November 23, 2015

“The SDGs are a campaign slogan, not a plan,” said Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the vice-chair of the UN Committee for Development Policy and a New School professor who chairs the Development concentration there. “They will be effective if civil society and governments champion the implementation of the SDGs in a selective way.”

Fukuda-Parr spoke at a November 16 panel discussion on the new Sustainable Development Goals, known as SDGs, and their implications for both international development and development priorities in individual nations.

The SDGs—recognized as the broadest framework for international development yet—offer a set of guidelines for sustainable economic, social and environmental development. In addition to critically assessing the potential of the SDGs, the panel also considered the roles of multilateral organizations, governments, civil society and the private sector in realizing the SDGs by 2030.

Joining Fukuda-Parr in the panel discussion were development and human rights experts including

  • Yasmine Ergas, director of the specialization in Gender and Public Policy and lecturer in discipline in international and public affairs;
  • George Gray Molina, UNDP chief economist for the regional bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean and adjunct associate professor at SIPA;
  • Jose Antonio Ocampo, chair of the UN Committee for Development Policy and director of SIPA’s Economic and Political Development concentration;
  • Jenny McGill, lecturer in the discipline of international and public affairs and the associate director of SIPA’s Economic and Political Development concentration at SIPA (moderator)

While some have criticized the SDGs for their large scope and loose implementation guidelines, others applaud the shift away from a top-down development framework.

The SDGs offer guidelines for the sustainable development of developing and developed nations. Since the framework is non-binding, the impact of the SDGs will require the creation of domestic policies that seek to support the SDG framework.

“Am I an SDG optimist or pessimist?” Ergas asked rhetorically. “On a whole, I’m an optimist. But it will be critical to mobilize civil society since the goals are competence rich that require technical and political capacities.

“The theoretical breadth of the gender issue network, and just the existence of this network, is encouraging,” said Ergas, who also noted that the SDGs included two targets that specifically addressed women: eliminating the violence against women and paid maternity leave.

Ocampo said the SDGs, which replace UN Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, established around the year 2000, represent “a step forward.”

The MDGs had been criticized for being too prescriptive in the implementation of the goals and hindered the ability for grassroots change to occur.

Fukuda-Parr praised the SDGs in part because they allow for the measurement of progress against a nation’s own history.

“Over the course of the last 15 years, African countries were making progress but were seen as failures because they did not meet the MDGs,” she said, adding that the

SDGs better reflect the way development has evolved globally.

The SDG planning process, Fukuda-Parr said, was also better because it included a broader cross-section of the public sector, private sector, and civil society. SDGs are also “less reductionist” than the MDGs.

“They are not about ending poverty and they are not a technocratic process. This is really important,” she said.

Molina and Ergas elaborated.

“In development, we focus too much on poverty as a metaphor for the basic needs, and what we find is discrimination is systemic,” Molina said.

“Achieving an agreement on the means of implementation is not enough to change systemic discrimination in the national governments,” said Ergas.

“The lack of specificity and simplification of the problem is a source of frustration for those seeking systemic change,” said Fukuda-Parr. Since the implementation of the goals is voluntary, the SDGs are a mission and vision for international development but will likely not change the overall status quo of systemic discrimination. “It leaves room for misinterpreting the global goals.”

“This is a political negotiation,” said Molina. “Don’t look for a theory of change. It’s a message of member states to the world that we have a vision.”

— Rebecca Krisel MIA ’16