The post-2015 decision-making process has taken over the world of international development. Nearly every conference and every research or policy paper must now include the number 2015 in its title, thus making it “relevant”. It is easy to be jaded by it all. Are these discussions really worthwhile? Will they really somehow trickle down into real change? As I have written before, I think this process has been valuable; we are going through a paradigm shift which will have (largely positive) repercussions on policies and budgets.
One of the concerns many people have with regard to the new set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) is that it will resemble a garish Christmas tree, covering too many issues, and thus losing the prioritising role that most agree the millennium development goals (MDGs) played fairly well. The open working group’s preliminary list has somewhat confirmed this suspicion, although attempts are now under way to reduce its 19 thematic areas to a more manageable number with more likelihood of influencing public decision making.
But there is an alternate danger: over-focusing on a select group of priorities could lead the international development community to take its eye off the ball with regard to a range of important issues that didn’t make it on to the final list. Maybe they were too politically provocative. Maybe they weren’t considered as important. For whatever reason, they didn’t win consensus (in one sense goals agreed by all the countries of the world will represent the lowest common denominator). One of the main criticisms of the MDG era is that they did precisely that. While they succeeded in focusing funding and energy on some critical anti-poverty priorities, the other side of that coin was a diminishing concern for issues considered (by the handful of people who wrote the MDGs) less important.
So good luck to the SDGs. May they be bold, unambiguous and few. But they are not the end of the matter. There has to be a way of prioritising some issues politically, without leaving the unchosen issues neglected. Which is why I am pleased to be associated (as an adviser) with what could be an important complementary research project. The Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) is leading a process collating not the 10 or so most important development objectives, but the 100 most important international development questions.
Building on the themes in play in the SDG discussion, but not limited to them, the ID100 project will seek to do for researchers what the SDG global talkfest is doing for policy-makers, achieve some kind of meaningful consensus (or maybe proposed consensus) on the most important priorities for international development research in the coming years.
If 100 sounds like a large number for a prioritising exercise, it is a tried-and-tested method that has had some success in other fields and in the world of academics. Getting down to 100 will be little short of a miracle, especially given that the questions are being crowdsourced. There are criteria for what makes for good questions, they cannot have a yes/no answer, they have to be hard but not too hard, and the answer cannot be “it depends”.
Unhindered by political constraints, and encouraging a profound reflection on the state of our world, from the perspective of international development, this exercise looks likely to be at once more ambitious than the SDG slog, and more satisfying – if you are more inclined to searching questions than goals and indicators.
But it will be most useful if it serves as something of a complement to the new era’s goals, anticipating and discussing some of the “how” questions sparked by the SDG’s “what” questions. Here are some of the questions I will be submitting:
- What place is there (if any) for the profit motive in the provision of basic services such as primary healthcare and education?
- Why is human dignity so little discussed in international development circles, which are more obsessed with material well-being, and how can the concept be integrated in a meaningful way?
- The ethical treatment of animals is a subject almost never raised in international development discussions. What is the place of animal rights in a sustainable development agenda?
- Why do development professionals, while believing they are acting in the interests of recipients, so often act in the interests of their own (donor) country or organisation, and how can this tendency be mitigated?
Submit your own question via the project’s website by 4 June.