In case you missed it, over the weekend, representatives of nearly every country in the world met to agree to a set of 17 ambitious and far reaching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goals that – arguably – go further than any similar agreement since the Bretton Woods accords in 1944.
But those outside the international development sector can be forgiven for having let this pass them by. This seemingly monumental agreement has received shockingly little coverage from the mainstream media here in the UK. Saturday’s front pages prioritised the Labour Party conference, the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Simon Cowell, ongoing FIFA scandal, Prince Harry watching rugby and the release of Guantanamo’s last UK prisoner over the launch of the SDGs in New York City. The summit received a little more coverage in African and Asian English language journals, but often with a focus on more domestic issues (the stylishness and language ability of Beijing’s first lady – China Daily, or protests in NYC against Thailand’s military government – Bangkok Post).
It would be easy to blame the media for its parochial, short-term and celebrity-obsessed myopia. But the media only report what is considered newsworthy. The launch of the SDGs in NYC was not short on celebrity, with the Pope, Daniel Craig, Beyoncé and many others joining the jamboree. But it failed as good media story for two main reasons. First, it lacks currency. Post-2015 debates leading up to the SDGs were long winded, and the goals are set for 2030. While the situation that drives the SDGs is dire, the time frame may not provide a sufficient incentive for leaders to act. Second, it lacks conflict (or contention). Where were then heated 11th hour middle-of-the-night closed door negotiations between world leaders? Where was the intense lobbying to prioritise business interests?
Both of these points should raise some red flags for those of us that work with progressive civil society. The lack of currency reflects the risks with such long-term goals: most of the politicians signing their nations up them will be nicely retired by the time they can be held to account. The lack of conflict also reveals that the SDGs have been treated as a technocratic rather than “political” issue. The exceedingly soft landing of the negotiation process suggests that all parties involved, many NGOs included, have found their niche in the design. Could it be that the SDGs are in fact not pushing us sufficiently and visibly out of our comfort zone: no urgency, no challenge to the current state of affairs, no fundamental challenge to our own roles?
The lack of coverage in the mainstream media simply reflects a perception that the SDGs are a kind of birthday wish, easily forgotten after the big jamboree, rather than a concrete framework requiring major shifts from business-as-usual or difficult trade-offs.
So what is the role of civil society? It could be argued civil society has been complicit in the technocratisation of such debates, finding itself more comfortable in UN consultation meetings than engaging with the public on difficult policy choices. There is now a need to bring the general publics in both the North and the South with the international development industry in transforming the SDGs into concrete policies and practical action. Second, civil society will need to hold governments to account for the SDGs – pushing for action, developing monitoring and accountability frameworks and connecting with their constituencies of interest. Finally, civil society will need to push itself and all others involved in the realisation efforts of the SDGs to challenge us all, to fundamentally change how we seek to overcome inequality, poverty and conflict that costs lives on a daily basis.
The adoption of the SDGs is a step, not a success.