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Article Article September 24th, 2015

The SDGs are complex: let's treat them as such

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The SDGs integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development

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It is important to distinguish between problems that are complicated and those that are complex

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We need to ask if we have the right approaches and institutions

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The stakes couldn't be higher. Following a conference in July, where governments agreed to a renewed global framework on how to finance international development, world leaders gathered in New York last month to agree the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set out the seventeen new global goals to be accomplished by 2030. In December the focus shifts to Paris, where it is hoped the same group will be able to hammer out a new global climate agreement.

Taken together, these three historic agreements will describe a future that's more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable and have the potential to shape the lives of every human on the planet - for better or worse.

It's a breathtakingly ambitious agenda and one that distinguishes itself from previous efforts by integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development. This makes intuitive sense as it is clear that progress on one dimension (e.g. primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa) is likely to be highly dependent on progress along other dimensions (e.g. nutrition, employment, climate change) as well as influencing yet further dimensions (e.g. economic growth).

In short, everything is connected to everything else. This makes it difficult to know how to proceed and risks the SDGs falling into a well of complexity of their own creation.

Complicatedness versus Complexity

Of course, the challenge of addressing complex problems is not new. For many years, governments, NGOs and other agencies have been wrestling with so-called “wicked” problems at a more local level. Their experience provides some clues as to how the international community should think about the challenges that lie ahead.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish between problems that are merely complicated and those that are genuinely complex. For example, building a hospital is complicated while improving public health is complex. Complicated tasks can be broken down into individual steps or components that can be managed, top-down, to achieve the objective. Complex problems will not yield to such a strategy. Within the SDG agenda there are almost certainly a mix of both types of problem so it is vital to distinguish between the two and adopt the most appropriate strategies.

Complex problems need to be approached holistically. This implies that progress is far less likely to be achieved through single-sector goals and strategies. A more integrated approach will require breaking down the traditional silos to follow a more joined-up approach. For example, the challenges of rapid urbanisation include elements of infrastructure, employment, public services and environment all of which need to be drawn together to truly grapple with the challenge of creating successful, liveable cities. The UN system is still predominantly organised around siloed challenges such as hunger, refugees and children. This may have made sense fifty years ago but does it still make sense today?

Capabilities that matter

The focus should also shift towards enhancing the capabilities required for success. For example, encouraging the better collection and sharing of performance data (as Silvia Montoya argues here) is likely to result in more informed decision making across the board. Similarly, ensuring that learning happens rapidly and the lessons about what works (and doesn't work) are shared widely helps everyone to improve faster.

The open data and evidence-based policy movements have been championing these agendas for some years now but these kind of approaches remain somewhat at odds to the prevailing mindset within many of our public institutions. Indeed perhaps we need new kinds of institutions, to address the new challenges we have set ourselves? For example, who should champion global standards for data and provide an open platform to aid data-sharing?

The emerging global agenda, as represented by the SDGs, is undoubtedly complex. Let's make sure we treat it as such and, if necessary, ask ourselves the tough questions about whether we have the right approaches and institutions to succeed.



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