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Will the new UN development goals help or hinder business sustainability?

Date: 26 Jun 2015

The original UN Millenium Development Goals expire this year. You may recall, these were framed at the turn of the century and identified eight key areas for action to move us towards sustainable development.

These were:

1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. To achieve universal primary education
3. To promote gender equality
4. To reduce child mortality
5. To improve maternal health
6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. To ensure environmental sustainability
8. To develop a gloabl partnership for development

Each goal had specific targets and the date for ultimate completion was 2015. So, for example, the key target for the first goal on poverty was to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty from the 1990 baseline.

The UN has generally been fairly pleased with itself in terms of how effective the original goals have been. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has called the goals "the most successful anti-poverty push in history." So, for instance, the poverty target quoted above has arguably been met. In 1990, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was calculated at 46.7%. Now it is 22%. Around half of the other targets have been similarly met, with considerable progress on others even when specific targets have not been reached.

It isn't quite as simple as that, of course. Such figures look very grand and authoritative, but in a significant number of the countries that have the most need, reliable figures simply do not exist. So, whilst there is indicative evidence that the world generally has been moving in the right direction, we should not be seduced into taking figures at face value and believing this represents a managed, successful and globally uniform process. It doesn't.

Likewise, presenting targets in the forms of percentages rather than absolute numbers of people can overstate progress in the context of a rapidly growing population. If you had taken the same decrease in the absolute number of people in poverty as the target rather than the percentage, the target would not have been met.

That doesn't devalue the benefit of adopting a few high profile, demonstrably substantive, areas of focus that the world can use as a measure of progress. For business, too, the Millenium Development Goals have provided a useful point of focus for those who want their efforts to benefit society to be focused onto areas that really make a difference.

So what does the world do now that the deadline date is upon us? Well, obviously, it sets new goals. These goals, the UN development goals, have been flagged in advance of their launch later this year. Rather than eight areas, the new goals reportedly cover 17 different goals and 169 separate targets. That is a lot. In fact, whilst if you wanted to reflect the full complexity of global development that quantity may be necessary, in terms of providing a catalyst for action, it is way too many. Particularly since some of them are pretty vague. For companies asking themselves the question "how do we contribute to sustainable development?" the list is likely to be too scattergun to provide useful answers.

It's an open question whether this matters. The original MDGs were certainly open to criticism on the basis that, given that they focused on a few key areas, changing them from a set of indicators (the original intent) to active targets for improvement introduced perverse incentives - as poorly designed success measures so often do. For example, some policy makers might focus their efforts on middle-ground countries where improvement could be achieved more easily (thereby meeting the aggregate target) rather than some of the poorest countries where there might be more entrenched obstacles that made progress difficult.

Other examples of perverse incentives have also been highlighted. For instance, Malawi's former president Joyce Banda said: "We are all racing towards achieving education for all by 2015. But did we have classrooms in Malawi? Did we have desks? Did we have teachers? The MDG demands that we get as many children as possible into school - but what about quality?" Why did such countries pay such close attention to what was required? According to some commentators, such as Alan Beattie in the Financial Times, it was mostly driven by getting access to development aid.

It is an open question how much the MDGs actually achieved the results that have been seen in any case. China and India, whose individual progress contributed much to the headline improvement figure, made their plans without much reference to the UN goals. That doesn't necessarily invalidate having the goals, of course. But it does encourage a sense of perspective.

The problem is that the new goals are going to be so complex, so all-encompassing, so unwieldy, it's hard to see the positive benefit that is going to come from them. The best business leaders can testify that the most effective way to create change is to simplify the essence of the task down to goals that lead naturally to the correct action. Even if the measures are imperfect, or are mere proxies. Make it simple, make it measurable, check for unwanted perverse incentives, and use it to drive change.

The new goals will quite possibly push the concept back to the start. Having fallen prey to the UN disease of allowing everybody to throw in their own specific priority (which has the end result of their being no priorities) the goals will become de facto indicators of progress rather than actionable goals. Decision makers will informally prioritise without declaring so, and change will happen in exactly the way that it would do if the goals did not exist.

That isn't the current intent, of course. The plan right now is that the new goals will become a popular cause, spread by cinema and TV ads featuring Liam Neeson and an animated Llama, to reach the global masses and create "a shared common experience." The idea that we could spread a popular development message to the masses, aiming to reach seven billion people in seven days, is a very exciting one in theory. But the extended mish-mash that is the UN goals is arguably not a worthy vehicle for such an effort. It won't provide the popular catalyst for change - it will just be a thing. If the advert is well done, it will get a smile, a laugh, or a nod of recognition. And then it will be forgotten.

My expectation is that corporate decision makers will take note of the new goals, will always talk recpectfully - even enthusiastically - about them in principle. Then they will identify their own priorities based on what makes most sense from the point of view of their own biggest impacts on their own stakeholders, and will disregard the UN input as to what's a priority in light of the fact that the UN does not have the courage to prioritise in the face of its multiple constituencies.

That's not necessarily a bad outcome.

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