In New York the finishing touches are being made to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  which are due to replace the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).  Here David Hulme explores what they might mean.

With 17 goals, 167 targets and perhaps more than 1,000 indicators those finishing touches remain a large task. The idea behind the SDGs is that they are a global ‘super-norm’, which  will re-shape the plans and behaviours of nations, multilateral institutions, companies, development organisations and people, to make the world a fairer and more sustainable place. That’s a pretty grand ambition.  Depending on how you interpret what happened with the MDGs you could pitch the SDGs as the world’s biggest promise to people living in poverty or, alternatively, as the world’s biggest lie.

The case for taking a positive perspective can partly be vindicated by the empirical evidence.  Although the MDGs will only be partially achieved in many developing countries, the period 2000 to 2015 has seen unprecedented human progress.  Whether you look at $1.25-a-day poverty, access to education, the share of girls in school systems or infant mortality, then the last 15 years has seen improvements at rapid rates.

Not only are the global ‘average’ prospects for absolutely poor people better in 2015 than in 2000, they are better in every region of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa, which early on in the new Millennium was sometimes seen as ‘failing’, has made significant progress.  Economic growth, which had eluded the region in the late 20th Century, has increased incomes and reduced the proportion of $1.25-a-day poor in national populations in many countries.  Even more importantly infant mortality rates across sub-Saharan Africa have reduced dramatically over the last ten years.

While much of the progress has been achieved independently of the MDGs (especially in China), the goals have helped to direct public policies and budgets towards the poorest and there are concrete cases of the MDGs leading to change on the ground.  Take a look at Alice Evans’ study of maternal health in Zambia.

In addition to the evidence about indicators, the MDGs created a real ‘hook’ that kept global poverty on national and international agendas.  Annual multilateral reviews of achievement; the MDGs + 5 and MDGs + 10, UN General Assembly meetings; and numerous regional and national meetings meant that poverty reduction received much greater attention around the world than it had in the past.

At the same time, there are perfectly plausible arguments that most of the numerical progress made wasn’t a direct consequence of the MDGs, and that critical promises were broken.

Rich countries did not seriously pursue MDG Goal 8 – a global partnership.  They did not make international trade fair by concluding the Doha round of trade negotiations.  They made limited progress in reducing their carbon emissions to slow down climate change.  And they failed to reform international financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, and have not taken action to ensure that multinational corporations pay their tax in developing countries.  But many developing countries also failed to keep their promises: especially, promises about improving their governance and tackling corruption. Unless significant progress is made on these issues, the SDGs risk becoming the world’s biggest lie.

So should we despair? Definitely not!  The SDGs represent a great advance on the MDGs.  The MDGs were largely determined by OECD countries and international donor agencies.  In 2015 the SDGs have been produced by detailed international negotiations that have involved middle income and low income countries.  The SDGs are universal – they apply to all countries and actors.  The SDGs are holistic – they cover poverty reduction and inequality, sustainability and economic growth with job creation.  The SDGs are ambitious– they aim at eradicating multidimensional poverty and tackling inequality at the international and national levels.

Glass half full or glass half empty is maybe a better comparison?  For me the SDGs open up opportunities to get people, organisations and governments talking about reducing poverty and inequality, moving towards environmental sustainability and promoting social justice. If these opportunities are seized and strategically utilised, then by 2030 we may not have achieved the SDGs, but we should be living in a better world.