Public Commentary / 17 September 2015

Fragility the Main Hurdle to Implementing SDGs

After more than two years of debate and negotiations, the United Nations will approve the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the centerpiece of its post-2015 development agenda at a summit of world leaders September 25-27. The goals are much broader and more comprehensive than the Millennium Development Goals they replace, and cover a wide range of economic and political issues, including poverty, inequality, hunger, employment, education, the environment, and energy.

More than just a wishlist, the SDGs are also about advancing a vision of progress encapsulated by goal 16, which aims to “promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies” across the world. Indeed, the theme of inclusiveness runs through almost all of the SDGs that focus on national-level challenges. The word “inclusive” appears six times. The word “all” appears 10 times. The words equitable, equality, and inequality also make an appearance. As such, the SDGs very much reflect the fact that overcoming exclusion and inequality in their various forms is the largest problem facing human societies today and the biggest challenge to the development community.

Although the scale of ambition raises immediate questions about implementation, the SDGs do not delve deeply into such issues. Targets and indicators are set with limited concern for country starting conditions and the political dynamics that are key to their success. The particular challenges of fragile states—which are likely to be the largest obstacle to implementation—are not addressed. Lacking the social cohesion and robust institutions necessary to overcome the systemic exclusion and inequality that keep them unstable and underdeveloped, fragile states are the farthest from achieving the vision of progress laid out by the SDGs, and likely to face the hardest road to get there.

The developing world is rapidly diverging into two groups—states robust enough to maintain order and promote development, and states too fragile to do either. Yet, none of the SDGs take into account this growing divide. Instead, mostly everything the development community—and the SDGs—seeks to accomplish assumes that countries are either beyond fragility or can become so within a reasonable period of time.

History suggests that this is highly unlikely. Despite considerable amounts of aid, change in fragile states remains elusive. Countries from Nigeria and South Sudan to Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan have been unable to change their longstanding exclusive dynamics. They continue to be plagued by limited social cohesion, poor governance, exclusive growth, and feeble development outcomes. While more robust states are reducing violence and poverty and are likely to make substantial progress towards the SDGs, fragile states are likely to be left behind. Already, some two-fifths of global poverty is concentrated within their borders—even though they account for only one-fifth of the world’s population. This proportion is not expected to fall, but instead to rise to two-thirds by 2030.

Only innovative approaches that yield better political frameworks, more inclusive social dynamics, and better institutions—and ideally some combination of all three—can hope to catalyze the kind of internally generated change that these countries desperately need. Guatemala, for instance, has seen dramatic changes in recent months because a creative new type of institution was established within the country to tackle corruption; its success has reshaped the political dynamics that have long held back the country, offering the chance that this highly unequal country will become more inclusive in the process.

The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is doing what no completely domestic institution could accomplish: hold elites accountable for their actions. Charges have been brought against the president, vice-president, central bank governor, head of congress, heads of the customs, tax, and social security agencies, leaders from several political parties, and senior police officials.

Transitions started by the end of a conflict, a repressive regime’s demise, or a similar critical juncture offers the best opportunities to introduce such innovations. CICIG, for instance, is an outgrowth of the commitments the Guatemalan government made in the peace agreement ending the country’s civil war. The UN played a special role in the establishment of CICIG (through an agreement with the country), and continues to be critical to ensuring its successful operation.

Multilateral institutions such as the UN, which already play a major role in peacemaking, could make a more significant contributions to transitions—as they did in the 1990s. This would require shoring up and leveraging their unique international stature and neutrality to create innovative solutions such as CICIG to promote inclusiveness, equality, and accountability in ways that domestic actors working alone often cannot.

The SDGs are a bold attempt to set the development agenda for the next 15 years. But they are just goals. The challenge will be in implementation. Fragile states will be the hardest places. Without an improved understanding of their structural deficits, and an agenda of deliberate and targeted innovation, the UN’s goals will remain dead letter in these states.

Seth D. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and Senior Adviser to the Institute for Integrated Transitions.

Originally published in IPI.

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