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The UN Development Goals Are ‘Seriously Off Track,’ an Expert Says

Reducing inequality within and among countries is a Sustainable Development Goal that is not progressing, as evidenced in demonstrations that erupted in many parts of the United States and abroad this year. Here, a protest in New York City, June 2020. JOHN PENNEY

The shock of the unexpected coronavirus pandemic will make it harder to achieve success on the Sustainable Development Goals, now a third of their way to the finish line, in 2030. However, the problems that have stymied or reversed progress go back long before Covid-19 hit, leading development experts say.

In conjunction with a high-level review of the goals, the authoritative United Nations Committee for Development Policy,  an independent advisory group under the Economic and Social Council, issued a study recently, assessing how governments were self-reporting on their progress in 2019. The findings in the paper, “National Reports on the 2030 Agenda: What do they (not) reveal?” exposed some basic problems with governments’ interpretation and action on the goals.

The study was launched and discussed virtually on Zoom at the New School in New York City by three leading global specialists on development: Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, professor of international affairs at the New School and deputy chairperson of the Committee for Development Policy; Barbara Adams, an economist and board chair of the Global Policy Forum, which monitors the work of the UN; and Roberto Bissio, coordinator of Social Watch International, which advocates to end poverty and discrimination. (PassBlue is part of the New School.)

Adams began the discussion with the unambiguous statement that development experts are “fully aware that the SDGs are seriously off track, in many, many ways.”

Fukuda-Parr, who led a Committee for Development Policy subgroup on the government-review process, said that her team had delved into 45 selected country reports for 2019 and found some problematic causes. Her group focused in particular on the underlying commitment in the goals to “leaving no one behind” and how this principle was not often applied.

While all the goals in the 2030 Agenda could be considered calls for reducing or ending inequality in many areas of development, Goal 10 — “Reduce inequality within and among countries” — was at the forefront in the review. It has been called the “orphan goal.”

Excluded groups were often not addressed in country reports, Fukuda-Parr noted. “This is the third year in a row that we find that it’s mostly children, the disabled and the elderly who are identified [in reports] as groups that should not be left behind,” Fukuda-Parr said in the discussion. “Much less [emphasis] is given to refugees and migrants, also religious, ethnic, racial minorities, the poor and LGBTQ groups.”

Gender equality is also not getting the attention it needs, she added, especially in the Covid-19 era, when women were bearing heavy burdens.

“The majority of countries identified gender balance as representation in government” and other institutions, Fukuda-Parr said. “Access to support for child care is rarely mentioned. . . . It is really important because with respect to gender equality the burden, the unpaid work — the care work in the household — is actually a huge constraint to gender equality in other aspects of life.”

“I think at this moment in the Covid era, we are finding that the burden of care work — the care of children, the home schooling — is very concerning,” Fukuda-Parr added. “In fact, this issue of unpaid care work is not really taken seriously.”

The Committee for Development Policy report contains a wealth of documentary data and graphics, plus recommendations for more and better collection of evidence and analysis as well as more consultation with civil society and development practitioners.

When the SDGs were being formulated under the leadership of UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed before being adopted in 2015, they were promoted as a break from the UN’s expert writing and monitoring of the Millennium Development Goals, whose life span ran from 2000 to 2015. The SDGs would be more bottom-up, media were assured. Instead, it appears that national governments have taken the lead in many instances, deciding which goals to promote.

Civil society remains important, as the Committee for Development Policy stresses. But another concern has recently been raised in Africa about the functioning of crucial nongovernment bodies. The issue of corruption surfaced in an exclusive report on July 24 from London by Sophie Edwards for Devex, a media platform for development organizations and specialists.

Edwards reported that the director-general of the Sustainable Development Goals Center for Africa had been placed on leave after an investigation was ordered regarding allegations against him and his nonprofit organization about staff harassment, mismanagement and misuse of funds. The director-general, Belay Begashaw, was appointed in 2016 on the recommendation of well-known international development experts, after leading Columbia University’s Global Centers for Africa in Nairobi.

The SDG center is based in Kigali, Rwanda, with Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, and a Nigerian businessman, Aliko Dangote, as co-chairs of its board. In her report for Devex, Edwards wrote that the center staff were told in a letter from the board chairmen on July 9 that while the allegations were unconfirmed, “Yet we believe that based on what we have learned that it is timely and necessary to carry out an independent management and financial audit of the SDG center.”

The letter, Edwards wrote, was also signed by Jeffrey Sachs, a board member of the center who directs the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

1 thought on “The UN Development Goals Are ‘Seriously Off Track,’ an Expert Says”

  1. We have to accept that the function of the UN is really difficult to manage the SDGs. There are several reasons for this.

    Now, although it is hoped that states will transform from a nation-state to a democratic state in the global age, we have been living more than thirty years in all specifications of the structure of the nation-state in the 21st century. This definitely reflects an anachronistic situation. Like thousands of organizations today, the United Nations is an anachronistic organization too. Unless these organizations established their organizations parallel with the global characters they cannot get rid of being an anachronistic organization.

    The reason for this is that the world cannot show the ability to transform from a nation-state mentality to a democratic state. To be able to do this, transformation deeply needs global, national and local institutional change or social movement in every area. I think this question has two basic backgrounds. These are national interest (violence) and hegemony. We all must work on how the structure of the UN’s can be restructure to fit the global organization. We start already for this.

    Reply

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