The SDGs and Pope Francis: it’s a wrap


This blog is a reflection on my time at CAFOD and the recent adoption of the SDGs, so it’s a bit longer than usual. While the real work for change at the national level is in many respects only just beginning, it’s a good moment for me to share some thoughts on what I’ve learnt over the last three years, what has changed, and opportunities and challenges ahead.


The 8 MDGs were created in 2000 as a kind of action plan for the Millennium Declaration. But unlike the open process which created the SDGs, the MDGs were agreed behind closed doors, driven by the World Bank and OECD countries. David Hulme writes about the creation of the MDGs in this book. As a result, many governments and civil society organisations were unaware of the MDGs until they started to define donor priorities and shape aid flows. Unsurprisingly most people, particularly in the global south, never really felt ownership of this agenda.

The MDGs put the greatest burden for action on poor countries. Goals 1 – 6 focused on human development outcome with ‘SMART’ targets to drive progress. Goals 7 – 8 , on environmental sustainability and global partnership, were more relevant to rich countries but had fewer tangible targets, illustrating power imbalances in global governance.

The MDGs went on to shape development discourse and international financial flows as the most influential global development framework of its time.

Why did CAFOD get involved?

Back in 2010 CAFOD did a piece of research with 104 of our partners called 100 Voices. We asked what impact the MDGs had had on the work that they did with communities. A whopping 95% of respondents told us that on balance they thought the MDGs had been a ‘good thing’, and that they wanted a new set of goals to follow on from the MDGs.

However, there were three areas that they wanted to see improved.

  • The new goals had to take better account of national contexts.
  • They had to better integrate environmental issues and climate change
  • The process through which they were created had to be open, inclusive, transparent and participatory.

This gave us a mandate to try to influence the new set of goals and to try to open up the process that created them. CAFOD helped found the global civil society campaign Beyond 2015 with the two aims of:

  • Calling for a global, overarching cross-thematic development framework to follow on from the MDGs
  • Pushing the creation of the new framework to be open, inclusive and participatory, particularly to those with direct experience of poverty and marginalisation.

The campaign began in 2010 with 5 organisations in 3 countries and grew to more than 1,500 organisations in 139 countries. It supported civil society engagement with governments at the national, regional and global levels, and input into UN-led thematic and global processes. The campaign went on to have a significant impact on the post-2015 negotiations, and even the way that civil society were able to participate at the UN. On a personal level, being able to work with people around the world as part of the campaign has been an incredible pleasure and privilege. I can’t imagine a role in the future where I have the chance to meet and learn from such an interesting, exciting and diverse group of people.

Voices from the ground

But this is not just about organised civil society. It was also important to understand the priorities of people living on the ground. On behalf of Beyond 2015, CAFOD helped convene Participate with the Institute of Development Studies. Participate is a global participatory research initiative with 18 organisations carrying out grassroots participatory research in 21 countries.

CAFOD carried out research with partners in four countries: UNITAS in Bolivia, the Justice and Peace Commission in Soroti district, Uganda; the Poverty Reduction Forum in Zimbabwe; and Ecoweb in the Philippines. The research is rich, full of people’s perspectives and experiences, but a common thread throughout is people expressing a desire to participate in decisions which affect their lives, to be ‘artisans of their own destiny’. ATD 4th World, a Participate research partner, instigated the call to ‘leave no one behind’ through its participatory research. Kudos to them for starting such a powerful clarion call.

What are the SDGs?

The 17 SDGs cover a wide range of issues. They are much broader than the MDGs and I would argue that their complexity results from the more democratic process that created them. Already, anecdotal evidence from our partners is showing that grassroots communities find it easier to relate to this new agenda.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals

The MDG issues are still part of the new Agenda – for many governments and civil society groups, this was critical. However, many issues previously ignored are now included, such as sustainable energy, decent work and economic development, inequalities within and between countries, sustainable cities and human settlements, sustainable consumption and production, climate change, peace and justice, and effective and inclusive institutions. As a general development agency with over 400 partners, it is easier for these goals to be relevant to their work at the national level.

What’s changed?

A quick analysis of some of the biggest shifts between the MDGs and the SDGs.

  • While the MDGs were mainly for action in developing countries, the SDGs are universal – as relevant to Switzerland as they are to Swaziland. How this unfolds in practice remains to be seen and it’s important that we don’t take our eye off the overarching goals of eradicating poverty, tackling inequalities and living sustainably.
  • The SDGs attempt to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development. It is the first time that the UN has tried this approach across such a broad agenda, meaning it is far from perfect. There are contradictions and tensions between different goals and targets. For example, the strong focus on economic growth ignores an inclusive approach to poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, critical to economic development that delivers for people living in poverty (see our Thinking Small work).
  • The SDGs focus on the poorest and most marginalized people. The MDGs measured national averages which meant that the experience of different demographic groups was often obscured. Through COMPASS 2015 research, we were told that for the poorest people their levels of poverty had stagnated and, in some cases, increased. Progress represented by national averages only showed progress experienced by some. This is a big step forwards.
  • The MDGs were primarily an aid framework. The SDGs, and the complementary Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), include domestic resource mobilization, technology, south-south cooperation, capacity building, trade, policy coherence for development, and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

These changes represent some pretty big steps forwards. No UN policy framework will ever be perfect but there are some fundamental shifts here which could take us closer to a more equitable world.

The power of the Pope

I’ve written before about the SDGs and the encyclical Laudato Si’. But I want to reflect a little on the Pope’s address to the UN General Assembly immediately before the opening ceremony of the Post-2015 Summit.

Pope Francis' addresses the UN General Assembly on 25th September 2015

Pope Francis’ addresses the UN General Assembly on 25th September 2015

Across America, the Pope’s visit generated great excitement. The media covered his every move. From Central Park to St Patrick’s Cathedral, people lined Fifth Avenue waiting to see a glimpse of his tiny black Fiat. People desperately sought connection with someone who is providing genuine moral leadership in a world where it is painfully absent and desperately needed.

When the Pope spoke to the ambassadors and dignitaries, politicians and UN officials in the elite rooms of the UN, his words will have had immense influence because of the genuine, spontaneous mobilisation he created nationwide. He spoke on challenging themes from Laudato Si’ around equitable decision-making, international governance and the distribution of power, as well as our relationship to each other and the environment. The room was packed, with people standing at the sides, unable to find a seat. Despite that, you could have heard a pin drop. As it was my first time in the UN General Assembly Hall, my assumption was that every speech was given this level of attention.

Not so. When presidents and prime ministers later came to the podium, two-thirds of the room cleared out and people resumed their usual level of chatter and lack of attention.

Glitz and glamour – the SDGs are adopted

Immediately after the Pope’s intervention, the opening ceremony began and the SDGs were adopted with a standing ovation. The pomp and ceremony was noteworthy for its absence at the MDGs’ creation when there was no public knowledge or recognition.

The SDG carpet. Now that's gonna change the world.

The SDG carpet. Now that’s gonna change the world.

Shakira sang. Malala spoke. 193 countries welcomed the SDGs. Obama personally committed himself to achieving them. This has generated a huge amount of political will and ownership of the SDGs. There are two options now: one is that this political will evaporates and things remain the same. The second is that we work at the national level to engage with their governments and hold them accountable for the commitments they’ve made on the global stage.

Why is this important?

The SDGs will affect outcomes in many different ways, often unpredictably. Just as the MDGs were a global experiment, so too are the SDGs. Claire Melamed from ODI says that: ‘For some governments, it will be comparison with others (so league tables), for others it will be domestic pressure (so whether SDGs are useful for domestic campaigners), for others more of a management tool. All are likely, and which it is will change with country/administration (and most countries will have several governments over the next 15 years) and goal (governments are likely to treat education differently to climate change, for example).’

With this in mind, let’s look at five areas where the SDGs are likely to have an impact:

1. Much of our work is about supporting our partners to engage effectively with their government on national development plans, budgets and policies that will have direct and indirect impacts on communities on the ground. While many used the MDGs as their organising framework, particularly where ODA drove an agenda, they are likely to use the SDGS for the next 15 years. In this context, our work can be helping partners analyse how the SDGs are or aren’t relevant to their domestic context, and what tools and approaches will have most impact.

2. As the SDGs are a universal agenda, they are also relevant to our work here in the UK and what our government does. Beyond 2015 UK’s analysis of the SDGs relevance to the UK government include:

  • Achieving the SDGs domestically (e.g. sustainable consumption and production, inequality, discrimination)
  • Assisting other countries to meet the SDGs through ODA and direct international action (e.g. DFID’s programmes and activities in other countries)
  • Understanding how UK policy and action impacts globally (e.g. on climate change)

Civil society will need to engage with the UK government across these three areas. It will be challenging to get the UK government to align its priorities and approaches with an external framework.

3. The lack of quality, timely data has long been acknowledged as a significant obstacle to relevant, effective development strategies and interventions. Data disaggregation is needed to give a better picture of what is happening within a country. The ‘data revolution’ has called for more resources to be channelled into improving data by building capacity of national statistical offices. Increasingly, there is a role for ‘third-party actors’ such as the private sector and civil society. However, from CAFOD’s perspective the approach to data is often extractive, with people living in poverty being seen as passive objects, rather than active agents of change.

4. Like many institutional donors, DFID used the MDGs as a framework to prioritise its funding. While CAFOD’s work was not defined by the MDGs, we were often expected to report on how our activities contributed to achieving the MDGs. Already, it is clear that DFID and many other donors are using the SDGs to define their work. This is a positive step for us because many of the issues that we partners work on which were previously excluded are now present. However, CAFOD need to define our approach and priorities.

5. Finally, the MDGs shaped global norms about development, and people’s rights and the responsibilities of duty-bearers to deliver them. It is likely that the 2030 Agenda will likewise contribute to shaping the narrative of development within our sector.

Next steps for CAFOD

There are some big outstanding questions for all of us to start wrestling with. The main ones at the top of my mind are:

  • What impact will transition from MDGs to SDGs have on funding, programmes and partners?
  • How to these kind of global agreements influence national decision-making and financial flows?
  • How can we support our partners to use the SDGs as part of their advocacy toolbox?

All that remains is for me to thank the amazing people I have had the opportunity over the last three years, whether at CAFOD, through Beyond 2015 or as part of the Catholic community. I wish you all the best in your endeavours for social justice and environmental sustainability, and I hope our paths cross again someway down the road.

P.S. My favourite thing – they even made a fridge magnet of the SDGs.

The SDG fridge magnet - and they said it couldn't be done.

The SDG fridge magnet – and they said it couldn’t be done.

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