The new global “sustainable” development goals (SDGs) not only target geographical universality, but also the convergence of thematic agendas. This poses a challenge for governments worldwide. It is also a challenge for international aid in terms of providing the best possible support to the countries that are the furthest from the target.

© UN Photo / Loey Felipe
© UN Photo / Loey Felipe
 This Op-Ed  originally appeared (in French) on


From MDGs to SDGs: An increasing need to be exhaustive

The MDGs were devised in 1996 by the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) with the aim of remobilizing opinion in favor of ODA, which at the time was experiencing a considerable decline. They were taken up by the UNSG Kofi Annan in 2000 during the Millennium Summit and have certainly been a great success in terms of mobilizing opinion in favor of “development”. But they have remained handicapped by this top-down image. The SDGs have greater legitimacy. They have been prepared following a considerable mobilization – the United Nations say that eight million people have been consulted – then a very well orchestrated negotiation process which lasted over three years.

This dual process made it possible to provide a response to the criticism of the MDGs over the little consideration given to environmental aspects, the absence of governance and a number of other important themes, the lack of interaction between goals… Consequently, the SDGs cover practically all the main development sectors, for both the economic, social and environmental aspects (including the climate) and governance aspects (national and international). The objective is clearly to achieve a thematic comprehensiveness.

17 SDGs are the price to pay for comprehensiveness. 169 targets are the price to pay for the interactions between goals. But let there be no mistake: there is a unique concept behind these figures which may seem high: prosperous and sustainable living conditions for the entire future humankind. The approach is completely different compared to the MDGs.

The convergence of agendas has generally been well understood, meaning, for example, that there are not necessarily “climate projects”, but development projects with climate “co-benefits”. The issue of exhaustiveness goes well beyond this and is undoubtedly a great stride in the general paradigm of development.

In particular, it leads to clarifying the notion of “priorities” in development policies, to thinking more in terms of “limiting factors”, these well-known bottlenecks that development practitioners are very familiar with. We can use an engine as a comparison: all the parts are important and it is the weakest part that determines the quality of the whole engine. The same goes for countries: all the development components are equally important, and it is the weakest that determines the level of the country, not the strongest. Consequently, nothing should be overlooked.

Coordination and innovation

International aid agencies already have a broad field of activities and the SDGs will restore their legitimacy in important development sectors which were either mentioned little or not at all in the MDGs, and were far from the center stage. Infrastructure and the environment are two examples. But the SDGs go even further and tell us: Be careful, everything can be important.

This does not mean that all aid agencies must “cover” all the SDGs, not even the relatively generalist agencies like Agence Française de Développement (AFD). Firstly, because certain SDGs are not necessarily in the field of aid (oceans come to mind). But especially because it is up to all the stakeholders together to ensure that the exhaustiveness of the goals is taken into account, and not each of them individually.

Hence the need to coordinate aid, which is a longstanding issue. Principles for the division of labor among donors have been well integrated into the commitments on aid effectiveness decided in Paris 10 years ago and subsequently clarified in Accra and Busan. However, faced with the need to respect “priorities” and certain fads, they could not avoid situations, for instance in Mali, where 20 donors operate in the health sector, which is certainly important, and none in overhauling the judicial system, which is a typical example of a weak link.

We knew that it was not necessary to have 20 donors in a sector, with the SDGs we are (re)discovering that we must also avoid leaving key sectors “orphans”. For aid donors, exhaustiveness somewhat means going against the “fad” and, on the contrary, accepting to invest in little known and not very “glamorous” sectors (refurbish prisons, depollute contaminated soils…).

The principles of the division of labor include this dimension of exhaustiveness and therefore remain valid. Some agencies accept to play the role of “last resort” donor in neglected sectors, for example as part of the “joint programming” between European actors that has gradually been introduced in a number of countries. We must continue to work in this direction.

Finally, we also need to take stock of two new major features of the SDGs: governance (SDG 16) and the fight against inequalities (SDG 10). Who would have believed, only three years ago, that all nations would agree that the poor quality of institutions and the excessive inequalities between people within each country were realities, scourges that we need to get rid of?

These are crosscutting objectives, which transcend and complete the other SDGs. For aid agencies, integrating these two SDGs is a challenge which is a bit reminiscent of that of the climate a few years ago. Just as we have learned to quantify the “carbon footprint” of development projects, we will certainly also learn to measure and take into account their “institutional footprint” and their “inequalities footprint”. This means gaining a better understanding of the complexity of situations in which aid agencies operate, anticipating the impacts of their financing on the development of internal power relationships in societies and on income distribution, guiding their actions towards solutions for institutional compromises and equal access, etc.

So, this may not immediately seem obvious, but the SDGs do indeed constitute a global revolution. Fifteen years is certainly not too long to carry it off.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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