Tag Archives: MDGs

Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development


I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Ola Jo Tandre (Director and Head of Social Responsibility, Telenor ASA, Norway)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

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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.

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A new global partnership: the report of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda


The long awaited report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, entitled A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, was published just a few days ago on 30th May.  The 27 member panel responsible for the report included representatives from government, business and civil society from all regions of the world. Their  optimistic report suggests that we can and must eliminate extreme poverty by 2030.

Unfortunately, as evidenced in the title of the report itself, this has been a missed opportunity, and the new agenda will do little to change the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised people.  It is more of the same, rather than a radical departure from the MDG consensus of the last 15 years.  By retaining a largely absolute definition of poverty, and claiming that it actually can be eliminated through economic growth, this agenda will serve further to increase inequalities in the interests of the world’s richest individuals and countries.  The focus of the report on the ‘economic’, on the myth of ‘sustainable’ development, and on fundamental misunderstandings about the interests underlying ‘partnerships’ all mean that the proposals will be unable to deliver on the needs of the world’s poorest and most marginalised peoples.

The panel reached consensus on five transformational shifts that it claimed are necessary to achieve the elimination of poverty:

  1. Leave No One Behind: The MDGs aimed to halve extreme poverty (now defined as people earning less than $1.25 a day). The High Level Panel report proposes ending poverty by 2030 – as it says, “We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities”.  This focus on previously excluded groups is indeed a step forward, although there is little agreement on how it can be achieved.
  2. Put Sustainable Development at the Core: The report seeks to bring together the social, economic and environmental aspects of development, focusing especially on a desire to “halt the alarming pace of climate change”.  It is a shame that so little is said about the political and cultural agendas that are such a critical part of ‘development’.  It also fails to recognise the highly contentious character of the notion of “sustainable development” which increasing numbers of people now see as being a contradiction in terms!
  3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth: This proposal lies at the heart of the agenda.  The report emphasises that “We call for a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities and a profound economic transformation to end extreme poverty and improve livelihoods”.  From DFID’s overview of the report, this means “a much greater focus on promoting jobs through business and entrepreneurship, infrastructure, education and skills, and trade”. This places the economy rather than social justice, cultural meaning, or political practice at the heart of the development agenda.  Imagine the impact that this high-level transformative shift would be if it had been reworded to read “Transform societies to ensure social justice and equality of opportunity”!
  4. Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all: The report claims that “Freedom from fear, conflict and violence is the most fundamental human right, and the essential foundation for building peaceful and prosperous societies”.  This places the agenda firmly upon a human rights basis, but does little to focus attention on the individual and collective responsibilities that are essential to make this happen.
  5. Forge a new Global Partnership: The report emphasises that “Perhaps the most important transformative shift is towards a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability that must underpin the post-2015 agenda”.  I completely agree that partnership is crucial for effective delivery of development interventions, but the report fails sufficiently to address the complexity of delivering partnerships on the ground, and the interests that underlie them.

The illustrative 12 universal goals and 54 national targets associated with the recommendations make interesting reading.  As the report emphasises, “the shape of the post-2015 development agenda cannot be  communicated effectively without offering an example of how goals might be framed”. For ease of information, these are summarised below:

1. End Poverty

  • Bring the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day to zero and reduce by x% theshare of people living below their country’s 2015 national poverty line
  • Increase by x% the share of women and men, communities, and businesses with secure rights to land, property, and other assets
  • Cover x% of people who are poor and vulnerable with social protection systems
  • Build resilience and reduce deaths from natural disasters by x%

2. Empower Girls and Women and Achieve Gender Equality

  • Prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against girls and women
  • End child marriage
  • Ensure equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register a business and open a bank account
  • Eliminate discrimination against women in political, economic, and public life

3. Provide Quality Education and Lifelong Learning

  • Increase by x% the proportion of children able to access and complete pre-primary education
  • Ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, completes primary education able to read, write and count well enough to meet minimum learning standards
  • Ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, has access to lower secondary education and increase the proportion of adolescents who achieve recognized and measurable learning outcomes to x%
  • Increase the number of young and adult women and men with the skills, including technical and vocational, needed for work by x%

4. Ensure Healthy Lives

  • End preventable infant and under-5 deaths
  • Increase by x% the proportion of children, adolescents, at-risk adults and older people that are fully vaccinated
  • Decrease the maternal mortality ratio to no more than x per 100,000
  • Ensure universal sexual and reproductive health and rights
  • Reduce the burden of disease from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and priority non-communicable diseases

5. Ensure Food Security and Good Nutrition

  • End hunger and protect the right of everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food
  • Reduce stunting by x%, wasting by y%, and anemia by z% for all children under five
  • Increase agricultural productivity by x%, with a focus on sustainably increasing smallholder yields and access to irrigation
  • Adopt sustainable agricultural, ocean and freshwater fishery practices and rebuild designated fish stocks to sustainable levels
  • Reduce postharvest loss and food waste by x%

6. Achieve Universal Access to Water and Sanitation

  • Provide universal access to safe drinking water at home, and in schools, health centers, and refugee camps
  • End open defecation and ensure universal access to sanitation at school and work, and increase access to sanitation at home by x%
  • Bring freshwater withdrawals in line with supply and increase water efficiency in agriculture by x%, industry by y% and urban areas by z%
  • Recycle or treat all municipal and industrial wastewater prior to discharge

7. Secure Sustainable Energy

  • Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • Ensure universal access to modern energy services
  • Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency in buildings, industry, agriculture and transport
  • Phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption

8. Create Jobs, Sustainable Livelihoods, and Equitable Growth

  • Increase the number of good and decent jobs and livelihoods by x
  • Decrease the number of young people not in education, employment or training by x%
  • Strengthen productive capacity by providing universal access to financial services and infrastructure such as transportation and ICT
  • Increase new start-ups by x and value added from new products by y through creating an enabling business environment and boosting entrepreneurship

9. Manage Natural Resource Assets Sustainably

  • Publish and use economic, social and environmental accounts in all governments and major companies
  • Increase consideration of sustainability in x% of government procurements
  • Safeguard ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  • Reduce deforestation by x% and increase reforestation by y%
  • Improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion by x tonnes and combat desertification

10. Ensure Good Governance and Effective Institutions

  • Publish and use economic, social and environmental accounts in all governments and major companies
  • Increase consideration of sustainability in x% of government procurements
  • Safeguard ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  • Reduce deforestation by x% and increase reforestation by y%
  • Improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion by x tonnes and combat desertification

11. Ensure Stable and Peaceful Societies

  • Reduce violent deaths per 100,000 by x and eliminate all forms of violence against children
  • Ensure justice institutions are accessible, independent, well-resourced and respect due-process rights
  • Stem the external stressors that lead to conflict, including those related to organised crime
  • Enhance the capacity, professionalism and accountability of the security forces, police and judiciary

12. Create a Global Enabling Environment and Catalyse Long-Term Finance

  • Support an open, fair and development-friendly trading system, substantially reducing trade-distorting measures, including agricultural subsidies, while improving market access of developing country products
  • Implement reforms to ensure stability of the global financial system and encourage stable, long-term private foreign investment
  • Hold the increase in global average temperature below 2⁰ C above pre-industrial levels, in line with international agreements
  • Developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7% of gross national product (GNP) as official development assistance to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20% of GNP of developed countries to least developed countries; other countries should move toward voluntary targets for complementary financial assistance
  • Reduce illicit flows and tax evasion and increase stolen-asset recovery by $x
  • Promote collaboration on and access to science, technology, innovation, and development data

As will be clear from this listing, this appears to be something of a “shopping list” reflecting the interests of those who put the agenda together.  The gaps are perhaps as interesting as the things that are actually included in the list!  Given my own interests in the uses (and abuses) of ICTs in and for development, I am particularly disappointed that so little is mentioned about them in the 54 targets listed above (although see Goal 8).  Given the importance of the Internet, and the role of ICTs in the global economy, it is both surprising and disappointing to find so little amongst the goals or targets.  Likewise, whilst women and girls are acknowledged in a specific goal, the 10-15% of the world’s population who are recognised as having some kind of disability are not explicitly mentioned in a target at all.

Given the ‘management’ of the world’s development discourse, it is scarcely surprising that this report has turned out as it has, but I remain deeply saddened and frustrated that this important opportunity has been largely wasted.  Yes, there are of course some good things in the report, but I do wish that there had been the collective will really to address the underlying causes of poverty head on.  Sadly, what I wrote back in 2007 in my paper entitled “No end to poverty” remains as valid today as it did then (for a summary see this blog post)!

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