Could global goals encourage sustainable development? JFK would think so

In May 1961, JFK announced the US’s plan to put a man on the moon. A year later, he gave a speech at Rice University:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Grand goal-setting is back on the world’s agenda. With the Millennium Development Goals due to be met or missed in three years time, the post-2015 debate is kicking off in the UN, in civil society and in the media. Sustainable Development Goals will be high on the agenda at the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. But are they useful? Or just an excuse for not making concrete plans? 

The paper below provides some of the arguments for and against the use of goal-setting at the global level, particularly in regard to sustainable development. 

In summary:

  • Goals can be powerful communicative tools for changing behaviour. They are more easily understood by the media, and in turn, the public. This helps generate political support for the goals’ achievement.
  • They also present an effective tool for NGOs to relate their grass-roots work to a global initiative, helping fundraising and programming efforts. 
  • The shared language of the goals, targets and indicators creates an platform for cooperation and better understanding. It helps give social and environmental discourse the same apparent robustness of the numeric ‘growth’ discourse and the number-crunching international financial institutions.
  • Goals are especially useful for the area of sustainable development. A carefully designed set of goals should reunite the three pillars of sustainable development: growth, social welfare and environmental protection. 
  • It is the indicators alongside the goals that are particularly powerful. These operational sustainable development, making it real for finance ministers, development banks and other groups who may have found the concept too vague. 
  • The indicators could even inspire a movement away from the primary value given to GDP statistics. Several governments and thinktanks have examined alternative welfare indicators in recent years. A sustainable development index based on an average across the SDGs could be influential.

These are the arguments in favour of SDGs. But several serious doubts about global goals must be mentioned. 

  • Goals come with no legal power. Realists argue that goals cannot change the behaviour of powerful states. Empathy, reputational costs and discursive power only go so far in the face of domestic political accountability, profit-making and personal consumption. A strong incentive for free-riding on others sustainability efforts exists.
  • Some argue that action on sustainability must be driven locally. Ultimately it is national, municipal and local governments who must act alongside civil society, corporations and individuals to bring about change. Global goals may be inappropriate, even unhelpful, at this level.
  • Finally, gaining agreement on a small set of global sustainable development goals may be difficult. The context is very different from when the MDGs were developed in the late 1990s.
  • Early reports of negotiations suggest agreement on the indicators and the regional particularity will be hard to come by.

In sum, your views on what changes behaviour – power or peer pressure – will determine whether you believe goals are useful global tools.

Further research in the area of global goal-setting would be valuable. It should examine the political will for the goals; the risks of competition between development and environment advocates; the legitimacy of the goals-drafting process; and of course, the range and effectiveness of different methods of changing global behaviour.

But the communicative power of goals should not be underestimated, by realists or anyone else.

Doris Fuchs says that ‘discursive power precedes the formation and articulation of interests in the political process.’ She’s right, and it’s for this reason, that this paper concludes that sustainable development goals are a realistic and achievable starting point for Rio.

Kennedy would have agreed:


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