Open Goals

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By Alan Hudson — July 23, 2014. 


The process of developing goals and targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals reached another milestone last week with the publication of the Outcome Document from the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Chairs of the Open Working Group and the representatives from Member States and civil society who have burned the midnight oil over the last six months deserve a lot of credit. They have succeeded in finding a consensus around a set of goals and targets that put sustainable development center-stage and producing a document that will – along with the not to be forgotten High Level Panel Report – be a useful input into the next stage of negotiations. Given the complexity of the agenda and the diversity of views, that is a major accomplishment.

However, the Open Working Group has not – perhaps for understandable reasons – made much progress with crafting a narrative about how the various goals and targets fit together, and how meeting the targets will help to drive progress towards shared global goals. The result is a long list of goals and targets, with little connecting thread, which as it currently stands is unlikely to capture the imagination of those beyond the UN-bubble, or galvanize political commitment. (Fox News is predictably scathing about the SDGs process, but their recent post on “Poverty, environment, even traffic fatalities: UN’s sweeping sustainable development goals aim to fix everything — on paper” makes a number of valid points).

A good story would do a number of things. First, set out a shared global vision, while avoiding the risk of coming up with something so generic and watered down as to be meaningless. Second, explain how the goals are part of that vision. Third, make clear how meeting the targets will drive progress towards the goals. And fourth, include some characters – people, governments, civil society organizations and the private sector – that will do things to drive progress towards targets and goals. On all of these counts, there’s a lot of work to be done. (See my earlier blog-post on the potential use of “story cubes” in the SDG process. Update: I’m now in twitter-touch with Rory, the creator of @StoryCubes).

One of the tricky issues in the Open Working Group has been the question of whether and how “governance” should feature in the SDGs. Those of us keen to see governance feature in the post-2015 framework can breathe a sigh of relief that Goal 16 was retained; at this stage it was important to keep the issue on the table. But over the coming year, more needs to be done to ensure that governance-related issues are not only included, but included in ways that will actually make a difference – perhaps by making more information available about spending and results as part of a broader Data Revolution.

This will entail more thinking and clarity about what “governance” is, why it matters, and the different ways in which it might appear in the post-2015 framework (here’s a working think-piece of mine from earlier this year, including a tentative theory of change and explicit assumptions about “governance”). By making progress on those questions we can better explain how “governance” relates to the the SDGs as a whole and, by doing that, help to provide a persuasive vision and story for the SDGs.

Storytelling is too important to be left to the policy wonks. One approach would be to ask leading authors and other cultural players from across cultures and generations to write their stories for the new goals. Or even better, to involve citizens in developing a story. To get the story-cube rolling, here’s a suggestion as to how “governance” – specifically, open governance – might form a central strand of an SDG story.

  • Sustainable development is about people, families, communities and nations in every country, now and in years to come, using financial, environmental and human resources effectively, to meet their needs and to pursue their dreams;

  • The ability of people, families, communities and nations to use resources effectively to meet their needs and to pursue their dreams, depends on their ability to make well-informed decisions about how to use their time and resources;

  • If people have the information they need to make good decisions about how to use their resources, and are able to use information to hold governments and decision-makers to account for the use of resources, then they will be better able to pursue their dreams.

The Outcome Document lacks a target on fiscal transparency, an issue which fell off the agenda (was pushed?) in recent weeks. This is a big problem – fiscal transparency is essential if people are to follow and shape the flow of public resources. But targets on access to information, on inclusive decision-making, and on effective, accountable and transparent institutions provide useful strands for weaving a persuasive story. A narrative that puts people at the center of open and sustainable development, providing the action that will make the SDGs come to life, is waiting to be written.

Photo credit: “It’s a Goal”, by Opopododo, sourced under Creative Commons license from Flickr.


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