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Bibek Debroy: For goals in plain English

Successors to Millennium Development Goals should be achievable - and clearly written

Bibek Debroy 

Bibek Debroy
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"By 2030 reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births." Everyone understands what this statement means. It is simple, comprehensible, concise, specific and quantifiable. In September 2015, the Milennium Development Goals, or MDGs, will be replaced by sustainable development goals, or SDGs. There are several parallel channels flowing into SDG formulation. One of these is the Open Working Group (OWG) and that set of proposals on SDGs now has 17 goals and 169 targets. What I have just quoted is target 3.1, under goal 3 of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being at all ages.

There has been a Plain English movement, especially since the 1980s, though it has often focused on legal English. Among several Plain English guides, there is a common refrain - short, crisp sentences and no sentence longer than 20 words. This is a principle most successful columnists also follow. Thus, there is no problem with understanding 3.1. It's a different matter that 70 for MMR by 2030, the target year for achieving SDGs, is well-nigh impossible. The global MMR is probably around 210 now. Though the future needn't necessarily be extrapolated from present trends, the MDG period (2000 to 2015) reduction experience suggests 70 by 2030 is asking for the moon. A number like 100 would have been more plausible.

I plead for patience, because I am going to give you three quotes. Here is target 2.4, under goal 2 of ending hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture. "By 2030 ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality."

Here is target 4.7, under goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting life-long learning opportunities. "By 2030 ensure all learners acquire 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."

Finally, here is target 17.18, under the additional requirement of data, monitoring and accountability. "By 2020" - that's not a typo, it is 2020 - "enhance capacity building support to developing countries, including for LDCs and SIDs (small island developing), to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national context."

Other than 2030, do you understand what the first two quotes intend to achieve? I think you will be forced to conclude the following: "If you ask me for a straight answer, then I shall say that, as far as we can see, looking at it by and large, taking one thing with another in terms of the average of departments, then in the final analysis it is probably true to say, that at the end of the day, in general terms, you would probably find that, not to put too fine a point on it, there probably wasn't very much in it one way or the other. As far as one can see, at this stage."

The third quote is different. At least, one understands what it means. But can you imagine what it will take for 193 countries to produce such data by 2020?

In fairness, language in targets will be convoluted if goals try to address multiple objectives at the same time. Consider goal 6. This states, "Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. This reminds me of a shotgun shooting a large number of pellets in the hope that something somewhere will stick. Notice that each pellet of a shotgun has limited power. To have power, one needs focus. If one is not shooting birds (or clay pigeons) and is engaged in the serious business of setting multilateral targets for 2030, this isn't how one goes about it.

Once upon a time, people who travelled on trains used hold-alls. (I am not using the term in its British or American sense). Everything went into a hold-all. Hold-alls have now virtually vanished and one shouldn't use SDG goals and targets as hold-alls.

With MDGs, there were eight goals, 21 targets and, depending on how you count, 60 indicators. In case of SDGs, if we start with 169 targets, we will probably end with 600 indicators. 169 has nothing to recommend it except for the mathematical trivia that 13x13 = 169 and the even more interesting trivia that, with digits reversed, 31x31 = 961. Since SDGs are serious business and not trivia, one hopes in September, goals and targets are pruned and language simplified.

The Copenhagen Consensus Centre has done extremely interesting work on where (out of 17 goals and 169 targets) development money is best spent and what peoples' priorities are. These two important criteria will knock down quite a few of those goals/indicators.

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India, or NITI. Views are personal

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First Published: Thu, July 09 2015. 21:50 IST