ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

The euphoria associated with the consensus reached by UN member states on 2nd August on the Sustainable Development Agenda to be signed by World Leaders in New York on 25-27 September is fundamentally misplaced, although not unexpected (for process see UN Post-2015 Development Agenda).  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will do little to reduce poverty, will continue to propagate a world system based on inequality, and will continue primarily to serve the interests of those in the UN system and practitioners in the “development industry”.

I find it difficult to believe how Ban Ki-moon could really believe the words he said when welcoming the agreement, saying it “encompasses a universal, transformative and integrated agenda that heralds an historic turning point for our world … This is the People’s Agenda, a plan of action for ending poverty in all its dimensions, irreversibly, everywhere, and leaving no one behind. It seeks to ensure peace and prosperity, and forge partnerships with people and planet at the core. The integrated, interlinked and indivisible 17 Sustainable Development Goals are the people’s goals and demonstrate the scale, universality and ambition of this new Agenda”.

Here, I wish to focus attention particularly on the almost complete omission of ICTs from the final agreed SDGs, and why this is a very serious failing.  Back in June 2013, I wrote stridently about the paucity of mentions of ICT in the report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, which provided the initial basis for the agreement reached last Sunday.  Little has changed since then. Although my focus is on ICTs, it is important, though, to begin by noting some of the fundamental structural issues that mean the SDG process has been so flawed, and will fail to address the interests of the world’s poorest people:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169) – this will lead to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.  It is much better to do a few things well, rather than try to do too many things, and fail to do any of them well.  The reality is that this list is a compromise of everything that those involved in the formal deliberations could think of that might reduce poverty (and serve their own interests)
  • Target setting is hugely problematic in that it can lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering the targets and not enough to other factors that might actually have greater impact.  This would not be so worrying if goals and targets were treated as flexible aspirations, but the reasons for the failure to deliver on many of the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) should have sent a much more powerful message to those planning the SDGs.  The UN’s own 2014 report on the MDGs, for example, stated that “Substantial progress has been made in most areas, but much more effort is needed to reach the set targets”.  If the world could not deliver on 8 Goals in 15 years, how is it going to deliver on 17 goals and 169 targets in the next 15 years?
  • The process remains largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  Claiming that the SDG agenda will end poverty in all of its dimensions is, I’m afraid, crass (see my now very old paper No end to poverty that explores this further).  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concernd with economic growth rather than reducing social and economic inequality (despite claims that the agenda does indeed address inequality, as in Goal 10).
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations (UN, civil society, private sector) driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised; it is these organisations that are actually likely to benefit most from the SDG agenda.  Perhaps more than anything else, the SDGs have become a vehicle through which the UN and its many agencies can try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world.
  • The need to monitor progress against the goals/targets will further expand the “development industry”, and consultants and organisations involved in such monitoring and evaluation will undoubtedly benefit hugely.  Small, poor countries simply do not have the capacity to implement, let alone develop the complex monitoring systems required by, the new SDGs and targets.
  • The SDGs reflect a relatively small set of interests (economic growth, agriculture, health, education, gender, environment and climate, justice and security, urban/industrial development), and focus insufficiently on some of the key issues that require attention if we are to create a fairer and more equal world, notably the role of ICTs, and the relative lack of attention paid to people with disabilities.

Each of the above claims (and indeed the many other reasons why the SDGs will fail) needs justifying at much greater length, but the last point brings me directly to the abject failure of the SDG agenda to pay sufficient attention to the critical role of ICTs in shaping contemporary development.  ICTs are not mentioned directly in any of the SDGs, and are only to be found in but four of the 169 targets:

  • 4b) By 2020, substantially expand globally the number of scholarships available to developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States and African countries, for enrolment in higher education, including vocational training and information and communications technology, technical, engineering and scientific programmes, in developed countries and other developing countries
  • 5b) Enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women
  • 9c) Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020
  • 17.8) Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology

Only one of these (9c) has a focus on ICTs as a direct aim.  All of the others merely mention ICTs in an enabling role: for higher education scholarships (4b); to promote the empowerment of women (5b); and for the development of a technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism (17.8).  In this context, it is quite scandalous that the SDGs, while mentioning the empowerment of women, fail to mention the much more significant use that ICTs can make to the lives of the 10% of the world’s population with disabilities.

There is widespread agreement that ICTs have been one of the major factors that have transformed the world over the 15 years of the MDGs.  They have driven extraordinary economic growth, have opened up entirely news ways of delivering education, health and rural development, have transformed the relationships between governments and citizens, and have created an interconnected world of communication and knowledge sharing.  It is not an exaggeration to say that they have been one of the most significant changes to humanity over the last 20 years.  Yet, those determining the SDG agenda for the next 15 years barely give them any recognition at all.  This would not be so worrying if ICTs had not also created some of the greatest inequalities that the world has ever seen; the differences in life experience between someone connected through mobile broadband to a 4G network, and someone with only 2G connectivity, let alone without a smartphone or equivalent digital device, is extraordinary (for a wider discussion see some of my recent papers).  ICTs have the capacity to be used for great good, and to transform the lives of poor people; but they also have the capacity to be used to create vast inequality, and to do much that is negative.

Hence, those involved in crafting the SDGs should have paid very much greater attention to the transformative role of ICTs.  The single target (9c) “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020” is indeed to be welcomed, but as one of only 169 targets there is a real danger that it will be lost in the plethora of other competing aspirational targets for governments across the world.  As it is, there is little indication of what “significantly increase” actually means, or indeed of how best this target can be achieved.  The dominant rhetoric in the “global community” is still of how to reach the “next billion”, rather than how to serve the needs of the poorest and most marginalised, what most people call the “bottom billion” but which should better be termed the “first billion” to focus our attention on it being the most important!

The failure of ICTs to be mentioned more substantially within the SDGs provides a salutary example of how such goals are formulated, and the politics of the UN and international development system.  Looking back, it is remarkable that ICTs were mentioned explicitly within the sixth target of Goal 8 of the original MDGs in 2000: “In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications”.  Yet, from this highpoint the role of ICTs within the SDG agenda of 2015 can be seen to have diminished almost to insignificance.  In large part this reflects the failure of international organisations with interests in ICTs to realise the significance of the SDG agenda early enough, and then to engage sufficiently actively in the discussions surrounding their formulation.  In this context, I was delighted that under my leadership the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation (CTO) did indeed reach agreement in 2014 on a statement about the role of ICTs in the SDGs, but sadly this fell on rather deaf ears in the wider international community. Interestingly, during informal discussions with several multilateral and bilateral donors in recent years, during which I have personally sought to promote the crucial role of ICTs in development, I have regularly been told that the relevant UN organisations (such as the ITU) and other donors have insufficiently promoted the need for a goal on ICTs.  This, I am sure, is correct, but it is also important to understand why this might be the case.  At least four reasons seem relevant:

  • First, the UN system is one of strict hierarchy, with some agencies being seen as much more powerful and dominant than others.  Despite dramatic enhancements in the efficacy and role of the ITU in recent years under the leadership of Hamadoun Touré and now Houlin Zhao, it still seems to lack the clout at the wider international table of some of the other more powerful UN organisations and lobbies, for example, in the fields of health, gender and climate change.
  • Second, despite their being some young brilliant Ministers for ICTs/Telecommunciations across the world, more often that not these ministers are relatively low down the national hierarchy of ministerial responsibility, and were therefore unable effectively to influence national delegations who contributed to the crafting of the SDGs about the importance of ICTs.
  • Third, many bilateral and multilateral donors remain unconvinced of the power of ICTs to transform development in the interests of the poor and marginalised. This reflects badly both on the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community who have failed to provide enough evidence of the real development benefits of ICTs, but also on the ignorance, self-interest and bigotry of many of those working for donor agencies.
  • Fourth, when push comes to shove, individuals and institutions will usually focus on their own core areas, rather than on cross-cutting or collaborative initiatives.  Hence, the WHO and the powerful international health lobbies focus primarily on delivering health, UNESCO and the educational industry will focus on education, and the FAO and rural development lobby will focus on agriculture and rural development.  The ICT for Development field is relatively new, and remains insufficiently robust to compete against these powerful existing entities.

Building on this last point, it is highly salient that at the May 2015 WSIS Forum held in Geneva, the UN agencies involved explicitly recognised that the battle had been lost to have one of the SDGs with an explicit focus on ICTs, and instead developed a matrix to show how ICTs as represented in the WSIS Action Lines could contribute to each of the emerging SDGs.  While this goes some way to indicate how different UN agencies can indeed use ICTs to deliver their wider SDG commitments,  it fails comprehensively to tackle the deep structural issues that mean that ICTs are continuing to contribute to greater global inequality.

Without much greater focus on ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised, including people with disabilities, can use ICTs effectively to lead enhanced lives, the SDGs will inevitably lead to a more fractured and unequal world.


Filed under Development, ICT4D

20 responses to “ICTs and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals

  1. Mi1itary1ndustrialComplex

    Great post Tim. But:

    “There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169) – this will lead to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countris.”

    “The SDGs reflect a relatively small set of interests (economic growth, agriculture, health, education, gender, environment and climate, justice and security, urban/industrial development)…”

    As we say in Scotland, ye cannae have it both ways man!



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  3. Richard Heeks

    If we wanted to be glass half-full, though, we could say the following:

    a) At least there is a direct ICT target (though what we all do after 2020 is unclear), and many of the other targets will only be achievable by using ICTs even if they are not explicitly mentioned.

    b) If they are anything like the MDGs, then the SDGs will have an important role in shaping development discourse; a moderate role in shaping development policy; and very little role at all in shaping either development practice or development research.

    c) Of course, it wasn’t just the MDGs that shaped the discourse, but the millennial hype around ICTs in development was damaging to ICT4D as the post-hype disappointment caused donors and others to walk away. A more measured approach in the SDGs will avoid that. (In other words, the only way is up.)

    d) With big data, sensor networks, robotics, digital fabrication, etc, just starting to infiltrate the development process, and with Internet access only just starting to become a mass market phenomenon in the global South, ICTs will be a key mediator of development in the years to 2030, regardless of what the SDGs say.

  4. Godfred Bonnah Nkansah

    ”Without much greater focus on ensuring that the poorest and most marginalised, including people with disabilities, can use ICTs effectively to lead enhanced lives, the SDGs will inevitably lead to a more fractured and unequal world” .
    I believe this conclusion is a good assessment of the direction the world is heading with the SDGs. Most likely, the under-served would continue to be way down the pecking order of development priorities!

  5. unwin

    Just wanted to note that initiatives such as Accur8Africa (http://www.accur8africa.com/) are trying hard to ensure that there are indeed accurate data across Africa to enable progress against the goals to be measured. As they say “Accur8Africa aims to be the leading platform supporting the accuracy of data in the continent. If we intend to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the next fifteen years, accurate data remains a non-negotiable necessity. Accur8Africa recognizes that nothing less than a data revolution is required. To achieve this we are building the statistical capacity of institutions across Africa and encouraging the use of data-driven decisions alongside better development metrics for key sectors such as gender equality, climate change, equity and social inclusion and health.”

  6. Reblogged this on Sociétés de Savoir and commented:
    I am working on an assignment that deals with ICTs and the failure of the SDGs. An excellent read!

  7. phellmon

    I think 9c) is going to be a great enabler. More than it looks like now.

    “9c) Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”

    Trust me, don’t prescribe too much, don’t expect too much of governments, but just bring universal and affordable access and let business and NGOs, academia and the ordinary citizen work things out. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

  8. jdgarrity

    Hi Tim — this is a very thoughtful post on the failure to emphasis the importance of connectivity in the SDGs. As you note, ICTs can be very powerful in driving income growth and disparities in access thus can drive a bigger wedge between those you benefit from intensive ICT use and those who do not. We discuss this impact of ICTs on income inequality in a recent paper — http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GITR_Chapter1.2_2015.pdf

    Additionally, as we see fast growth in the adoption of connected devices, particularly machine-to-machine communications, in developed economies, the current gap, and difference in growth rates of adoption, suggest a widening digital divide in the realm of devices… http://blogs.cisco.com/gov/as-two-digital-divides-close-a-new-one-threatens

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  13. Dear Tim,
    It is unfortunate to see that ICT4D, rather I would put Connectivity, has not been understood by the literate teams working towards putting together the plethora of Goals and Targets for achieving development. The connectivity (and so the ICT4D) has not been understood.
    It is the only recourse (of the volume of any natural resource) which has broken all barriers of disparity and reached the last disconnected man (almost, in no time). For centuries, we have been struggling to give shelter, clean drinking water, sanitation, education and livelihood opportunities and so on….. to the unreached but have still not achieved it. And now here is resource which has all of a sudden reached into the hands of a common man, and we do not realize its potential for development. Before jumping on to building enablement tools we need to understand the nature of the resource, an ever growing and non-depleting (as of today), the two way connect property calls for re-designing of all the development programs, which were earlier designed (in the absence of connectivity) as a top-down models and where people were called beneficiaries or target audiences. With this new connect there are no beneficiaries, all are stakeholder, the people are part of the new design. It gives an opportunity to build dynamic bottom-up development model. Above all we need to look at this connectivity and establish a slice of this resource for development…. The resource has gone from 1G, 2G, 3G, to 4G and so on…. but we are missing on most important ‘G’, the Gandhian ‘G’, which demands for the slice of this connectivity for enabling development, so that no woman dies while giving birth to a child, no child be left without education, no youth should remain unskilled, no farmer should succumb with his produce, and above all no voice is left unheard.”

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  15. Jelel Ezzine

    Dear Tim, while I agree with you on the SDGs and their true motivations and objectives, I find your strong defence if UCT (though I still agree with you) in contradictions with your frontier technology post and argument! ICT has been and will remain, if not more under the 4IR, a means to bring money, piwer as well as fame to the provider countries and their strong multinationals. Those countries buying ICT tech are also in bad need for sanitation infrastructure, but almost none is talking about that let alone providing solutions and/or aid!

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