Goal-based development: Do they actually work? - Revisiting the UN goal-setting as a policy tool with Professor Jeffrey Sachs of SDSN

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Goals are an essential part of any action agenda. But do goals work in the context of development? In this episode, we will revisit the UN goal-setting as a policy tool together with Prof. Jeffrey Sachs of SDSN.


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Goals are an essential part of any action agenda. Together with setting targets, indicators, and timetables, goals can help measure progress, keep different actors and stakeholders on track, and allow for the assessment of achievement of any action agenda. However, conceptual questions need to be asked about whether they really work, what kind of incentives they create, when they are most effective in achieving their policy goals, and what unintended consequences they lead to, if any.

In this episode, we revisit the UN goal-setting as a policy tool for development, which guided the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our guest speaker is Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the President of Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and also the host of the Book Club with Jeffrey Sachs, a monthly interview with renowned authors about their groundbreaking work in history, social justice, sustainable development in more. Jeffrey Sachs is a world-renowned economist and Columbia University professor and author of books on economics.

Want to learn more about sustainable development and learning? Subscribe to SDG Learncast. Visit UN SDG:Learn website at www.unsdglearn.org to get the latest learning offers on the 2030 Agenda and SDGs. The transcript of the podcast is available at https://old.unsdglearn.org/podcast/. 

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.

[Transcript of the podcast]

Paulyn Duman: Welcome to the SDG Learncast with me, Paulyn Duman. In every episode, I bring you insightful conversations around the subject of sustainable development and learning, helping us all to achieve a sustainable feature. Today with us as our guest is Jeffrey Sachs, the President of Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and also the host of the book club with Jeffrey Sachs, a monthly interview with renowned authors about their groundbreaking work in history, social justice, sustainable development in more. Jeffrey Sachs is a world-renowned economist and Columbia university professor and author of books on economics. Welcome to the SDG Learncast Professor Sachs. 


Jeffrey Sachs: It’s great to be with you. Thank you very much. 


Paulyn Duman: It’s very nice to have you here. Can you please introduce yourself to our listeners? 


Jeffrey Sachs: Well, greetings to everybody, I am a professor at Columbia University and led the Earth Institute at Columbia University for 14, very good fun years from 2002 to 2014. And now lead the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. During the past 21 years, I’ve been advisor to Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon and António Guterres. That’s a great honor and a very exciting job because helping the UN to champion sustainable development is rewarding and gives you a perch to view the whole world how it’s interconnecting and how we as a worldwide society can move forward on some shared objectives. So that’s the purpose of my work, Paulyn and really happy to be here, to talk about it today. 


 Paulyn Duman: And you have been working with the United Nations for decades. And as you mentioned, you haven’t been working with a lot of Secretary-General of the UN and perhaps if you can just provide our listeners of a brief background on why the UN chose goal setting as a policy tool for its development work, perhaps as a basic question, do goals work? And do we have concrete evidence that this is actually the best policy or the best available policy to move for a development agenda? 


Jeffrey Sachs: I’ve been involved in two big sets of goals. The first was the Millennium Development Goals where I was a special advisor to Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon. And now the Sustainable Development Goals where I’ve been a special advisor on the SDGs. Also, now an SDG advocate. That means I get to talk a lot about why these goals are important. I believe in goals. Goals are not perfect. You don’t achieve your goals all the time, but goals give us a direction to aim. Maybe for those who liked the analogy, it’s a little bit like the 10 commandments. Is it useful to have the 10 commandments? Well, people don’t obey the 10 commandments necessarily, killing people or stealing or other things. But it’s good to have some orientation about what we should be doing for good behavior in society. And when it comes to the UN, we need that shared perspective of our governments around the world. There are 193 governments in the United Nations, they have very different points of view. Some are very small countries with a few thousand people. Some are giants like India and China with more than a billion people, about 1.4 billion people. Of course, from all parts of the world, different economies, different levels of wellbeing from abject poverty to great wealth and fluence, but the world has to work together. And our point of view, all of these goals, the millennium development goals, and now the sustainable development goals is if we’re going to have peace on the planet, if we’re going to have decency on the planet. If people’s rights are going to be honored because remember people have the right to health. People have the right to education. That’s not just me saying it. That’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the moral charter of the UN. We need goals to say, let’s get this done. And not only get it done, but get it done at a certain date. So, in the case of the MDGs, the date was 2015. In the case of the SDGs, the date is 2030, and then immediately says does it work? And the answer is better than anything else I know in that these goals help to spur more action, faster action, better direction, but not every country goes along and the rich don’t do what they need to do to help the poor. Even though they give big words, they don’t actually deliver adequately. So, I can tell you, the SDGs will not be achieved in each country on time and every place in the world. Sad to say. Even though they could be it’s not going to happen because you get a range of experience, but will the SDGs spur a lot of progress in cutting and ending poverty, in cutting and ending hunger and helping more people to be online, in helping, more people to have a decent job, in helping more kids to go to school that I’m confident of. But even that is hard work because in a noisy, complicated world where our governments don’t follow through on all their high-minded promises, we have to really keep after it to say, these are our goals. This is what it takes to achieve them. This is what you need to put into the bot in order so that we can fund all of this and then to help make sure that spending is done properly, honestly, transparently and effectively. Another words Paulyn, a lot of work ahead, but having goals is definitely a big help. In fact, I don’t know how one would make the kind of progress we need without such goals. 


Paulyn Duman: From the UN perspective, but also from the practitioners or development practitioners’ perspective, there have been a lot of questions around whether having goals risk focusing on solutions rather than focusing on holistic approach. If you can also give us some examples or your thoughts and insights on the strengths and weaknesses of having goals. 


Jeffrey Sachs: I don’t think you could be more holistic than the sustainable development goals because it’s 17 goals and it’s 169 targets. So, a lot of people say, my God, it’s too much too complicated, too big, too holistic. But the truth of the matter is that at the core of what we’re after is a kind of holistic decency in our societies. So, if you were just told, get rich. Then the answer would be well chopped down every tree, I dig up every bit of gold. You could find it, et cetera, et cetera. You would take, you would cut corners. You’d say if money is the bottom line. Okay. Getting rich is one thing, being nice helping to ensure that everybody is able to benefit, protecting the environment. Those would be a backseat, but the real purpose of sustainable development is to say, no, we need a holistic project. We need economic progress, but not at the expense in justice together with social justice and not at the expense of the environment, but together with environmental sustainability. So, I’ve been preaching sustainable development for decades. And I view it as precisely that kind of holistic vision that says economics. Yes. But together with social justice, together with environmental sustainability and that’s pretty holistic. It makes it hard to do because you want to develop, but you are told you can develop, but don’t use coal. That’s. Or you can develop infrastructure more transport, but don’t put the road through the rainforest that would destroy a lot of the biodiversity, or you can expand agriculture, but maybe that Palm oil plantation is going to take away the habitat of the orangutan, for example. So sustainable development is harder than development it’s development that is holistically envisioned to ensure, as we say at the UN that no one is left behind and that the planetary health is maintained. And I believe that is the only viable approach for us as human beings. For the longer term, we have to curb the short-term greed in order to achieve the long-term sustainability. 


 Paulyn Duman: That’s really interesting to hear from you that we really have to cut the short-term greed for a longer-term sustainability. 


Jeffrey Sachs: There’s lots of greed, no shortage of greed by the way. But we need self-restraint and not just self-restraint, we need restraint and bad actors by the way, because too many companies are just motivated by getting rich. And they don’t really care if they chopped down the forest. They don’t really care if they grab the assets that really belong to indigenous populations, they don’t really care if they’re polluting the environment as long as their bank accounts are growing, they don’t care if they’re cheating on taxes. And this is a huge problem of humans. That short-term greed is rewarded by money in a way it shouldn’t be and we need to have a system that doesn’t honor greed, but curbs greed. 


Paulyn Duman: I would like to bank on this short-term greed, because I think the question really is can goals changed behavior of these actors who don’t want to change their behavior because they’re benefiting from it?


Jeffrey Sachs:  Well, that is the kind of struggle that we’re in on climate change right now, because the essence of the Paris agreement to keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius is to stop using fossil fuels because the fossil fuels, when they burn, they emit the carbon dioxide that warms the planet. So, we have to move to wind power, solar power, hydro power, geothermal power away from coal oil and gas. And yet the owners of that say Exxon Mobil or Shell Oil or Chevron and other big oil and gas companies are absolutely greedy by the way. And they have to actually be whacked on the hand to say, stop the world needs you to behave. And this year it was very interesting. We have the goal that we need to decarbonize. The scientists have said it, a number of governments have said it, but somehow these big companies haven’t heard the message very clearly. So, this year, just as an example, three things happened, which are extremely important. One is that ExxonMobil faced shareholders who said, we want to be on the board to push decarbonization in this company. And the managers, the CEO said, no, we don’t want you on the board, but the investors voted seats on the board. For these insurgent investors, three seats on the ExxonMobil Board of people who are going to say decarbonized, then Chevron had a similar investor led a petition, which called on Chevron to come up with a strategy for climate change. The CEO said no, we don’t have to do that. But the investors said yes, because otherwise we’re going to lose our money. You’re going to be closed down. And then interestingly, shell oil, which is based in part in the Netherlands was taken to court. And the Netherlands Supreme court ruled that Shell Oil had to develop a de-carbonization strategy to be consistent with the Paris climate agreement and that Actually was a stinging message to shell get on with it, you’re violating our national laws. So, the question is, can we restrain the bad behavior? Yes, it can be done. Does having goals, does having a process like the Paris climate agreement help? Absolutely yes, but is this an easy battle? Unfortunately, the answer is not it can be done. Absolutely. And that is the purpose of the sustainable development goals and the Paris agreement. 


Paulyn Duman: I would like to go into one of the things that your organization is also working on because for goals to remain credible, it is important to ensure that there is adequate and trusted monitoring and review. And this is part of the work that you’re doing.  My question is because you have been involved in the SDGs and the MDGs, does the SDGs improve the monitoring and review of the goals. And how does your work with the SDSN support the monitoring and review of the goals? 


Jeffrey Sachs: Thanks for asking, because we just issued a report and we issue a report every year called the Sustainable Development Report. So, people could go online, Sustainable Development Report, 2021, and look up your country’s performance. Because if you set goals, then you want to measure your progress or lack of progress towards those goals. And when you have 17 goals and each of those 17 goals has targets. That’s a lot of measurement that is needed. And so, we put together a project several years ago to measure every country’s progress towards the sustainable development goals. And we’re doing a pretty good job of measurement because we’re up to 165 of the 193 UN member countries. The ones that we don’t have simply don’t have enough data, sometimes very small island economies, for example, that don’t produce and publish relevant data in a timely way. But for the 165 countries, we’re able to analyze how each country is doing on each of the 17 sustainable development goals. The answer by the way, in 2021 was not a happy answer, which is that while the world was making progress, in 2016, 17, 18, 19, not surprisingly with COVID 2020 was a real step backward. 

Uh, it was the first time for the world as a whole that we had a reversal of progress to the sustainable development goals. We also find a huge gap of performance. Not surprised. Where some countries, they tend to be the countries of Northern Europe, the Nordic countries, actually. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, five Nordic countries. They’re near the top of the list every year. Finland came out number one. Interestingly, it also came out number one as the happiest country in the World Happiness Report. So, there’s something good about sustainable development that we should understand. But then the countries at the bottom of the list tend to be the poorest countries that are not receiving the help that they need. So, there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of hunger children, not in school people without access to healthcare, people without access to electricity, people not connected through internet or even a mobile phone connectivity. So the measurement showed this gap and then we use it to help promote much more help for the poor countries. So, we want to shine a spotlight. Not that the poor countries are doing badly and therefore you’re not doing your homework. That’s not the point. The point is that the poor countries need more help because to achieve sustainable development requires financial investments. When you’re poor, you’re not credit worthy when you’re poor, you don’t have the resources yourself. And so that’s why financing is so important for success of the SDGs. And that is another part of our work, measure the gap, and then calculate the financing gap and then go find some more money, whether it’s development aid or money from a development bank and so forth. Close the financing gap. 


Paulyn Duman: It’s really important also that you mentioned. With your work with the monitoring interview review, you put a spotlight on the poorer countries. And I think this is also because you would like to help mobilize the resources and the finances. And do you think the SDGs perform better now when it comes to mobilizing resources for sustainable development, as opposed to the MDGs? 


 Jeffrey Sachs: This has been a very hard few years of resource mobilization. It made it very difficult internationally to move forward with so much national selfishness. There was not real financial help coming in any adequate way during the several years of the SDGs. Then came COVID, my God, the worst shock in modern history economically and of course in public health terms, the worst in public health, at least for a hundred years, perhaps worse than the Spanish flu of 1918, a century ago, a terrible pandemic. And that was as a huge setback. Interestingly, the rich countries voted themselves a lot of money, trillions of dollars, but not for the poor countries. The poor countries got bits and pieces here and there, but nothing like what they really need. So, all of this is to say, Paulyn that the battle is joined now, from my point of view and from the point of view of global sustainable development the vaccines need now to reach everyone in the world. That’s the first step of true sustainable development is comprehensively ending this pandemic, but the next step has to be a big mobilization of financial resources for developing countries and I’m going around the world just about every day by zoom and occasionally actual travel to say around the world, we need to come out of this with a lot more focus financially on the developing countries because the developing countries need to change their energy systems. They need to protect themselves against floods, droughts, heat waves not caused by them, but caused by the rich energy using fossil fuel producing. Countries, they need to get children back in school. They need to face the divide in digital access. All of this requires money, no excuses. You have to pay in some of the capitals to the development bank so that these banks can finance the large-scale infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs. That is, I think the battle that we’re in right. 


Paulyn Duman: A lot of our visitors of the UN SDG:Learn and listeners of the SDG Learncast are from the youth.  What should the young people do differently in the next development agenda? And what message can you give them to look forward to a sustainable future? 


Jeffrey Sachs: Well, first young people have changed history already by putting the climate change agenda urgency squarely on the agenda, the strikes for the future on Friday. Was a game changer in Europe, Europe adopted a European green deal. Other places in the world said, oh, Europe adopted a European green deal. Maybe we won’t even be able to export to Europe unless we adopt a green deal. So, it’s spreading around the world and young people should take great pride in that. But the main basic points for young people in my view are first learn about these issues so that you really master what should be done. This is your future. This is your planet. You’re going to be seeing the consequences of this. So, learn the facts, learn the solutions, tell the old people like me, get out of the way or solve these problems together with us and get ready to really implement these solutions. Starting in local government, starting in national government. Don’t wait. This is your voice is extremely important right now. And not only for advocacy but for the real problem solving for the real implementation of solutions. There’s no time to lose. And remember young people understand the digital world much better than older people. So, they understand how digital tools can be. They understand how to mobilize in a digital age, they understand the digital can be used to solve problems like telemedicine or distance learning or the kinds of things that we’re doing right now to help broad the global discussion or for E payment systems and other solutions that can help people who otherwise are not near a bank or wouldn’t be part of the formal financial system. So young people have lots of knowledge, lots of skills, very high stakes an ability to organize an ability to be heard. Go for it.  


Paulyn Duman: And that’s my last question. Can you also invite the young listeners to your book club and to your podcast? Because I really think that they will be able to get a lot of those information, learn from you and from the authors that you were actually inviting and interviewing on your broadcast. 


 Jeffrey Sachs: I’m having a great time with the book clubs. So come and join and you’ll have a great time too. When the pandemic started, I started taking a long walk for the daily exercise cause I wasn’t going to the office. And on those walks, I was listening to audio books and have listened to dozens and dozens of audio books on my COVID-19 era walks and the books that are coming out. The ones that I’m listening to are phenomenal books about history, social justice, the way forward for building a fair world. And I decided whoa, that’s a great book. I want to talk to the author because I didn’t know a lot of the authors. And so, I called up the authors. I said, could we do an interview together? And that’s how the book club started. So, I’ve had fantastic historians Martin Sherwin, who is the great historian of the nuclear arms race. And he wrote a phenomenal book about the Cuban missile crisis. And it was so interesting to speak with him. And I had a session with Richard Rothstein about the kind of apartheid policies of the United States, especially in housing segregation against African-Americans that went on for a century plus in the United States, even after slavery had ended. And he wrote a fantastic book called ‘The color of law’, discussed it together, wonderful person. I had a session with my colleague Rashid Khalidi, who’s the great historian of the Israel, Palestine conflict. And he’s written a tremendous book about the hundred years war on Palestine. And I learned a tremendous amount and with Patricia Sullivan, who’s written a book about Robert Kennedy and the fight for racial justice and economic justice in the United States. And we have so many fantastic historians and speakers and scientists coming up in the next month. I love it. It’s my way to meet these people, to talk to them, to learn from them. But I think when you join, you’ll really enjoy the conversation. So absolutely book club with the Jeffrey Sachs. It’s part of the SDG Academy. Which is our learning mission of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. And at SDG Academy, you’ll find not only the book club sign up and membership, but also many online courses on climate change, on sustainable land use on sustainable city, on a SDG overview. In other words, a great learning environment that I think can really help empower your leadership to all of the young people listening in. 


Paulyn Duman: Thank you so much for your time. Professor Jeffrey Sachs. 


 Jeffrey Sachs: Great to be with you. Really appreciate it. Great. Thanks, a lot fun!


Paulyn Duman: And that was Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. There were so many lessons that we can take away from our conversation with Prof. Sachs.  

When we started this conversation, we were asking if a goal-based development still work. After listening to this conversation I think we can agree that yes, goals help in achieving sustainable development.  

We learned from Prof. Sachs that Goals give us direction to aim, to get things done, and to get things done at a certain date. Goals help to spur more action, faster action, and better direction. 

We also asked if goals also help change ‘bad behaviour’ of different invididuals, companies and organisations who do not want to change the way they operate even if it’s damaging the planet and affecting billions of lives. What we learned from Prof. Sachs is that goals help spur processes like the Paris Agreement on climate change which help in addressing the issue of global warming but it is not always an easy process.   

Lastly, goals help us measure our progress or the lack of it, and shows us which countries tend to be at the bottom of the list, which are often the poorer countries. With this information, goals also help us channel resources to those who are often left behind.  

You can find more of the SDGLearnCast on the UN SDG:Learn website. For now, I’m Paulyn Duman. Thanks for listening. 

Paulyn Duman is the Knowledge Management, Communications, and Reporting Officer at the UNSSC Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development and is a coordinator for the Joint Secretariat of UN SDG:Learn, together with UNITAR.  

The opinions expressed in the SDG Learncast podcasts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UN SDG:Learn, its Joint Secretariat, and partners.