The Lancet – Why the Sustainable Development Goals will fail

Offline: Why the Sustainable Development Goals will fail
Richard Horton, Editor
The Lancet
Jun 28, 2014 Volume 383 Number 9936 p2185 – 2268

Where are we now? The Open Working Group, a chaotic and unruly committee of nations (chaired by the Governments of Kenya and Hungary), has proposed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its June 2 “zero draft” for the post-2015 era. It begins: “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Sustainable development? No. Try utopia instead. The SDGs are fairy tales, dressed in the bureaucratese of intergovernmental narcissism, adorned with the robes of multilateral paralysis, and poisoned by the acid of nation-state failure. Yet this is served up as our future. The health goal—”Attain healthy life for all at all ages”—is a mixture of business-as-usual (the MDGs rebooted), non-communicable diseases and universal health coverage (deservedly new entrants), and a strange assortment of promises about healthy life expectancy, essential medicines, and air pollution. Is this negotiated wish-list really the best we can do?

What is sustainable development? The conventional triple helix binds together social, economic, and environmental determinants of human lives. But this formulation fails to meet the urgent needs of today’s most excluded and threatened. In an important, but now overlooked, paper published in 2000 in World Development, Sudhir Anand and Amartya Sen argued that the central idea of sustainability was intergenerational equity: the lives of those to come should be of equal concern to us as the lives of those today. Anand and Sen questioned the prevailing idea that, if poverty is our target, wealth maximisation should be our weapon. As they so eloquently put it: “The most basic problem with the opulence view is its comprehensive failure to take note of the need for impartial concern in looking at the real opportunities individuals have. The exclusive concentration only on incomes…ignores the plurality of influences that differentiate the real opportunities of people.” Those “plurality of influences” include the vast ecological threats we face—among them, climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and chemical and atmospheric pollution. But this is only half the human story.

Physical systems that shape our lives are important. But more important still are the human systems we have (or have not) created—our civilisations, our economic and political regimes, our prospects for peace and social stability. Corruption, incompetence, insecurity, disease, conflict, chaos, fracture, fragmentation. These determinants define our resilience, our capacity to adapt, our vision, our ability to recover, reconstitute, reconstruct. The secret to our future surely lies in defining, measuring, and tracking these determinants. But what determinants exactly? Not those (or not only those) of the Open Working Group, which has conspicuously failed to articulate a compelling vision for sustainability. Here are six possible dimensions of sustainability: wellbeing, capability, intergenerational equity, externalities, resilience, and one more. Wellbeing means a state of being healthy, comfortable, or happy. The literature on the measurement of wellbeing is riven with confusion. A reasonable place to start could be “healthy life expectancy”. Capability means what people do and what they can become. Martha Nussbaum famously derived ten “central capabilities”, which included life, bodily health, and bodily integrity. But for a metric of sustainability, one might choose instead “years of schooling” or “participating in decisions about one’s life”. Intergenerational equity concerns the distribution of wellbeing and capability over time, the resources to be administered in trust for future generations. “Rates of loss of biodiversity” capture this quality. An externality is a consequence of an activity that is experienced by an unrelated third party. Externalities can be positive (eg, vaccination coverage) as well as negative (eg, carbon dioxide emissions). Resilience means the capacity of a system to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change. It depends on diversity, redundancy (efficiency is the enemy of sustainability), connectivity, complexity, learning, participation, and polycentric governance. A final determinant of sustainability is the strength of our civilisations—their solidarity and wealth, their degrees of inequality and corruption, their susceptibility to conflict, and the quality of their deliberative institutions. Unless we embrace and measure the full meaning of sustainability, the SDGs will fail. None of us, and certainly not our children, can afford that failure.