How do we know we’re making a difference?

Josie PaganiJosie Pagani
Director
Council for International Development

It’s two years since 193 countries, including New Zealand, and many businesses and civil society organisation across the world signed up to the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). So how are we doing? The report is unclear. Which isn’t surprising. There are 17 goals, 169 targets and about 240 indicators. Too many to measure? Too many organisations doing the measuring  – or not enough?

Measuring impact is notoriously hard, with or without the SDGs. And yet we all need evidence to make the case to donors and the public that what we do and how we do it is effective. People go to work in our international NGOs to reduce extreme poverty in the world, fight for equality, for the rights of women, and for every child to have a good education. That’s not easy to measure.

But there’s a danger with the SDGs that we end up stuck in a technocratic debate about how to measure and what to measure, when what really matters is – will a decision-maker in Suva or Wellington or Juba do anything differentlybecause of the SDGs? Real (measurable) change only happens in the dirty world of politics. It’s the ‘messy business of power and politics that will really determine the success of SDGs’ and therefore what happens to poverty, equality, gender rights, equal pay, and clean water, says Oxfam’s strategic advisor and author, Duncan Green.

Ironically we still don’t know how much the earlier MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) actually influenced the day to day work of governments, businesses or NGOs. References to MDGs in policy papers is only a partial measure. What matters is outcomes. It’s true we achieved MDG 1 (halve extreme poverty by 2015), but much of that reduction was due to the development of China, who are probably more invested in the New Zealand Lion’s Tour, than they were in the MDGs. More analysis is needed (a job for a good PHD student?) if we are to understand what works and what doesn’t at influencing decision-makers. Armed with that knowledge we can make sure the SDGs are more successful than the MDGs.

Progressive ideals seem in retreat today which is why the SDGs, however challenging, remain important. Their aspirational nature (and all 17 goals) is something to be celebrated not reduced. We’re trying to change the world and end poverty. That’s an historic mission, more akin to international instruments that champion human rights, workplaces conditions, the rights of women and environmental laws, than to the MDGs. The SDGs are universal. They’re about changing global norms and the way people think here and in every country. They’re not just about more aid or better delivery mechanisms. That’s exciting.

As we make the case for the SDGs, we can act on what we already know influences politicians: Peer pressure works. No country, including New Zealand wants to be unfavourably compared to another. SDG regional league tables could be very effective. Media profile gets the attention of politicians. We need more stories about the New Zealand schools, and the Pacific NGOs who are embracing the SDGs, not to mention the businesses like Pepsi, Unilever, and Millar Beer who are rolling out their own SDG projects. Civil society campaigns make a difference.

Understanding how best to get traction with politicians will decide the success of the SDGs. If we get that right, then we’ll have something real to measure.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

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