Who’s Agenda Is It Anyway?

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for the development community. Of course, headlines were dominated by the UN’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals – the successor to the Millennium Development Goals and roadmap for the next 15 years of development activities. The SDGs have been well received by NGOs, the private sector, and government officials, who feel the MDGs were successful enough to warrant rallying behind the SDGs.

This was apparent at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting, where development glitterati pledged support for a diverse set of commitments. With 17 SDGs and 169 targets, chances are good these commitments will align with at least one of the goals. The material and financial commitments were welcome and necessary, since the UN’s intergovernmental finance committee put a price tag of around $7 trillion just for infrastructure–related SDGs (water, agriculture, transport, and power). Vital Wave CEO, Brooke Partridge, attending a CGI forum of African health ministers, heard a call for more local leadership over how development projects are conceived and implemented. Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu, the Ethiopian Health Minister and an architect of the country’s vaunted Health Extension Program, pointed out that Ethiopia met the MDGs ahead of schedule, and welcomed the continuing support of companies and development organizations as his ministry crafted strategies for the new development goals.

Host-country ownership of national development activities is the stated goal of many development organizations – commonly represented with terms like “lead from behind” or “work ourselves out of a job.” But in reality, development projects often collapse when external funding dries up. Local authorities argue that failure is not surprising, when projects don’t necessarily match national development agendas or available resources; hundreds of projects worth millions (or even billions) of dollars are launched without a firm commitment by local authorities to fill in the capacity and funding gaps identified during the projects. The health ministers on the CGI stage acknowledged that real impact will be determined by how these initiatives strengthen systems, but they want more say in which systems need improvement, and how best to strengthen them. Even a halting, home-grown effort is better than something that is crafted or imposed from the outside. So, do the new SDGs promote ownership and autonomy for developing nations? You’d have to read to the bottom of the list to find out. SDG #17 states: “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development.” Then dig a little deeper to Target 17.15: “Respect each country’s policy space and leadership to establish and implement policies for poverty eradication and sustainable development.” Just what the doctor Admasu ordered.

Back to All Blog Posts