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SDGs: Will they make a difference?

This week heads of state assemble in New York to launch the Sustainable Development Goals. The agreed text lays out 17 goals and 169 targets. It is an ambitious agenda for all of humanity.

But will they make any difference? We have had the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were launched with similar fanfare in 2000. These focused on ‘development’ and ‘poverty’, but were similarly high-sounding. Promoted heavily by Jeff Sachs, bed nets, vaccines and agricultural technologies were going to save the world. Big money from international donors and philanthropists came behind them, but did they make a difference?

I must confess I was a deep cynic in 2000. The ‘aid’ frame of the MDGs meant that implementation was subject to the usual top-down impositions, and there were many limitations, with the added burden of the target-oriented audit culture, and all the distortions this creates. Was aid going to be a saviour or just a sticking plaster, unable to address the real structural causes of poverty and inequality? Did the MDGs just reinforce a world order where underdevelopment was the consequence of capitalist power and control in some parts of the world? Maybe.

So what happened since 2000? There have been major changes in the world economy, and with this geopolitics. The old aid frame with western nations and rich philantrophists from the US setting the agenda has gone (or at least partially). The declines in aggregate poverty achieved since then were not largely the result of MDG interventions at all, but the growth of China (and also India, parts of Latin America and more recently some countries in Africa). These changes were not driven by goals and targets, or village pilot projects such as Sachs’ much criticised Millennium Villages, but by economic aspiration, capitalist expansion and growth.

But I must admit that my cynicism for the MDGs has waned over 15 years, and this gives me hope for the SDGs. There are a number of reasons.

Investment linked to MDG targets has in some places resulted in significant gains. Ethiopia was one country for example that took the MDGs seriously. The statistics are impressive. Child mortality is down by two-thirds from 1990, and various other targets – on women’s empowerment, nutrition and food insecurity – have been met. Yes, there have been distortions – sometimes a blind focus on a target, forgetting the wider picture – but the effect has been galvanising. A commitment to a new state-led developmentalism is especially apparent in Ethiopia, the inheritance of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, but it’s evident elsewhere too. In a period when the neoliberal mantra has been the economic discipline, the retreat of the state and reliance on the private sector and voluntarism, the efforts of states like Ethiopia, committed in partnership with international donors to United Nations ambitions, is impressive.

Perhaps most importantly, the MDGs opened up a political space for a debate about development. The UNDP’s MDG ‘campaign’ was important in keeping a development agenda on the radar of governments around the world, and Salil Shetty was a great initial champion. These commitments were amplified, extended and supported of course by the major efforts of NGOs and civil society groups, around ‘Make Poverty History’, and other campaigns. Without such collective action and political pressure, the temptation to cut aid budgets in the face of the late 2000s financial crisis would have been even greater. The summits and grand UN meetings may have been performative circuses, but they have also provided a focus for advocacy and challenge. The politics of global summitry can be one where new ideas emerge, creating spaces for more radical alternatives. Moving beyond the target culture and shifting towards generating globally-agreed norms for policy and action – as has happened around human rights, women’s rights and the environment – is perhaps a more appropriate focus for advocacy, rather than getting hung up on all the goals and targets, while still keeping governments to account around key themes.

In a period of financial crisis, austerity, inward-facing nationalist politics and a geopolitics overtaken by the ‘war on terror’ post 9/11, the MDGs were in some way an important counter, offering a more internationalist vision of development, and a confirmation of the UN ideals. Fifteen years on, I have emerged with a somewhat less cynical view. But what of the SDGs? Might these offer the same? Just maybe.

If you read the document you will probably despair. It’s full of high-flown rhetoric and grandiose statements – most of which are rather meaningless hot air and grand gestures. Great fodder for the cynic. But I think if we (largely) forget the goals and targets (except as politically useful tools), and focus on the wider politics of the SDGs, we can see (perhaps) some radical potential. There are five things that might help assuage the cynic in me.

First, again, the launch this week, and the continued presence of the goals, agreed by all nations, opens up a political space, as the MDGs did in 2000. Like then, it will have to be followed up by an energetic campaign, and radical voices will need to enter the debates to keep governments on their toes. Today, the broader conditions for a new argument for development are even less promising than in 2000, so we need to catch the moment, and make the case.

Second, and this is emphasised repeatedly in the agreement document, the SDGs are universal – for all nations. This is not a ‘development’ document, with the unequal relations between ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ inscribed. Instead, this is as relevant to the UK as it is to Zimbabwe, and accountabilities and commitments must work in all directions. This is an important departure from the MDGs that had the old (post-colonial) aid framework at the core. Recently the SDGs were discussed in the UK Parliament, but in the wrong committee. The SDGs are not just the concern of the International Development Committee but of all government. SDGs should be discussed under Home Affairs, as well as development.

Third, the explicit linking of sustainability and so environmental concerns, especially climate change, is vital. Long-term, sustainable development cannot forget this. The MDGs pigeon-holed environmental issues, and did not see them integral to all development. Bringing sustainability centre stage is crucial, as the world negotiates a future in the context of climate change. In terms of UN efforts, it also brings development (UNDP) closer to environment (UNEP), and so makes the connections that have been attempted repeatedly in Stockholm, Rio, Joburg and Rio again.

Fourth, what is needed here, along with the wider ‘campaign’ for sustainable development is what emerged from the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development – a local level movement for sustainable development, based on practical change on the ground. Back then it was called Agenda 21. Remember that? Agenda 21 petered out and sustainable development became increasingly the domain of global summitry and COP events associated with climate change. But without practical enactments of sustainability, and a radical realisation of what it means in different places, the big ambitions will fall flat.

Fifth, a new developmentalism, linked to a universal commitment to an internationalised solution amongst the community of nations, gives the UN a pivotal role. As a new Secretary General is sought, I hope that whoever is appointed will keep these visions central and push member states to match their signing up to the SDGs with consistent financing and concerted action in line with the goals. This will not just mean carping at the failures of so-called developing nations, but will mean keeping developed nations to their word. As the UK imposes yet more austerity measures that affect poor people and ethnic minorities most harshly, at the same time as cutting support for transitions to green energy, will David Cameron, a great supporter of the SDGs, take note?

Green transformations involve politics, and require both high level goals, but most crucially organised collective action. As we discussed in the book The Politics of Green Transformations these may occur through a variety of processes, being led by technology and innovation, state intervention, market reforms or citizen actions. Lessons show that sustained transformations to sustainability require political coalitions between groups through mobilisation across sites and scales. If the SDGs are to have meaning it is this new politics that will make the difference, and not getting hung up on the many goals or targets.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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Policy options for African soils: learning lessons for future action

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – launched a major ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort. The Abuja declaration, following on from the African Fertilizer Summit of 2006 set the scene for major investments in boosting fertilizer supplies. CAADP – the Comprehensive African Agricultural Developent Programme – has been active in supporting the follow up to the summit, particularly through it work on improving markets and trade. Other initiatives abound – the Millennium Villages programme, Sasakawa-Global 2000, the activities of the Association for Better Land Husbandry, among many others. All see soil fertility as central, although the suggested solutions and policy requirements are very different.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in sustainable ways; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate.

What would a framework for policy and implementation look like? This is much more contested. A variety of ‘models’ – often with rather implicit policy assumptions – are being, or have been, tested. These include (among many others, and different permutations):

A technology package approach: state led extension delivery– high input demonstration plots linked to a programme of extension and credit support to encourage uptake of a technically recommended package (usually associated with improved seeds). This has been standard fare of most agriculture departments for years, but with limited impact – as the evaluations of the World Bank’s Training and Visit system showed. SG-2000 developed a more focused approach in the 1990s, with variable success, in part because the input levels recommended were very high (and expensive – up to 150kg/ha), and so often inappropriate to agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances. Other ‘package approaches’ have focused on agroforestry, conservation tillage and other technologies, but up-take and wider impact has been patchy.

Universal subsidies, price control and state support for input supply – the state-led subsidy approach of the 1970s and 80s involved highly controlled fertiliser markets and price control/subsidy. These systems were largely overseen by large parastatal organisations which offered pan-territorial pricing and supply through distributed depot networks, often linked to credit schemes often with poor pay-back records. Subsidy programmes were initiated in response to major oil/gas price hikes in the 1970s and persisted at huge cost to the state until economic liberalisation policies were introduced from the 1980s. They have been widely criticised, although positive outcomes have been realised, such as in Malawi, but at great cost to the exchequer and with high risks of intensifying patronage.

‘Smart’ subsidies and voucher schemes: facilitating market mechanisms – this approach has been tested widely, resulting in substantial boosts in aggregate production of maize, particularly in the good rainy seasons. This resulted in decreased food prices, benefiting not only producers but also consumers (many of the rural poor), and hopefully triggering an upward spiral of investment and labour generation. Questions over long term financial sustainability have been raised, given the high costs of imported fertiliser, and the potentials for leakage and poor targeting in the voucher system.

Village level demonstration and extension: area based integrated development – this approach is at the heart of the Millennium Villages Programme, and has been a feature of integrated rural development programmes of different sorts for decades. The programme, for example, offers subsidised fertiliser and shows its effect through demonstration plots. This has resulted in significant increases in fertiliser use and substantial yield growth, claimed to be up to three times previous levels.

Bulk purchase, packaging and local manufacture: investments to deal with upstream supply constraints

Many of the preceding options are reliant on mineral fertilizers in some shape or form. With high production costs due to energy costs (for nitrogen – although declining oil prices should see a shift in this pattern) and limits to easily accessible supplies (for phosphorus), fertilizers are set remain expensive, even relative to higher crop commodity prices. Local packaging and supply has proven successful in areas of high demand, such as Western Kenya through public-private partnership arrangements (e.g. FIPS-Africa), this has meant more appropriate products in packs which are affordable are supplied. To reduce input costs further larger scale interventions are envisaged by some, including bulk purchase of fertiliser for Africa with negotiated price reductions (e.g. the African Development Bank initiative and IFDC’s MIR project). Others have even more ambitious plans for local manufacture of fertilizers in Africa to increase supply and reduce prices, through aid-subsidised investment in plant development. The overall policy frameworks for these initiatives remain unclear, but remain important if appropriate blends/supplies are to get to farmers across diverse Africa farming systems.

Improving agro-dealer networks: making markets work. Improving market access through the support of agro-dealer networks helps to reduce price of inputs and can result in improved information flows and technical advice to farmers. A distributed private sector response to input supply can, however, quickly be undermined by inappropriate subsidies or project intervention. Agro-dealers usually operate on small margins and fluctuations in supply, demand and price can affect their ability to stay in business. Umbrella organisations that support small dealer operations can offset some risks and provide back-up. However, inevitably, most commercially viable operations are in relatively high resource endowment agricultural areas, supplying relatively richer farmers. The reach and poverty impact of private sector based solutions remains hotly debated.

Scaling up local success: project support for local level innovation systems – over many years numerous projects have been initiated that have supported local innovation capacity and the participatory development of technologies. Many of these have focused on managing soil and water resources. Some have proven one-off events with limited uptake; but others have spread widely with major positive impacts on farming livelihoods. How can such successes be replicated, and mainstreamed as part of agricultural development, becoming less reliant on unreliable project based support?

These ‘models’ are familiar to more general approaches to rural development and policy in Africa and beyond. There has been much experience across Africa of each – from the technology packages and extension approaches of the colonial era, revived in the 1970s through Training and Visit to the integrated, area based approaches of the 1960s and 70s to the project mode of the 80s and the market-led approaches of the post-adjustment and economic reform era.

What is interesting today is that all are being proposed and experimented with often in the same place at the same time; yet often with remarkably little reflection on past experiences and lessons. A hardnosed assessment of such lessons is vital in advance of any new initiatives emerging from the International Year of Soils, asking what works where, when and why – and for what?

Does anyone remember the much heralded Soil Fertility Initiative of the early 2000s? What happened to that? New initiatives must not suffer the same fate. Today, there is a political momentum for action generated by a global concern about rising food prices and lagging production. There is a renewed focus on agricultural development as a source of economic growth and poverty reduction, particularly in Africa. And there have been a variety of documented successes across Africa, ranging from the Malawi fertilizer story to local agro-ecological change in the Sahel, from which to draw. Together, these factors combine to a positive context for debating appropriate policy frameworks for soils in Africa.

Some important questions are raised, pertinent to Zimbabwe as elsewhere:

  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?
  •  Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?
  • How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?
  • Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined?

Some of these are addressed in the final blog in this series, coming next week.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared first on Zimbabweland

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