The hurdles awaiting the new SDGs


By Obinna Anyadike, Editor-at-Large

NAIROBI, 25 September 2015 (IRIN) –

No one does summits like the UN, and this weekend will be a big one, as the world celebrates the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals – a new set of targets that global leaders have signed up to, including Shakira, David Beckham, and Pope Francis.

The UN has boldly announced the goals as a “landmark new framework that will aim to end poverty and build a life of dignity for all, leaving no one behind”. But global shocks and local crises – maybe even wonky data – can conspire to frustrate the best laid plans.

Here are some examples.


It’s a no-brainer that conflict tends to interfere with the ambitions of development planners. But it’s the way violence and insecurity ripples through society, affecting pretty much all 17 newly-enshrined SDGs, that is so threatening to human welfare.

Conflict has driven 13 million children out of school in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a new UNICEF report, Education under Fire. The destruction of schools, displacement of students and the deaths of teachers has an impact on both the individual and broader society.

“A region which – until just a few short years ago – had the goal of universal education well within reach, today faces a disastrous situation,” says the report.

An estimated 8,850 schools in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya can no longer be used because they have been damaged, destroyed, are sheltering displaced families or are occupied by parties to the conflicts, UNICEF notes.

That one in five migrants arriving on the shores of Europe this summer is Syrian, is helping make the connection for many in the wealthy world that local crises can have global consequences. That sense of a shared humanitarian concern – or the self-interested realisation that reducing inequality and boosting development outcomes has a security reward – is at the heart of the SDGs, the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The MDGs had distinctly mixed results at the end of their 15-year lifespan. The UN’s final report concluded that “conflicts remain the biggest threat to human development”, and that by the end of 2014, almost 60 million people had been forced to abandon their homes – the highest level recorded since the Second World War.

See: SDGs and the dangers of data

Natural disasters

Natural disasters come in many forms: from Nepal’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake that shattered homes and infrastructure, its after-affects still being felt, to the tiny Ebola virus, so virulent that even the international response at first seemed unable to contain its spread.

Ebola’s impact is going to be long-lasting in West Africa. The virus has killed more than 11,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – among those more than 500 health workers, crucial to basic health service delivery.

According to Zoë Mullan, editor of The Lancet Global Health, the loss of doctors, nurses and midwives “probably led to somewhere in the order of a 75 percent increase in maternal mortality across the countries, ranging from a 38 percent increase in Guinea to an 111 percent increase in Liberia.”

Amid a global drive to eradicate the disease, a modelling study showed that a halt in malaria care in 2014 as a result of the Ebola epidemic “probably resulted in increases in untreated malaria cases of 45 percent in Guinea, 88 percent in Sierra Leone, and 140 percent in Liberia, and an additional 10,000 deaths”, Mullan wrote.

Terms of trade

Individual counties and their citizens have little influence over global terms of trade. A surge in food prices between 2007 and 2009 caused food riots, political instability and deepened poverty. The period of food inflation coincided with high oil prices, which drove up the cost of living across the board. 

The poorest households in the developing world can spend as much as 60-80 percent of their incomes on food. Higher food costs tends to both worsen and widen poverty – which particularly impacts children. 

A study earlier this year in the Indian state of Andrha Pradesh found that the proportion of children showing symptoms of wasting increased by 10 percent between 2006 and 2009 as food prices spiked.

International food prices slid to a five-year low in May 2015. But the El Niño weather phenomenon, an appreciating dollar and strengthening oil prices could see food inflation nudge up again in the coming months, according to the World Bank.