August 19, 2015 | Commentary on United Nations, Foreign Aid and Development

The UN Turns Its Economic Development Goals to Mush

The United Nations is quite proud of its Millennium Development Goals - the criteria it uses to measure the success of economic development programs. In a 2013 report, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "modestly" stated that "Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been the most successful global anti-poverty push in history."

Of course, this is vastly overstated.

In claiming credit for progress in fighting poverty, the United Nations confuses cause and effect. For example, three-quarters of the gains made in reducing extreme poverty are attributable to economic growth in China and India, not to any particular effort by the United Nations.

Moreover, an independent study assessing best and worst practices among aid agencies ranked U.N. agencies among the least effective performers. Given that track record, the United Nations should be the last choice for directing global aid efforts.

Still, the MDGs have succeeded in one thing: getting nations to boost spending on foreign aid. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that official development assistance soared from $60 billion in 2000 to $167 billion in 2013.

Unfortunately, numerous studies find little evidence that increased spending of this sort leads to improved economic growth or development. And government development assistance has become increasingly less relevant as private financial flows have increased.

To recap, then, measurements such as the MDGs can help assess progress in economic development and rally additional resources to that purpose, but they do not actually drive development. This makes the United Nation's new plans for measurement all the more alarming.

With its MDGs slated to expire at the end of this year, the U.N. General Assembly is poised to institute a new set of development criteria called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Think of them as MDGs on steroids-and mush. Whereas the MDGs had eight goals with 18 targets, the SDGs, as currently drafted, establish 17 goals with 169 targets.

The targeting is different, too. MDG targets were primarily aligned with pre-existing development objectives such as improving primary school completion rates and access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Critically, they heavily focused on data, so that progress could be measured objectively.

But only some SDGs are similarly focused and measurable. Many are vague and subjective, resembling an unedited compilation of the wish lists from the entire development community.

Imprecise goals to "support," "strengthen," "achieve," or "ensure" dozens of various targets populate the SDGs. Take for instance:

"Ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, in order to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, in particular least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions"

"Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage"

"Achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources."

These are avowals of commitment, not measurable goals. The upside is that they are "achievable" because of their very vagueness.
That cannot be said of other goals which, frankly, are wishful thinking. For instance, it is not enough to improve conditions; the SDGs aim grandly to "end poverty in all its dimensions," "end hunger," "end child labour in all its forms," "eliminate gender disparities," and "eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres."

Wonderful aspirations, yes. Realistic goals, no. As much as we try, Utopia will remain beyond our reach, and it is certain that we will never arrive there following a U.N. roadmap.

Also common are political agendas masquerading as development goals. The introduction is packed with reaffirmations of commitments to implement environmental agreements like the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, and the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The specific goals include calls to:

"Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture's contribution to sustainable development"

"Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalize the Green Climate Fund through its capitalization as soon as possible"

"Ensure the full implementation of international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for States parties thereto, including, where applicable, existing regional and international regimes for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by their parties to those regimes"

Taken in whole, the SDGs are, quite simply, a mess -- broadly unusable as a framework for development. They do, however, hold great promise for fulfilling the real purpose of their drafters: to justify the inevitable calls of development professionals and developing countries for more funding.
Trying to implement the SDGs will cost a fortune. According to U.N. estimates, meeting the SDGs will require $3 trillion a year.

Any guesses as to how much of the $3 trillion bill the United States will be expected to foot? No matter how generous Washington is and plans to be, at Turtle Bay the answer will always be "not enough."

-Brett Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation's Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. Terry Miller is director of Heritage's Center for Trade & Economics as well as its Center for Data Analysis.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Ambassador Terry Miller Director, Center for Data Analysis and the Center for Trade and Economics and Mark A. Kolokotrones Fellow in Economic Freedom
Center for Trade and Economics (CTE)

This piece originally appeared in Real Clear World