How global goals for sustainable development work


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This paper asks whether a set of global goals would be an effective tool for changing global behaviour towards meeting the requirements of sustainable development.

With the next round of planning for what follows the MDGs under way, this paper considers both sides of the argument. It concludes that the discursive, realm-of-possibility setting nature of global goals should not be underestimated.

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How global goals for sustainable development work

  1. 1. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_m Global goals for sustainable development 1. IntroductionThis paper asks whether a set of global goals would be an effective tool for changing globalbehaviour towards meeting the requirements of sustainable development. This introductionsets out the criteria used to judge effectiveness, and outlines the rest of the essay.The ‘effectiveness’ criteria used is one of whether goals are likely to elicit any change in thebehaviour of global actors towards sustainable development. Clearly this is a low bar. To decidewhether global goals are more effective than other governance tools it would be necessary toexamine exactly what must be achieved and to perform a thorough review of the mostappropriate method to reach those outcomes. However, sustainable development is a vastsubject and a large research project would be required in order to make a robust predictionabout the likely success of various methods. Moreover, the literature on ‘global goals’ is limitedcompared to that on international law or international organisations. This essay is merely astarting point in a discussion about the effectiveness of sustainable development goals.Following a conceptualisation of ‘global goals’ in section two, the essay goes on to consider thearguments for and against sustainable development goals, in sections three and fourrespectively. The essay concludes, in section five, that agreement on the effectiveness of globalgoals is likely to require a constructivist rather than realist worldview and that furtherevidence-based research is necessary. 2. An overview of global goalsThis section conceptualises global goals, explains the topical nature of the issue, and thendescribes how sustainable development goals are being advanced.A global goals approach is best exemplified by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).These were agreed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 and were designed to focusthe world’s efforts to end poverty. They are a set of eight broad goals, divided into 21 targets,with specific, mostly quantifiable indicators, to be met by 2015. For example, ‘MDG 6: CombatHIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases’ has three targets, including ‘6A: Have halted by 2015 andbegun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS’, which are measured by ten different indicators,including ‘HIV prevalence, condom use, and proportion of population with comprehensive,correct knowledge of HIV/AIDS’. Goals were used in this context in order to harmonise efforts toend poverty and to provide a way of measuring progress.1Global goals are not legally binding. A party that commits to them will suffer no repercussionshould they not be met. No coercive power is exercised, and no new international organisationswill be created. Instead, positive outcomes are reliant upon the commitment made bysignatories and the discursive, social power of jointly-shared goals. Global goals are deliberatelysimple: in their shortest form, the MDGs are just 37 words – including all the targets andindicators they are just over 1000 words – the antithesis of a complex international treaty.Global goal-setting is back on the global agenda for two reasons. The first is temporal:discussions are growing, particularly in the development field, as to what should follow the1 United Nations, 2007. 1
  2. 2. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mMDGs in three years time. The second is that environmentalists are now considering whetherglobal goals might work for sustainable development. The governments of Colombia andGuatemala proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) for the agenda of the UN Conferenceon Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012.2 They will seek agreement on the idea of aset of SDGs and a mandate for the UN to develop the precise goals by 2015.3 It is not necessaryat this stage of negotiations to agree on the precise goals, and these shall not be discussed in thisessay. Some of the key suggestions are presented in Annex 1. It is necessary, however, to discusswhether goals are an appropriate tool at all. 3. Why goals workThis section develops the argument that global goals, targets and indicators could be aneffective tool in changing global behaviour to meet the requirements of sustainabledevelopment. It considers where goals lie on a spectrum of behaviour change, argues for goals’discursive power generally, and for their particular relevance for sustainable development. a. Goals generallyMethods of behaviour change can be seen as lying on a spectrum from norm promotion tobinding law with strong compliance mechanisms. Often the latter is considered the strongestmethod. Yet the early part of the spectrum is not necessarily less effective. In the absence of law,it is possible to use normative, behavioural or cognitive factors, such as reputation, elite groupmembership or domestic pressure to create change. These might include league tables, prizes,or citation before international panels.4 These efforts socialise concepts that come to be thenorms that change or reinforce behaviour.5 Global goals are towards the norm-promotion endof the spectrum: their power is discursive. A small group of well-publicised goals would shapeobligations, expectations, priorities and commitments.This discursive power lies both in the goals and the indicators. Firstly, a small group of goals canbe easily absorbed and explained by the media, far more so than a legal treaty. This has beendemonstrated with the MDGs, which are advocated by media luminaries such as Ted Turner.6This keeps goals on the global media agenda and builds public support to maintain domesticpressure on governments. Clear, overarching goals are not only a boon to the media, but also tothose working in the field, particularly in smaller non-governmental organisations. Those whoargue that only bottom-up policy will create sustainable development tend to neglect the powerof having a strong international norm to which to link a grass-roots policy.7 Bottom upinnovation is not generated out of nothing, but is rather a response to necessity or a call toaction. Goals give advocates for change a strong brand on which to hang their campaigns,empowering them to succeed. Organisations working towards a global goal might be more likelyto get funding or support from larger agencies. Common goals create better opportunities tolink with other ‘roots’ doing similar things: the shared language creates an environment forefficiency and productivity.2 República de Colombia, 2011.3 Ibid.4 See, e.g. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Mo Ibrahim Prize forAchievement in African Leadership, etc.5 See, e.g. Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998.6 Turner, 2011; Murray et al, 2007.7 Victor, 2006, p.99. 2
  3. 3. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mSecondly, beyond the overarching goals, the indicators provide the detail required to provetechnical robustness. Moreover, setting the indicators themselves can be a useful way ofsocialising demands for change. In this process, actors have to start with the outcomes theywant to see achieved. They must work together as a ‘global’ society to carefully define how theywill measure success. This stage of development may be difficult, but once established, allowsany actor who can concretely prove that an indicator is shifting due to an action they took to besocially rewarded, or allows campaigners to prove the opposite, and to shame the actors.Indicators could be especially powerful in the field of sustainable development, for the reasonsexplained in 3b below.The discursive power of goals also allows for the exercise of power over intransigentinstitutional opposition, such as the hegemonic macroeconomic discourse found in theinternational financial institutions. The single goal these institutions promote is economicgrowth; an idea that has captured the discourse of ‘progress’ for decades. The extent to whichnew global goals can change this was demonstrated to a greater and lesser extent by the MDGs.These were enthusiastically adopted by the World Bank, who now work in tandem with theUnited Nations to provide data on poverty. The effect on the IMF has been weaker. It argues thatGDP growth and limited state spending is still the key to the meeting MDGs.8 This demonstratesa lack of discursive power: the IMF adopted the MDGs, but managed to place them within theirworldview, and as a result IMF policies have not changed.Finally, though this essay has used MDG evidence to support several claims for goals, there isthe question of whether these global goals did effectively change behaviour on povertyreduction overall. Much of the literature agrees that the MDGs changed the political debate andgalvanised support for global poverty reduction by providing clarity, a focus on implementation,and inspiring engagement beyond traditional development sectors.9 This does not mean thatthey helped to reduce poverty. It is not possible to prove that the MDGs caused a reduction inpoverty greater than would have been realised counterfactually. However, authors in the fieldhave concluded that the MDGs probably helped increase aid spending and probably changednational policies to benefit poverty reduction.10 b. Goals for sustainable developmentThere are reasons to believe that global goals would be particularly effective for sustainabledevelopment, including the potential for bringing together the three realms of sustainabledevelopment, the global nature of environmental problems and solutions, and the currentmovement towards a new macro-indicator of global progress.One of the motivations for those suggesting the SDGs is to re-harmonise the three elements ofsustainable development: economic growth, social welfare and environmental protection, whichhave become disparate over time.11 Sustainable development came to mean ‘the environment’when, as clearly defined in the Brundtland report, it was meant to be the marriage of those8 IMF, 2010; Gutner, 2010.9 E.g. The High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012, p.72; Melamed and Sumner, 2011.10 Melamed and Sumner, 2011.11 República de Colombia, 2011. 3
  4. 4. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mthree fields.12 A set of common goals could encapsulate all three elements, reminding people oftheir interlocking nature.Secondly, it is not only states whose behaviour requires change. Sustainable development is apost-globalisation problem, which requires a multi-scalar reaction, going beyond the nationstate to include corporations, local governments and individuals.13 Sustainable developmentproblems are global in nature, and so are their solutions. It was on this basis that Agenda 21 wascreated at the first Rio Summit. The SDGs could build on this, creating specific, coherent andclear targets for sustainable development, to be pursued at various levels of governance.It is the indicators that are particularly important. These operationalise sustainabledevelopment, making it real for finance ministers or development banks who may have ignoredit, or left it for environmental departments to deal with, because it was perceived as a woollyconcept. Furthermore, strong indicators in this area could help establish paradigmatic shift intwo ways. Firstly, they could inspire a movement away from the primary value given to GDPindicators towards an indicator inclusive of social and environmental measures. Secondly, theycould also to expand ideas of what sustainable development can incorporate, from a greeneconomy to participatory governance models to social protection, education and health.14 Onthe former point, global discourse on progress continues to present an increase in income as theend goal of society and individuals. It is difficult to understate the power of indicators of income,which can bring down governments, remove boards from companies and are religiouslyreported by the media. A more complex, holistic metric could be a powerful force in shapingthinking around progress.Several governments, think tanks and international organisations are already working on newindicators for progress, whether ‘wellbeing’ or ‘happiness’ to go ‘beyond GDP.’15 The SDGs couldsupport these efforts, or better, bring them together to create universal metric – a globalsustainable development index.16 The idea of a regular ‘state of the planet’ report by the UNSecretary-General will be discussed at Rio+20. This could build upon the power of thisindicator.17 4. The problems with goalsThis section outlines and reviews several arguments against global goals as a means of changingglobal behaviour, including the limited power of discourse versus self-interest, the problems forlocal delivery and accountability, and the issue of finding agreement on the goals.The first criticism goes to the heart of the effectiveness of goals as it regards compliance andtheir universal nature. It states that the most accurate indicators and robust reporting may stillnot elicit change if the powerful do not will it. Empathy, reputational costs and socialisation of12 Drexhage and Murphy, pp.1,2.13 See, e.g. Scholte, 2000.14 Global Environmental Governance Project, 2011.15 These include the ‘environmental accounting’ work of the World Bank, UNECA’s sustainabledevelopment indicator framework for Africa, the UNECE/OECD/Eurostat Taskforce for MeasuringSustainable development, OECD’s Better Life Index, and various national ‘wellbeing’ indexes. The majorityof these were inspired by the work of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission.16 Global Environmental Governance Project, 2011, pp. 7-9.17 For the ‘state of planet’ review see United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20),2012, para. 56. 4
  5. 5. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mnorms only go so far in the face of domestic political accountability, profit-making and personalconsumption. While lessons from other regimes are sometimes positive – states do, forexample, regularly submit to external monitoring and potential sanction on human rights andtrade issues – sustainable development may require far greater behaviour change and nationalcosts.18 The difficulty is intensified with global goals as there is no strict individual culpability ifthey are not met. There is thus a strong incentive for free-riding.Further research is necessary on whether global goals could be matched with innovativecompliance mechanisms that add to the discursive power discussed in section three. Aninstitution like the UN Global Compact regularly de-lists companies that fail to meet its criteriaand bans them from using its branding – this institutionalised ‘naming and shaming’ processmight still not be enough.19 To neutralise these realist arguments against global goals, it wouldbe necessary to find some kind of universal issue-link or lock-in mechanism that creates moreself-interested incentives beyond obedience to social norms.The second criticism is from those who argue that the global nature of the goals is inappropriatewhen sustainable development is driven by ‘resolutely local’ issues.20 Others suggest that thatwhile the goals could be global, national governments must have primacy on ownership andaccountability for the framework and delivery.21 This seems contradictory, but countries willhave to take different measures to ensure the world meets goals: this creates a problem whenthe overall indicator of success is global, and the rewards of sustainable development may beunevenly distributed.While it is clear that local action must be taken to meet any SDGs, this does not necessarilyrequire local actors. A scaled-up Global Environment Facility would enable projects to beinitiated, financed and managed by different parties, as befits a global solution. Nationalgovernments may only be needed for their approval. Furthermore, global indicators could bechannelled into expectations for each nation, which could be monitored by a central globalbody. This would still rely on the social power of goals and that nations would take actiondespite the lack of coercion. The lessons from the MDGs are not particularly favourable: severaltargets are likely to be missed and there will be no national or global accountability for this, justunmet commitments. 22 Likewise, the OECD aid target of 0.7% is not met by many, suggestingthat reputation costs and domestic pressure is not enough to drive compliance.23The third criticism deals with the process of gaining agreement on the actual goals, perhaps notso much easier than agreeing on a comprehensive treaty. The SDGs have been proposed in anatmosphere probably less cooperative than that of the MDGs. The latter were developed in thelate 1990s in a context of booming OECD economies and a uni-polar world, with triggerpressure applied by faith-based campaigns providing the grass-roots support for large-scalepolitical anti-poverty commitments.24 Fifteen years on and power structures are changing: the18 For example, the UN Human Rights Council, and stronger regional bodies such as the European orInter-American Courts of Human Rights. The WTO is exceptional at a world level in that it provides adispute settlement mechanism, but its sanctions are limited.19 See Victor, 2006, p.99.21 UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (2011).22 Melamed, 2011.23 OECD, 2010.24 E.g. The Jubilee 2000 campaign was a network of churches working with Oxfam et al. 5
  6. 6. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mworld faces increasing multi-polar (or ‘non-polar’25) deadlock in institutions, and austerity inthe OECD region. Early meetings on the SDGs have suggested some difficulties regarding theindicators and ‘regional particularity’.26 India is thought to be against quantifiable indicators.27More positively, as pointed out by several NGOs, there is already much collective agreement onthe ‘goals’ of sustainable development - the next step is to prioritise them and support theirdelivery.28 The original proposal by Colombia and Guatemala argues that since the Rio Summitin 1992 set out the guiding principles and road map and the World Summit on SustainableDevelopment in 2002 set out a plan of implementation, Rio+20 only needs to take the next smallstep towards creating SDGs to encourage structured implementation.29 5. ConclusionThis essay described global goals and specifically the suggestion of SDGs at Rio+20. It thendeveloped the reasons for which goals, targets and indicators can change global behaviour, mostof which relied upon their discursive power. It argued that goals would be particularly effectivein the issue area of sustainable development, since they could help marry the tripartite realms,reflect the multi-scalar action required and their indicators could shift the discourse of progressbeyond GDP. The essay then provided an overview of the weaknesses of global goals,particularly with regard to free rider effects, confusion over levels of responsibility and action,and the fact that agreement on indicators may be difficult to reach. The first of these is still themost problematic.Ultimately, whether global goals are perceived as effective will depend on whether a realist orconstructivist position towards international affairs is taken. However, given the growth of‘global’ issues, which somewhat transcend nation-states (and realist theory), and given thatdiscursive power should not be underestimated, global goals are likely to be effective inchanging state behaviour. As Fuchs says: ‘discursive power precedes the formation andarticulation of interests in the political process...’30 While empirical evidence for behaviourchange caused by goal-setting is sparse, perhaps the fact that global goals are back on theagenda, and have travelled between disciplines, is a sign that many people believe they are aneffective tool.Further research into this area could investigate: the political will for the goals; the risks ofcompetition between development and environment activists; the legitimacy of the goals-drafting process; the larger question of the most effective method for achieving sustainabledevelopment; and opportunities or ideas for new methods to change global behaviour. Giventhat there are merely three months to Rio+20, supporting sustainable development goals wouldseem like a realistic and achievable starting point.25 Haass, 2008.26 Evans and Stevens, 2012; Global Environmental Governance Project, 2011, p.11.27 Evans and Stevens, 2012.28 World Future Council response, in UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service, 2011, p.8.29 República de Colombia, 2011.30 Fuchs, 2005, p.778, my emphasis. 6
  7. 7. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_m 6. Annex 1 Suggested sustainable development goal areas31 Theme Colombia/Guatemala (8) NGOs / CSOs (17) UN High Level Panel (11)Energy Energy, including Clean energy Energy renewableConsumption Changing consumption Sustainable Sustainable patterns consumption and consumption productionCommons Biodiversity and forests Biodiversity Biodiversity Forests Oceans Healthy seas and Oceans oceans Water resources Water WaterFood Advancing food security Food security Sustainable agricultureSocial policy Green jobs Sustainable Decent work and livelihoods, youth and social inclusion education Combating poverty Basic healthClimate Climate sustainability Disaster risk reduction ResilienceHabitat Promoting sustainable Green cities human settlement developmentGovernance Subsidies and investment New indicators of progress Access to information Public participation Access to redress and remedy Environmental justice for the poor and marginalised31High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012; UN Conference on Sustainable DevelopmentSecretariat, 2012; República de Colombia, 2011. 7
  8. 8. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_m 7. Bibliography and works citedBond, Patrick, 2006, ‘Global Governance Campaigning and MDGs: From Top-down to Bottom-up Anti-Poverty Work’. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 339-354.Evans, Alex and Steven, David, 2012, ‘Sustainable Development Goals – a useful outcome from Rio+20?’ New York, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.Drexhage, John and Murphy, Deborah, 2010, ‘Sustainable Development: From Brundtland to Rio 2012.’ Background Paper prepared for consideration by the High Level Panel on Global Sustainability at its first meeting, 19 September 2010. International Institute for Sustainable Development.Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, 1998, ‘International norm dynamics and political change.’ International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 887-917.Fuchs, Doris, 2006, ‘Commanding Heights? The Strength and Fragility of Business Power in Global Politics’, Millennium - Journal of International Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp.771- 801.Global Environmental Governance Project, 2011, ‘Input to the High-level Panel on Global Sustainability: Paradigms.’ Submission prepared in the context of Working Group II of the High-level Panel of Global Sustainability. Available at 20on%20Paradigms.pdf, accessed March 28, 2012.Gutner, Tamar, 2010, ‘When “doing good” does not: the IMF and the Millennium Development Goals.’ In Deborah Avant, Martha Finnemore and Susan Sell, eds., ‘Who Governs the Globe?’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Haass, Richard, 2008. ‘The Age of Nonpolarity.’ Foreign Affairs, May 3. Available at, accessed March 28, 2012.The High-level Panel on Global Sustainability, 2012, ‘Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing.’ Addis Ababa, United Nations.International Monetary Fund, 2010, ‘Reaching the MDGs: Macroeconomic Prospects & Challenges in Low-Income Countries.’ Background Note by IMF Staff for the United Nations MDG Summit. Available at, accessed March 28, 2012.Melamed, Claire, 2011, ‘Creating consensus: political opportunities and barriers for a post- 2015 agreement on development’. London: Overseas Development Institute.Melamed, Claire and Sumner, Andy, 2011, ‘A Post-2015 Global Development Agreement: why, what, who?’ Paper produced for the ODI/UNDP Cairo workshop on a post- 2015 Global Development Agreement, 26-27 October 2011. 8
  9. 9. Joseph Mitchell Global goals for sustainable development – May 2012 @j0e_mMinisterio de Relaciones Exteriores, República de Colombia, 2011, ‘RIO + 20: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) : A Proposal from the Governments of Colombia and Guatemala.’ Available at, accessed March 28, 2012.Murray, Christopher and Frenk, Julio and Evans, Timothy, 2007, ‘The Global Campaign for the Health MDGs: challenges, opportunities, and the imperative of shared learning.’ The Lancet, Vol. 370, Issue 9592, pp. 1018-1020, September 22, 2007.OECD, 2010, ‘History of the 0.7% ODA Target’. DAC Journal 2002, Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 9-11, revised 2010. Available at, accessed March 28, 2012.Scholte, Jan Aart, 2000, ‘Globalization: A Critical Introduction’. London: Macmillan.Turner, Ted, 2011, ‘Power in collaboration: advancing the Millenium [sic] Development Goals.’ Harvard International Review, Spring 2011, pp. 74-77.United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), 2012, ‘The Future We Want - zero draft of the outcome document.’ Available at, accessed Feb 16, 2012.United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Secretariat, 2012, ‘RIO 2012 Issues Briefs No.6: Current Ideas on Sustainable Development Goals and Indicators’. Available at %20-%20SDGs%20and%20Indicators_Final%20Final%20clean.pdf, accessed March 28, 2012.United Nations, 2007, ‘Millennium Development Goals Indicators: The Official United Nations Site of the MDG Indicators’. Available at, accessed March 28, 2012.United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service, 2011, ‘Summary Report: Civil Society Consultation Conducted by the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) for the UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability’. Available at y_Report_-_UN-NGLS_Consultation_for_the_Global_Sustainability_Panel.pdf, accessed March 28, 2012.Vandemoortele, Jan, 2005, ‘Ambition is Golden: Meeting the MDGs’, Development, Vol. 48, No.1, pp. 5–11.Victor, David, 2006, ‘Recovering Sustainable Development’. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan-Feb), pp.91-103. 9