Prioritizing Action Targets for the SDGs
October 16, 2014  //  By:   //  Blog Post, Featured  //  No Comment

20131129_post_2015The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire in 2015, and the United Nations is leading a process aimed at negotiating new goals, which are commonly referred to as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As part of the post-2015 negotiations, the UN launched an online survey to give people around the globe an opportunity to contribute towards this process by voting on a set of priority areas and an option to suggest additional priority areas. As of the time of writing this article, there were 16 priority areas listed on the online survey website. But this might increase with time considering that participants have an opportunity to suggest new priority areas.

The soon to expire MDGs set out 18 specific and measurable targets that focused on such issues as poverty alleviation, maternal health, universal basic education, and environmental sustainability among others. The achievements of the MDGs have been varied across regions and issue areas, with some faring better than others. The achievements can be largely attributed to the specific and measurable nature of the set MDG targets, which has not been the case with the SDG negotiations so far. In August, 70 UN ambassadors in the open working group (OWG) proposed 169 targets, which the OWG described as substantially low compared to their 12th session’s 212 targets.

To this end both the UN and other major players have set out to devise ways through which key priority areas can be arrived at and targeted for action. The online survey is one such move.

An example from a non-UN player is the work being done by Copenhagen Consensus, a US-based think tank focusing on publicizing the best ways for governments and philanthropies to spend their money. The think tank has initiated a project that aims to determine what SDG target areas will bring the most good per pound(dollar) spent. The think tank has brought together 62 world-renowned economists to do a cost-benefit analysis of 19 major areas of development. According to the think tank, the analysis will not only focus on economic benefits but also social, health, and environmental benefits that may accrue from giving the areas priority for global action.

The think tank has so far done analyses on 7 of the 19 targets areas it identified. The areas include population, illicit financial flow, conflict and violence, science and technology, data, energy, and education. Without diminishing the significance of any of these target areas, we highlight the recommendations set forth by economists at Copenhagen Consensus on population, science and technology, energy and education and suggest looking at their project website for a complete analysis of all the seven target areas already subjected to a cost-benefit analysis.

On population, the think tank recommends universal sexual and reproductive health services by 2030 as well as elimination of unmet need for modern contraceptives by 2040. Additionally, it suggests reducing barriers to migration within low and middle-income countries as a way to rejuvenate aging workforces, mostly in the developed world.

Science and technology defines the 21st Century, and the think tank’s analysis points to the importance of technology transfer and the need to bring more people to technology as opposed to the conventional narrative of taking technology to the people. Their main argument is that once people have gained knowledge about technology, it is embedded in society and can be used as a stepping stone for future growth.

Energy is key to achieving better life for people everywhere. The economists at Copenhagen Consensus, while accepting that it is essential to reduce green house gas emission by shifting from use of fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy source, do not favor an immediate doubling of the share of renewable energy use. They consider it an ineffective goal will increase cost, help few people and do little to cut carbon emissions. However, they suggest that providing 30 per cent of the unserved population – 780 million people – with clean cooking fuels would be an effective strategy.

On education, they recommend that the best goal would be to reduce the proportion of children not attending preschool in sub-Saharan Africa. They provide that an increase from the current 18% to 59% attendance of at least pre-school will amount to a $33 gain for every $1 spent.

If there is anything that these targets reveal, it is that there is a growing concern among people about the direction the world is headed. To express how varied the issues of concern are, below is a graphical snapshot of the result of the UN’s online survey as of the time of writing this article.


Online Survey Results

Figure 1: Results of UN online survey as of October 15, 2014 at 12:07 PM


This survey is not a serious academic endeavor, and it’s likely that the majority of the ~5 million participants came from high and medium-income countries where internet access is ubiquitous. It is interesting, however, that “Action taken on climate change” ranked lowest among respondents. This could be because climate change disproportionately effects developing states where internet and computer access is severely limited, or it could be that respondents felt adequate action is happening on the matter. Either way, we encourage everyone to take the survey and stay up to date with the SDG negotiations.


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