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  • James Cox

Critical pragmatism and the SDGs


I am by and large a pragmatist. I tend to look at what is in front of me and the resources I have at hand, and see what I can do. I do this for odd jobs at home, and I have done it in my career in development policy.

When the Millennium Development Goals emerged in the early 2000s, like many others I thought ‘Great! We can use these Goals to ensure that aid programs focus on the basics of poverty.’ And to some degree this worked. Campaigns around the world persuaded donors to align a lot of their aid budgets to the MDGs and they gave us a shared development framework that was understandable to the outside world.

As we adopted the MDGs we noted their shortcomings – their aim only to halve poverty, their half-baked environmental goal and lack of accountability provisions come to mind – but in the main we ignored them. The MDGs did the job. At least, until the global financial crisis led many governments to slash their aid budgets… and access to education was found to be no guarantee of quality… and fragile states missed out… and, even as income poverty fell, global inequality increased.

Still it was progress, and I don’t regret the effort we put into promoting the MDGs. Through them, the world achieved quite a bit, and learned quite a lot.

Fifteen years on, the Sustainable Development Goals are sitting in the world’s development toolkit. And truly they are a smartphone in comparison with the MDGs’ old Nokia. They are complex and packed with features, and we can be pretty sure that not many people will work out how to use all of their functions. And they sit alongside other tools, like the rest of the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement and the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.

The pragmatist in me rejoices at the thought of what we might achieve with these tools. We have broadened the scope of development, so that environmental, conflict and justice and urban issues are now firmly on our agenda. We no longer have an excuse to ignore the difficult issues that underlie any development context. I’m looking forward to seeing what we will do with them.

But perhaps if we learned one thing from the MDG experience, it’s that pragmatism shouldn’t imply acceptance. When the 2011 World Development Report suggested that no fragile or conflict affected state would achieve any of the goals, the development sector responded by improving measurement in those countries, and by formulating new ways of working, notably the New Deal. We learned that if we aim only to halve poverty then the poorest and most vulnerable people miss out.

The SDGs confront this head on. They pledge to ‘leave no one behind’ in their quest to eliminate extreme poverty. But can we just assume – again – that they are the right tool for the job? Recently at the University of New South Wales a panel comprising Professor Tony Bebbington, Dr Heloise Weber and Dr Robert Nurick offered some critical perspectives on the SDGs. They questioned whether the development trajectory offered in the SDGs will work for the world’s disadvantaged peoples, and highlighted how some targets like policing could have a dark side if, in places where space for dissent is shrinking, police effectiveness is measured by the suppression of dissent, and not by the responsiveness of police to crimes against the vulnerable. This discussion of some specific targets reminded me that targets developed for the right reasons can be used for other purposes.

Perhaps more significant for long term engagement with the SDGs and other frameworks was Tony Bebbington’s offering of a number of perspectives from which to critique them. He offered Marxian political economy, ecological economics, post-structuralism and post-colonialism as approaches that highlight the SDGs’ assumed economic model, their anthropocentrism, their reliance on particular categories (starting with assumptions on the nature of poverty), and a tendency to perpetuate colonial dynamics. To these four I would add a human rights based perspective, which can highlight instances where ‘entitlement’ (eg to safe water) is downgraded to ‘access’ – but without being clear about the terms of that access.

Professor Bebbington concluded by proposing a ‘critically pragmatic’ approach that ensures that as the SDGs are implemented and shape behaviour, the rationale and the approach taken don’t just ‘assume’ that the SDG pathway is correct. He stressed the need to ensure that the selection, measurement and interpretation of indicators and data is contested. We all need to use that data, challenge it and where needed put forward our own. For example we need to track not only police arrests, but public confidence in their capacity to stop violence against women.

That’s a tool that I will be very happy to use.


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