ICTs and the failure of the SDGs


Back in 2015 I wrote a short post about the role of ICTs in what I saw as being the probable failure of the SDGs.  Having attended far too many recent international meetings, all of which have focused to varying extents on how ICTs will contribute positively to the SDGs, I am now even more convinced that they have already failed, and will do very little to serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

My 2015 post focused on five main issues.  In summary, these were:

  • There are far too many goals (17) and targets (169).  This has already led to diffusion of effort and lack of focus, not only within the ‘global system’, but also in individual countries.
  • Target setting is hugely problematic.  It tends to lead to resources being directed too much towards delivering measurable targets and not enough to the factors that will actually reduce inequalities and empower the poorest.
  • The SDGs remain largely concerned with absolute poverty rather than relative poverty.  The SDGs will do little fundamentally to change the structural conditions upon which the present world system is based, which remain primarily concerned with economic growth.  Although SDG 10 (on inequality) is a welcome addition, it is all too often ignored, or relegated to a minor priority.
  • These goals and targets represent the interests of those organisations driving the SDG agenda, rather than the poorest and most marginalised.  I suggested in 2015 that these were primarily the UN agencies who would use them to try to show their continued relevance in an ever-changing world, but they also included private sector corporations and civil society organisations
  • 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 benefit hugely.

Subsequently, in 2017 I was part of the ITU’s collective book venture published as ICT-centric economic growth, innovation and job creation, in which I led on the second chapter entitled “ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements”.  This chapter argued that serious issues need to be addressed before there can be any validity in the claim that ICTs can indeed contribute to sustainable development.  The present post seeks to clarify some of the arguments, and to summarise why the SDGs and Agenda 2030 have already failed.  There are in essence five main propositions:

  • Inherent within the SDGs is a fundamental tension between SDG 10 (to reduce inequality within and among countries) and the remaining goals which seek to enhance “development” by increasing economic growth. Most of the evidence indicates that the MDGs, which were almost exclusively focused on economic growth as the solution to poverty, substantially increased inequality, and ICTs played a very significant role in this.  The SDGs are likewise fundamentally focused on economic growth, in the belief that this will reduce absolute poverty, while quietly ignoring that such growth is actually increasing inequality, not only between countries but within them.
  • There is also a fundamental tension between the notions of “sustainability” (focusing on maintaining and sustaining certain things) and “development” (which is fundamentally about change). Although there has long been a belief that there can indeed be such a notion as “sustainable development”, this tension at its heart has been insufficiently addressed.  What is it that we want to maintain; what is it that we want to change?  ICTs are fundamentally about change (not always for the better), rather than sustaining things that are valued by many people across the world.
  • The business models upon which many ICT companies are built are fundamentally based on “unsustainability” rather than “sustainability”. Hardware is designed explicitly not to last; mobile ‘phones are expected to be replaced every 2-3 years; hardware upgrades often require software upgrades, and software upgrades likewise often need hardware enhancements, leading to a spiral of obsolescence. (For an alternative vision of the ICT sector, see the work of the Restart Project)
  • The ICT industry itself has had significant climatic and environmental impacts as well as giving rise to moral concerns: satellite debris is polluting space; electricity demand for servers, air conditioning, and battery charging is very significant; and mining for the rare minerals required in devices scars the landscape and often exploits child labour. We have not yet had a comprehensive environmental audit of the entire ICT sector; it would make much grimmer reading than most would hope for or expect!  In 2017, the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.
  • Finally, the SDGs have already failed. In their original conceptualisation, each country was meant to decide on, and set, the targets that were most relevant to their needs and priorities.  As some of us predicted at the time, the number of goals and targets was always going to be a challenge for countries, especially those with limited resources and capacities to make these decisions.  Few, if any countries have actually treated the targets seriously.  Instead, the development industry has blossomed, and various organisations have set up monitoring programmes to try to do this for them (see, for example, UN Stats, OECD,  Our World in Data).  If countries haven’t actually established targets, and do not have the baseline data to measure them, then it will be impossible to be able to say whether many targets have actually been reached.

The SDGs serve the interests of UN agencies, and those who make huge amounts of money from the “development industry” that seeks to support them.  Private sector companies and civil society see the Goals as a lucrative source of profits since governments and international organisation are prioritising spending in these areas.  This is why the original choice of goals and targets for the SDGs was so important; people and organisations can make money out of them.

There is much debate over whether target setting, as in the MDGs and SDGs, serves any value at all.  Despite many claims otherwise, the MDGs failed comprehensively to eliminate poverty.  It must therefore be asked once again why the UN system decided to create a much more complex and convoluted system of goals and targets that was even more likely to fail.  The main reason for this has to be because it served the interests of those involved in shaping them.  They do not and will not serve the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.  We are already nearly one-fifth of the way from 2015 to 2030, and the SDGs have not yet properly got started.  They have therefore already failed.  It is high time that governments of poor countries stopped even thinking about the SDGs and instead got on and simply served the interests of their poorest and most marginalised citizens.  They could begin to do so simply by spending wisely for their poorest citizens the money that they waste on attending the endless sequence of international meetings focusing on how ICTs can be used to deliver the SDGs and eliminate poverty!  ICTs can indeed help empower poor people, but to date they have failed to do so, and have instead substantially increased inequality, both between countries and within them.  We need to reclaim ICTs so that they can truly be used to empower poor people.

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1 Comment

Filed under ICT4D, ICTs, SDGs, United Nations

One response to “ICTs and the failure of the SDGs

  1. Pingback: “Development for ICTs”, bilateral donors and the “beltway bandits” | Tim Unwin's Blog

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