Post-2015: how many goals is too many?


When Moses came down the mountain, he had ten commandments. Unfortunately, there is no such clarity within the post-2015 process on how many goals are the right number for a new global development framework.

Charlton Heston as Moses

Charlton Heston as Moses

The MDGs had 8. Although few people apart from real development policy wonks can remember every goal, the international community is now trying to reach consensus on what the upper limit is for a framework that is both concise and communicable. Is it 10 or 12? Could it even be 17?

Ban-Ki Moon early on called for a post-2015 development agenda that is ‘bold and at the same time, practical.’ In UN jargon, people want a framework that is transformative yet implementable; politically feasible whilst defying ‘business as usual.’

How many exactly?

For some, and particularly those who love a gimmick, I predict that fifteen will be the magic number, bringing together a year/number of goals compatibility. While there is no report yet promoting 15 goals, give it time. Ban-Ki Moon is due a synthesis report later on in the year…

Others have suggested that 12 is a good number for the new development framework, such as the High Level Panel report. Others argue that it can be done in ten goals: Jeff Sachs’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network did so in its 2013 report and are now seeking 100 indicators. Humans seem to have an inherent predisposition towards round numbers, perhaps based on our ten fingers and toes.

17 but still work to do…

The Open Working Group, the first intergovernmental process to deliver an input to this process, managed to get 70 countries sitting on 30 chairs (which brings a highly political game of Musical Chairs to mind) to agree – although with some outstanding contentious issues – to 17 goals.

A wonderful entry to the #SDGhaiku twitter competition, referring to the call made by some to think of 'governments and grandmothers' when defining the new agenda.

An entry in the #SDGhaiku twitter competition referring to the call made by some to think of ‘governments and grandmothers’ when defining the new agenda.

Although we’re still waiting for clarity on process after the UN General Assembly this September, discussions will move into full intergovernmental swing with all 193 countries. And whilst the OWG was open to inputs from all countries, those with formal seats had a greater ability to drive the agenda. One thing the OWG made clear is that there are some serious geopolitical rifts yet to be overcome on means of implementation, climate change, sexual and reproductive health and rights, sustainable production and consumption, inequality, governance, and peace and security, to name but a few. How will greater consensus on fewer goals be achieved in our G-Zero world where we have no consistent global leadership?

Some countries, such as the UK, have been calling for a reduced number of goals, whilst pushing for proposed goal 16 ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’ to be split into two.

The table below represents a quick temperature check on different issues, based on my reading of governments’ positions and politics in post-2015. The ‘safe bets’ are those topics which have relatively common backing from a wide range of governments (which isn’t to say that there aren’t hotly contested targets concealed beneath the surface). Those in the ‘middle of the road’ are ones where many actors recognise the need for their inclusion, but there isn’t yet agreement on how they should feature. A couple of these are liked to be merged together. And finally, those that are highly contentious are politically challenging for different countries for different reasons, and have either very visible or behind the scenes opposition.

(Disclaimer: this table is based on my opinion, not on agreed positions – if you read the tea leaves differently, please comment below.)


My quick sketch of which goals are in or out of the new development framework.

My quick sketch of which goals are in or out of the new development framework.


While this shows some progress from the MDGs, it’s evident we’ve some way to go before transformative issues are securely included in the post-2015 agenda. There are a number of possible scenarios at the outcome of this process:

  • MDG rollover – unable to come to any new agreement, the timeline for the existing goals and targets is extended. With the amount of political capital and resource spent on the post-2015 debate, this outcome is unlikely.
  • MDG plus – unable to garner agreement on contentious issues, the existing MDGs are tweaked. Existing political consensus places this in the ‘safe bets’ column and is highly possible.
  • Post-2015 transformation – recognising growing global challenges that require collective action, governments come together to dramatically reframe our global development priorities. Bets are out on this one.
  • No agreement – lack of agreement on divisive issues mean that no new framework is agreed and we operate in a world without agreed global development goals. Always a danger.

Evidence-based policy, not numerology

But this should be less about the specific number of goals than the narrative the new development goals give us as a global development community. There is no ‘right number’ we should be aiming for; discussions on how many goals are arbitrary. The more we seek to ‘streamline’ the number of goals in the post-2015 framework, the more likely we end up advocating for the tough, challenging and above all meaningful issues to be culled as the process become more political. If we’re being properly ambitious, shouldn’t we be seeking to include all the major issues that affect sustainable development and human rights? As the representative from Benin commented during the OWG, the MDGs addressed poverty in developing countries in 8 goals. If post-2015 means a universal sustainable development agenda, won’t we need at least double the number of goals?

That ‘marketing’ should be the defining factor in creating a global development agenda is deeply disturbing; we shouldn’t compromise on the agenda based on how it looks on twitter (bearing in mind that we have no idea what social media will look like by 2030).

One commentator has pointed out that most people can’t remember more than three priorities. So unless we want to strip it back to the three pillars of sustainable development, we should be talking content before we talk number of goals. And civil society should be sure we have the right narrative and level of ambition before becoming numerologists.


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4 Responses to “Post-2015: how many goals is too many?”

  1. John Patrick Ngoyi Says:

    For once, the whole world came together, even if questions may be asked about the representativity and legitimacy of many participants in the global talkshop about SDGs. One thing is however out of any query for anyone who is existentially honest: the current proposal of SDGs was more involving, more participatory, more encompassing and more global. The narrative has nothing to do with the top down MDGs. My take is a call to CSOs to focus on the yellows and the reds. Let us see whether we can agree with this classification. If we do, then we will have a powerful advocacy and campaign tool in our various Capitals and Regions. I can see some real connections between the yellows and the reds. Some of them may even be interdependent and mutually re-inforcing. Can Beyond 2015 take up this pro-active challenge? The September event can become very colourful and exciting.

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      Thanks JP. Your call to arms is always invigorating, and you’re right, there are opportunities to draw on what is best from the OWG outcome document and, if we have the chance over the next 12 months, improve it further.
      There has definitely been a step change in how the goals have been formulated. Although it has been an imperfect process, and many voices – particularly of the poorest and most marginalised people – have not been heard, at least many more people and stakeholders have engaged with the post-2015 process and feel a degree of ownership. Which in terms of ownership and accountability, can only be a good thing.

  2. Ross Bailey (@rossb82) Says:

    A very good blog Neva. Whatever development professionals think (I’m sure at least one of us can count all the way to 17 !!), reducing and clustering the goals is going to be critical for many members states who want to see this cut down.

    I’m really pleased that you see Water and Sanitation as a safe bet . Having appeared prominently in the High Level Panel report, the Open Working Group report and the 2014 declaration of Africa Water Week, there’s a real momentum to tackle the global WASH crisis that sees 2.5. billion go without access to a basic toilet. The existing business of the MDGs is going to be really important. We may have made progress on water in some very large countries but the poorest and most marginalsed have seen very little improvement.

    Whilst it seems inevitable that the goals may yet be reduced and clustered, there’s less clarity on the way in which indicators are going to be developed and how they are going to ensure silos are broken down.

    I believe that we need goal and targets that can be understood by “ministers and mothers” (stealing shamelessly from the debates of the Open Working Group, I can’t remember who said that). But, we must be willing to take accept complexity where it is required. And that is at the indicator level.

    To give an example, target 3.2 calls for eliminating preventable child and newborn deaths. This is about as obvious a target as you ca n think of for global prioritisation. Given that diarrhoeal disease is the second largest killer of children worldwide and that inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene is the primary cause of this disease, we just won’t reduce child mortality without tackling this key issue.

    With target 3.2 in mind, I would like to see discussion of indicators for outcomes e.g. Incidents of diarrhoeal and pneumonia deaths reduced to x per 1000 and indicators for coverage or contrbution e.g. access level to basic, water sanitation and hygiene reach 100%. This would encourage mutual accountability between different sectors by making one target’s success reliant on another.

    I’d welcome other readers views and how we can encourage conversation about this complicated issues. Do tweet me.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment Neva and Cafod

    Ross Bailey @rossb82
    Campaigner, WaterAid.

  3. Neva Frecheville Says:

    Hi Ross, thanks for your response. While I have placed the water and sanitation proposed goal as a ‘safe bet’, are there potential risks involved with the proposed goal on oceans, seas and marine resources, as both are concerned with the natural resource of water? Although I think it’s more likely that the oceans goal and the terrestrial ecosystems goal will be merged into an ecosystems/biodiversity goal.
    You make an interesting point on the need for simplicity at the goals/targets level and complexity where it will count for implementation, monitoring and accountability. The indicator debate is not taking place out in the open – either it hasn’t really built momentum yet or the technical work is being done behind closed doors. While an open and inclusive process is important, the indicators can’t be negotiated by member states – relevant expertise is needed. But we should be going beyond government-to-government reporting to see how people everywhere can participate in monitoring the new development agenda.

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