achievement during those first four months of Kennedy’s presidency when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.

The man-on-the-moon target also benefited from a specific timeframe and, perhaps most importantly, a tangible outcome. On 21 July 1969, photographs of a human footprint on the moon were splashed on the covers of newspapers around the world. But who can photograph a world without poverty, an atmosphere with no more than 350 parts per million of carbon, or a world without prejudice?

A handful of dramatic targets — set and met — seems to have also emboldened the global community with a sense that “Yes, We Really Can”. These include, for example, the eradication of smallpox and hopefully the imminent eradication of polio and Guinea worm. Such successes are a remarkable tribute to cooperation and sustained commitment, and perhaps it is these indisputably admirable qualities that have led the international community to set an ever-increasing range of ambitious targets, including the Millennium Development Goals, Kyoto Protocol Emission Targets, the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, the Pearson Target, etc.

It’s systems, stupid

Bill Clinton’s famous quip that “it’s the economy, stupid” neatly sums up the prevailing attitude we take to managing countries: get the economy right and all good things follow. Yet the underlying methods for securing this feat have profound implications for society in general. The Cold War, in which the Space Race was the major battle, also accelerated the development of computing and cybernetics. The use of models and indicators has since proliferated throughout academic disciplines, especially economics.

However, this has caused us to take an increasingly systemized view of the world, where we in turn fit the world’s problems into something a computer can analyse. As a result, we have massive data streams on natural and social phenomena. These concepts have also fed into an international community that at times sounds increasingly managerial — capacity is built, knowledge is managed and daily activities revolve around targets, indicators and strategic goals.

And while the accompanying indicators and benchmarks seem like the sort of tailor-made binary answer we look to for progress, it is important to emphasize that an unmet target is by no means an indicator of zero-progress in so far as an indicator is a true representation of improvement. A dollar a day is a catchy indicator but doesn’t capture poverty in its entirety. Classic mantras like “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” pervade sustainable development and lead us to add ever more indicators to fill the gaps, but can we measure the right things? With this in mind, we take some of this occasionally contradictory rhetoric to examine the process shaping the forthcoming sustainable development goals (SDGs).

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together (African proverb)

It’s easy to understand the urge to make big goals, as a burgeoning world population, resource shortages and the spectre of climate change rapidly coalesce into a series of doomsday scenarios where apparently insurmountable challenges demand similarly grand targets.

Such mega-targets of course have their place; large targets give a sense of the challenge, they are global and they permit us to know where we are going. Perhaps most significantly, understanding where we want to go also allows us to map out the potential pathways to get there. Many of the global challenges we face require not only coordinated action but also large-scale systemic change, which can only be achieved when we see the whole picture.

The danger of small-scale actions taken in an uncoordinated manner is that ignorance of the larger context can lead us stumbling down dark and confusing pathways where we end up working at cross-purposes. At the same time, small targets tailored to local conditions and available capacity have the potential for empowering stakeholders, building ownership and increasing inclusivity.

Ironically, the optimistic ambition of mega-targets can make the whole thing seem futile and unachievable. Without the promise of concerted action, small actions in and of themselves can seem pointless — a decidedly un-empowering thought.

Dangerously, we also tend to believe the same in the opposite sense — that our individual actions do not cumulatively amount to much environmental harm, as was captured in this satirical take on recycling.

While “act locally, think globally” has long been the tenet to connect the two, we still have a mental disconnect, especially when lobbies of many worthy possible targets start to press their issue as the pre-eminent global concern. Doubtless, they are connected, but it is easy to get lost when confronted with the bewildering array of issues encompassing population, social equity, energy, biodiversity and human security — to mention but a few. Even the most concerned consumer or donor to worthy causes quickly realizes the need to pick priorities.

In a sobering parallel, it could be pointed out that there are very few people who are “against the environment”, “against sea turtles” or “against clean air”. It is rather that some people have likely just prioritized other issues such as employment, economic development, or in the most extreme cases, pure profit motives.

Many hands make light work/too many cooks spoil the broth?

Underneath the surface of sustainable development are two powerful communities leading the drive to save the world, but they come from distinct intellectual traditions. One is the development community that is rooted in social science and development economics and which pushes sustainable development from the social and economic perspectives of the bottom billion striving to get access to basic needs (food, shelter, education and health). The other is the Earth system science community that is emerging from the natural sciences and which has provided the evidence for climate change and how natural systems respond to anthropogenic activities and can cater to a growing population.

Together, these form two axes of the development agenda. While each agreeing on the importance of the other, when it comes to priority setting, it is unsurprising that each will retreat to seeing their own field as being the key to the problem. This is complicated by an uneasy tension: that rapid economic growth to lift the masses out of poverty is most quickly achieved through unsustainable pathways that lead to mass consumerism and the very thing that is causing much of our problems. Despite some discussion around what a new prosperity would look like, policymakers lag considerably behind this thinking, tinkering instead with business-as-usual.

[quote quote=”These two academic groups then find themselves advising on a sprawling multilateral political process to define the goals.” type=”text” ]

These two academic groups then find themselves advising on a sprawling multilateral political process to define the goals. Issues are supported by various NGOs who lobby/advocate so they may find favour among the parties (countries) who ultimately decide what should be included, desirable and achievable.

In all of this, it is easy to forget that perhaps the most important voice is that of the people themselves. The issue of who sets the goals and for whom is important because all implementation is ultimately local and the relevance of any goal in a particular location may be more or less suitable. Last year’s Rio+20 summit held a range of activities and dialogues with civil society, culminating with a global vote on priorities, the top 10 of which can be seen here.

Think local, act global: Framing the SDGs

The mood of Rio+20 did not bode well for concerted action, as it was largely dominated by national interests rather than collective action. Against this backdrop, the Earth System Governance project convened recently in Tokyo (27-29 January 2013) to tackle a plethora of thorny issues.

With the focus on Earth systems, there was a re-examination of the discourse on planetary boundaries, which implies that there are limits to growth (or, in a bit of semantic wizardry, “growth within limits”). Whether such discussions are actually meaningful or merely political word play remains to be seen. Concepts like planetary stewardship are catchy but are more difficult to build a set of goals upon when we know that earth systems are inherently dynamic, even before considering human impacts.

The current goals or targets are being considered around four key areas:

•    Human rights and dignity
•    Equitable economic growth
•    Social equity
•    Environmental sustainability

However, there was a sense that what we ought to be looking at is not goals themselves but an approach based on values and norms. If specific targets on the number of poor or access to clean water are hard to interpret, might not an agreement on underlying values be a more effective way to proceed?

Interdependence is one such guiding principle; a fundamental recognition that countries cannot act alone and what happens in one location, affects another. The global trade in exotic species that is decimating endangered species in Africa gains wide coverage (link includes a graphic image), while the transboundary nature of air pollution can unify nations in spite of other diplomatic strains. Similarly, concerted anti-narcotic efforts in Colombia have resulted in what’s known as a balloon effect, as elements of the illicit production and sale of drugs are displaced to surrounding countries that had previously been relatively unaffected.

[quote quote=”Locally designed strategies promote domestic discussion to create ownership and empower agents of change within society to address needs most pertinent to the country in question.” type=”text” ]

The implication of this interdependence is that issues of global importance look different at global, regional and local scales. Universal discourse and goal setting can only go so far if they neglect the importance of locally designed strategies as something that can promote domestic discussion to create ownership and empower agents of change within society to address needs most pertinent to the country in question.

Realistically, without official development assistance as a tool for dictating policy, countries will find their own pathways and it is here that the most effort can be made to understand how different pathways can get us to where we need to get to, and the milestones to achieving sustainability in our urban, energy, agricultural, etc., systems.

Whether the SDGs end up being a set of flagship goals of high normative aspirations (like the Millennium Development Goals), flexible goals of trade offs and balances that provide deliverable targets, or something more expansive in terms of principles, visions and waypoints with uncertain pathways, remains to be seen.

Actions speak louder than words

It’s a fairly safe bet that while you were reading this article, somewhere in the world global targets were being discussed. Perhaps an equally safe bet is that during these discussions, the phrase “the time for talking is over” was repeated. And indeed, this is one of the great dangers of our fascination with global mega-targets — if we set too many without meeting them, the nagging sense of too much talk and not enough action will certainly grow.

Ultimately though, goals and targets are articulations of our collective dreams, and ideally we can identify with these dreams as individuals and as a society. While many bemoan the strange paradox of an increasingly interconnected world often resulting in greater isolation, collective dreams are some of our most valuable assets.

Achieving these dreams therefore holds the potential not only for solving some of the world’s biggest challenges, but also bringing humanity closer together. As Bob Dylan sang in 1963, just two years after President Kennedy’s man-on-the-moon speech, “I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours.”

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Sustainable Development Goals and Our Fascination with Mega-targets by Christopher Doll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Christopher Doll is a Research Fellow at United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. His research interest focuses on using spatially explicit datasets to support policymaking for sustainable development with application in areas of urbanisation and biodiversity. He has previously held positions at Columbia University in New York and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. Born and educated in the UK, Christopher holds a PhD in Remote Sensing from University College London.

Robert Blasiak

Stockholm Resilience Centre

Robert Blasiak is a post-doctoral fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a senior fellow with the NEREUS program, and a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo’s Laboratory of Global Fisheries Science. He has focused on different aspects of cooperation and conflict related to ocean management, with recent publications on the BBNJ process (biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction). Robert completed studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (BA), Lund University (MA) and University of Tokyo (PhD).