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    • Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)uci.edu
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, University of Oxford
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER http://swellfer.wordpress.com
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography, University of Padova, Italy
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      OUR AUTHORS
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Assistant Professor of Demography, University of Milan, Italy
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
      our authors
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The Merry-go-round of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Le manège autour des Objectifs de développement durable des Nations Unies

Alaka Basu
young woman of a country in developement

Advocacy is a funny thing. If you feel strongly enough about a cause, as everyone in international development does these days, it is no longer enough to campaign for something simply for its own sake. You have to establish the added value it offers to every other good cause that is clamoring for attention.

The domino effect of … every move

This frenzy of demonstrating win-win-win…win connections is at its peak these days, with the United Nations having narrowed down their ‘Post-2015’ agenda (also known as ‘Post-MDG’ or ‘Sustainable Development Goals’/SDG agenda) –if ‘narrowed’ is the right word to describe a collection of 17 goals and 169 targets. Its slate of global aspirations for the next 15 years covers everything from health to employment to trade to forests (see also Massimo Livi Bacci’s The United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development).

The popular and academic media are also doing what they can to support the SDG project. So, all in all, those of us who care about a particular goal or target have many constituencies and platforms that we must appeal to for special status. But so do all those pesky promoters of other causes who have other priorities and other categories of disadvantaged populations to rescue or placate.

The 2000 Millenium Development Goals Project, with its less ambitious list of 10 goals and 60 targets, seems to have achieved some success; so this time around, the goals are more abundant and the pockets are deeper. But supply always creates its own demand, and time and money are scarce resources after a certain point, even for the international organizations, aid agencies and philanthropies committed to making our sad world a better place – which some might say is becoming increasingly sad, considering all the mindless violence around us.

How then does one get one’s own pet cause on the table? The currently popular trend is to demonstrate that one’s goal of interest is crucial for the success of the other priorities that have been set by those in power. So good health, for example, must be high on the list not only because people like being healthy, but also because healthier people are more productive, have fewer children, are less violent, waste less water, treat their womenfolk better and travel more often to the small island states where tourism is the primary source of revenue and which the SDGs also seek to protect.

As for SDG 5, the one on gender equality: that one has even more tie-ups with the remaining 16 goals. Each of those 16 goals stands a much better chance of being met if every activity under it is disaggregated to focus specifically on the needs of females. Never mind if the proponents of these other goals are busy demonstrating on the other hand that investing in them will end up being very good for Goal 5.

Between cause and effect: priorities

Right now, the sun is shining on climate change. So, different groups are hard at work to prove that family planning services will slow down climate change; or that jobs for all will keep tempers as well as temperatures cool. And getting piped water into homes will literally mean a smaller ecological footprint because women will not trudge for miles to get water.

The only trouble is that the people pushing for a climate accord in Paris have reversed the causal chain: it is cutting emissions that will help women practice birth control, provide jobs for distrustful and disoriented young men, and reduce the cost of bringing clean water to homes.

Of course, most of these interconnections are intuitive – man does not live by bread alone. He needs air and babies and condoms and a nice school nearby, as well as a place to go for some fun work and a warm home to return to and rest his weary soul. Moreover, getting any one of these legitimate perks does make it easier to acquire and enjoy the others.

These connections may be unsurprising to the intelligent observer, but funders still have to decide on priorities: bread, clean air, energy-efficient light bulbs, or that shiny pair of slippers in the shop window down the street.

No wonder an expensive industry has now sprung up to increase attention on specific goals, and it does so by attaching a monetary value to all the other benefits that arise from subscribing to each of these goals. This quantification of interconnections tries to specify in dollars the ROI (or Returns on Investment) that will come from giving my particular cause its due. The hard work then is to find the best mix of analytical variables to maximize ROI and to show that my cause’s ROIs are higher than yours. The work of the Copenhagen Consensus Group is perhaps the most visible face of this kind of quantification, but there are several others (such as the Guttmacher Institute’s recent report, Adding It Up) that try to quantify the gains from investing in different SDG goals, and they make the case for what the World Bank calls Smart Economics.

As an impartial observer (even if I say so myself, and even if the world of policy consultants is crowded with ‘impartial’ observers), I should end with the one cause I know for sure will have a large impact on all other good causes: the empowerment of women and the guarantee of their sexual and reproductive rights.

 

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