Over the last few weeks a couple of (fantastic) co-authors and I have published two papers about progress towards the SDGs (links below). Working on the papers has helped me think through what a short time fifteen years is in development, and how much a timeframe can shape what is seen as the best solution to a problem. And they raise the question: do the fifteen year targets of the SDGs stand in the way of their vision of integration and sustainability? If you wanted to achieve long term development progress, you’d probably focus on technology change, learning and innovation in policies, and improving institutional functioning. If you wanted to improve outcomes in fifteen years, you’d probably focus on throwing money at technical solutions. The problems with the second approach include that we don’t have the money, and the technical solutions won’t necessarily work best over the long term.
The first paper, written with Dev Patel, looks at the demand for innovation to meet the SDGs. At one level, it suggests that the need for new technologies and approaches is actually quite low: along most of the income distribution, there are countries already (reportedly) succeeding in meeting the SDG targets we look at, suggesting it may be possible with the body of knowledge that currently exists to bring the maternal mortality ratio of a country with a GDP PPP per capita of $2,850 to under 70, for example. The amount of progress most countries could get by “moving to the policy frontier” is more than they would get from the world as a whole moving to better outcomes at a given level of income at any reasonable rate of global technology advance. Or to put it another way, in a period of 15 years, national policy decisions on funding and focus likely dominate global technology change as the most powerful tool for increasing the rate of progress.
A second paper with Mallika Snyder asks Meeting the Sustainable Development Goal Zero Targets: What Could We Do? The paper emphasizes how much more than money achieving the targets would take—including massively improving the quality and sustainability of service delivery alongside increasing demand, for example. But it also notes that in many cases we do at least understand the technical solutions that could deliver (close to) zero goals. It also suggests if we used such solutions and achieved a lot of progress towards the SDGs by 2030, we would likely have spent trillions of dollars in the effort.
Looking at the papers together leaves me with the feeling that fifteen years may be too short a period to map out a holistic, far reaching vision of sustainable development. As the 2015 UN General Assembly resolution proclaimed, the SDGs present an “integrated and indivisible” balance of the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental. They recognize the “deep interconnections and many cross-cutting elements” of the goals and that “social and economic development depends on the sustainable management of our planet’s natural resources.” I strongly believe all of that is true about long term development, but I think this is less true about progress over a decade and a half.
For example, over periods as short as fifteen years, the link between increases in income and increases in health are fragile. Over a decade and a half, the generational effects of greater school enrollment on child health will only have started to emerge. For a process that will play out over a few centuries, the relationship between climate change and broader development progress over fifteen years is going to be comparatively limited—and the vast majority of climate change that will occur over that time is locked in by emissions we’ve already released.
Again, as the analysis in my paper with Dev suggests, the hope for making considerably accelerated progress during the SDG timeframe relies primarily on “moving to the existing policy frontier” rather than investing in technology. In part, that reflects that researching and rolling out technologies simply takes too long to imagine a huge impact of new technologies in fifteen years. (Think: adoption of TCP/IP in 1983 and only three percent of the world using the Internet in 1998, or the first mobile phone call in 1973 and less than one mobile subscriber per 1,000 people worldwide in 1988).
So while long term development is driven by interlinked progress across a range of measures of the quality of life underpinned by institutional development and technological change, rapid progress over a period of as short as fifteen years is more likely to be driven by spending more on existing solutions. The problem with an approach based on existing technical solutions is the same as it was when proposed by “costing studies” of the Millennium Development Goals fifteen years ago. It ignores the institutional and other barriers to effective rollout.
One case where this isn’t true appears to be basic health programs including vaccination and bednet provision, where rollout of simple solutions at scale really has made a huge difference to health outcomes. And there will be other exceptions across the SDGs—including cases where norms and institutions or complementary outcomes and technology availability change so rapidly that fifteen years is quite long enough to see a major impact. Again, it isn’t clear the SDGs are actually having the effect of encouraging short-termism. And, frankly, when it comes to people dying from easily prevented conditions, short-termism is not only justifiable but a moral imperative. Still, when it comes to sustainable global progress, fifteen years simply isn’t a long enough time-frame to realize the full vision of the SDGs.