Our Perspectives


Will global goals with national targets meet global needs?

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girl learning about development in RwandaChildren between the ages of 12-18 learning about the MY World Survey in Rwanda. Photo: Mark Darrough/Girl Hub Rwanda

Some of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lend themselves to a discussion within each country on how, and how quickly, they wish to pursue global goals.

For example, if the people of country A want to achieve free secondary education for all children by 2028 through recruiting more teachers, while the people of country B want their government to reach that aspiration three years earlier through other means, both are legitimate and should result from democratically grounded national discussions.  Critically, the level of ambition adopted by country A has little or no impact on the expected progress in country B.

But what about the other SDGs that relate to the global commons, where actions are required by all countries to keep our human progress within the means of the planet?  What if the political contexts in each country lead governments to make commitments that, in the aggregate, do not sum to the global action required?

Our experience with climate change and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR) points to some of the immediate problems we can face.  The distribution of responsibilities between countries is incredibly complex and inevitably political, and more often than not we end up with a stand-off that leads to insufficient aggregate action.

How can we stop this from happening to the global components of all the SDGs:  oceans, forests, fisheries, agriculture, water and energy for example?

One way to broker this conversation would be to have independent assessment panels that could take on this work.  Their job for each target would be twofold.  First, assessing whether there is any global gap that arises from the sum of national commitments.  Second, providing some benchmarks that could guide the level of action expected from each country.

In this effort, scientific evidence and independence have to be the cornerstones.  We first need to know, objectively, the scale of our problem and the impact of our existing choices and actions.  We also need to trust that the contributions to this process are truly independent in nature and don’t allow some countries to free-ride on the more ambitious commitments of others.

If these metrics are clear, and we are also able to assess the benefits of a changed policy path in each country, we should be able to evaluate whether the commitments of 193 national ‘SDG implementation plans’ add up to the action required by the world.

This is the easier of the two tasks.  Benchmarking expected national contributions within this overall envelope would be more difficult politically.  For example, what combination of criteria should be used:  economic size, income or wealth per person, population, or ‘footprint’ on the issue (fish taken, emissions, trees protected or harvested)?

While recognizing the difficulty, this objective and independent approach will be crucial to the success of any new global goals.  Even if there are winners and losers in the short term, a successful post-2015 agenda will leave all of our children better off.

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