Could the Election of Qu Dongyu as FAO´s General-Director be a Turning-point for Sustainable Agricultural Development?

By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Jul 1 2019 – Agriculture is the bedrock of sedentary human civilization, without it we would have no governments or nations. It was food surplus generated by agriculture that enabled people to live in cities and form regimes able to organize food production in such a manner that some community members could engage in other activities than direct food production and thus give rise to the ideologies, techniques and goods which now constitute and govern our existence.

China’s agricultural output is currently the largest in the world and for thousands of years the intimate connection between nature and agriculture has been an outstanding feature of its culture. A worthy example is the poetry of Du Fu (712 – 770 CE) who wrote about the toils of farming:

Long hoe, long hoe, handle of white wood,
I trust my life to you – you must save me now! 1

Like any other peasant today Du Fu was acutely aware of nature´s capriciousness and the disasters brought about through drought and famine.

Heaven has long withheld its thunder,
is this not a most perverse heavenly command?
No rain moistens the living things,
fertile fields rise into clouds of yellow dust.
Soaring birds die from searing heat,
fish dry up as ponds turn to mud.
A myriad of people wander about, destitute and homeless.
Lifting up one´s eyes reveals a plethora of weeds. 2

Much of Chinese history is characterized by huge efforts to mitigate and harness the forces of nature. Myths tell how agricultural tools and implements were invented, how plants and animals were domesticated. They speak of irrigation, the digging of wells, and the establishment of farmers´ markets. Heroes and emperors are hailed as initiators of such endeavours and often became deified and worshipped as gods, like the legendary Yu, son of Gun, who became the fertility god Shénnóng (神農) The Divine Farmer.3

Even in modern times mortal men have been worshipped as all-knowing, almost divine creatures – like Mao Zedong, whose 1958 Great Leap Forward put land use under closer Government control, causing a catastrophic situation when ecologicallly disastrous campaigns, as the extermination of sparrows, were paired with a ban on private food production and the introduction of harmful agricultural practices, such as widespread deforestation, deep plowing and close cropping, as well as the misuse of poisons and pesticides, resulted in a famine that killed an estimated 14 million individuals.4

However, China learned from such disastrous politics and gradually moved away from a Maoist ”command economy”, which did not allow farmers to determine their economic activities according to the laws of supply and demand. In 1984, about 99 percent of the farming communes had been dismantled and agricultural production returned to individual households. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) now produces one fourth of the world’s grain and with less than 10 percent of world arable land it feeds one fifth of the world’s population. China ranks first in the world in terms of the production of cereals, cotton, fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and fishery products. However, China´s population is steadily increasing, while the amount of arable land is declining. The population of PRC is approaching 1,5 billion, the equivalent of almost 20 percent of the earth´s inhabitants. Agriculture employs over 300 million Chinese farmers, while 40 percent of PRC´s citizens live in rural areas. Young people are in a steady stream migrating from rural to urban areas. Mechanization rates are rapidly rising to fill agricultural labour shortage, but even with increased mechanization China will need young farmers to replace those who are aging.5

Acordingly, to feed its incresing population Chinese rulers have realized that apart from increasing their nation´s food poduction, investments have to be made in global agriculture, not the least in Africa. Trade between PRC and Africa did in the 1990s increase by 700 percent and PRC has become Africa’s largest trading partner, supporting agricultural production and food exports in a vast range of developing countries. China is currently building up agricultural exchange and cooperation relations with international agricultural and financing organizations, and is actively involved in agricutural development in more than 140 countries.

This push for international cooperation may be one reason for PRC´s growing interest in the United Nations. When PRC in 1971 replaced Taiwan (the Republic of China) as the Chinese representative to the UN, it did at first keep a low profile. However, after Xi Jinping became China´s main leader PRC has steadily become more visible within the UN system.

In a speech delivered at the UN Office in Geneva, Xi Jinping declared that he did not consider trade protectionism and self-isolation to be beneficient. He described the Paris Agreement as ”a milestone in the history of climate governance” and declared that ”we must ensure this endeavour is not derailed.” Furthermore, he emphasized that the UN is ”at the core of the international system.” 6 Xi Jinping´s speech may be compared to a speech Donald J. Trump gave at the UN General Assembly:

    America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism. Around the world, responsible nations must defend themselves against threats to sovereignty not just from the global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.7

The United States remains the largest financial contributor to the UN, providing 22 percent of its budget. However, US support is declining. Already in 2011, the US stopped paying dues to the UNESCO and in October 2017 it officially quit the Organisation. In 2018, the US withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council and ended all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The Trump administration is currently trying to decrease US funding to several UN agencies. Meanwhile, the People´s Republic of China recently surpassed Japan as the second largest national, economic contributor to the UN. So far, Japan has every year contributed with 10 percent, while PRC now is contributing with 10.8 percent and plans to increase its financial support. 8

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in charge of international efforts to improve agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, intending to ensure food security for all and it is thus natural that its activites are of great interest to the biggest food producer of the world. On the 23rd of June, Qu Dongyu was elected Director General of the FAO, becoming the second Chinese citizen to head a UN agency.9 In a recent speech, Qu Dongyu who at that time still was PRC’s vice minister for agriculture and rural affairs, stated that if he became FAO´s Director General he would try to continue the Organisation´s efforts to foment sustainable agriculture, particularly by supporting value chains, tropical agriculture, dryland farming, water management and innovative ITC (Information and Communications Technology). Qu Dongyu stressed that this can only be achieved by the farmers themselves, emphasizing that rural women and youth have to be mobilized, supported and included in all decision making. The last promise may indicate that Qu Dongyu intends to avoid becoming the kind of demi-god that rulers of big organisations often tend to consider themselves to be. Qu Dongyu´s speech might be perceived as the high-flown oratory of any incoming head of a big organization. However, I found one section of his speech particularly reassuring – when he stated that the future of agriculture depends on the experience of the elderly and the capacity of the young:

    When I was a child, my Grandma always took me to pick mushrooms in the neighbouring hills. She told me that we should leave the old mushrooms to spread spores and the young, small ones to grow. This is the only way to ensure that we could have a constant supply of mushrooms within the season. With a strong scientific background, I have always stood by the principle of carefulness, truth-seeking, inclusiveness, and collaboration. 10

The future belongs to the young and we have to prepare and safeguard our world for them. The Swedish environment activist Greta Thunberg became known after she in May 2018 won second-prize in a contest for middle school pupils. They had been asked to write about environmental degradation. Greta called her essay We know – and we can do something now, in it she wrote:

    When you think about the future today, you do not think further than 2050. Then, at best, I have not even lived half my life. What happens next? […] If I become a hundred years old, I will be alive in the year 2103. If I by that time have children and grandchildren they would probably celebrate that day together with me. Maybe we would talk about how things were when I was a child. I would presumably talk about you then. How would you like to be remembered? 11

One answer to Greta´s question could be that eighty-four years ago the election of a new Director General for FAO helped reverse our short-sighted and ruthless exploitation of the Earth and thus contributed to a sustainable management of natural resources, making it possible for her and her grandchildren to enjoy food security and live in harmony with nature.

1 Du Fu (2002) The Selected Poems by Du Fu, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 71.
2 Summer Sigh quoted in Zhang, Yunhua (2018) Insights Into Chinese Agriculture. Singapore: Springer, p. 97.
3 Cf. Yuan Kee (1993) Dragons and Dynasties: An Introduction to Chinese Mythology. London: Penguin Books.
4 Some scholarly estimates are as high as 20 to 43 millions, cf. Dikötter, Frank (2011) Mao´s Great Famine: The History of China´s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962. London: Bloomsbury.
5 http://www.fao.org/china/fao-in-china/china-at-a-glance/en/
6 Xi Jinping (2017) Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-01/19/c_135994707.htm
7 UN Affairs (2018) US President Trump rejects globalism in speech to UN General Assembly’s annual debate. https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/09/1020472
8 Okano-Heijmans, Maaike and van der Putten, Frans-Paul (2018) A United Nations with Chinese characteristics? The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
9 Li Yong is since 2013 heading United Nations Industrial Devolpment Organization (UNIDO).
10 Dongyu, Qu (2019) Building a Dynamic FAO for a Better World. http://www.ipsnews.net/2019/06/chinese-dg-lead-fao-4-years-1-aug-2019/
11 Thunberg, Greta (2018) ”Greta Thunberg: ´Vi vet – och vi kan göra något nu´,” Svenska Dagbladet, 30 May.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

US & Iranian Actions Put Nuclear Deal in Jeopardy

By Kelsey Davenport and Daryl G. Kimball
WASHINGTON DC, Jul 1 2019 – Iran’s announcement that it may soon breach the 300-kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium set by the 2015 nuclear deal is an expected but troubling response to the Trump administration’s reckless and ill-conceived pressure campaign to kill the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is critical that President Donald Trump does not overreact to this breach and further escalate tensions. Any violation of the deal is a serious concern but, in and of itself, an increase in Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile above the 300-kilogram limit of 3.67 percent enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk.

Iran would need to produce roughly 1,050 kilograms of uranium enriched at that level, further enrich it to weapons grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), and then weaponize it. Intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections would provide early warning of any further moves by Iran to violate the deal.

Tehran is not racing toward the bomb but rather, Iran’s leaders are seeking leverage to counter the U.S. pressure campaign, which has systematically denied Iran any benefits of complying with the deal.

Despite Iran’s understandable frustration with the U.S. re-imposition of sanctions, it remains in Tehran’s interest to fully comply with the agreement’s limits and refrain from further actions that violate the accord.

If Iran follows through on its threat to resume higher levels of enrichment July 7, that would pose a more serious proliferation risk. Stockpiling uranium enriched to a higher level would shorten the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb–a timeline that currently stands at 12 months as a result of the nuclear deal’s restrictions.

The Trump administration’s failed Iran policy is on the brink of manufacturing a new nuclear crisis, but there is still a window to salvage the deal and deescalate tensions.

The Joint Commission, which is comprised of the parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Iran) and oversees implementation of JCPOA, met on June 28. The meeting was a critical opportunity for the state parties to press Iran to fully comply with the nuclear deal and commit to redouble efforts to deliver on sanctions-relief obligations.

For its part, the White House needs to avoid steps that further escalate tensions with Iran. Trump must cease making vague military threats and refrain from taking actions such as revoking waivers for key nuclear cooperation projects that actually benefit U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

If Trump does not change course, he risks collapsing the nuclear deal and igniting a conflict in the region.

We Are What We Watch

Researchers have found that television viewing of soap operas has an effect equal to 1.6 years of additional education. | Picture courtesy: PxHere. This image is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Archna Vyas
NEW DELHI, Jul 1 2019 – Consistent exposure to TV series with strong characters has the power to influence mental models in society and shift social norms.

Does what you view impact your behaviour? Albert Bandura, an influential pioneer in social cognitive theory, showed that it did. Back in the late 1970s, his studies showed that children who viewed violent images on television also demonstrated more aggressive behaviour than those who viewed neutral content. The work of other noted scholars such as Christina Bicchieri, has shown that individuals learn from watching others and that these observations become behaviours and social norms that are deeply embedded in the collective community mindset.

Does the content on these multiple screens influence how individuals, families, and communities think and behave, and if so, how can it be leveraged to have a positive impact?

Now imagine the implications of these findings in an era where screen time has overtaken face time. The Broadcast India 2018 survey finds that in urban areas, the average time spent watching television per day is about 4 hours, while in rural India, it is 3 hours and 27 minutes. According to the survey, TV homes in the country have seen a 7.5 percent jump, outpacing the growth of homes in India at 4.5 percent. India boasts of 298 million homes, of which 197 million have a TV set. This creates the opportunity to add 100 million more TV homes. In addition to television, mobile phones, first known as the ‘second screen’ have become the device of choice to consume content.

We are therefore inclined to ask: does the content on these multiple screens influence how individuals, families, and communities think and behave, and if so, how can it be leveraged to have a positive impact? Entertainment education (EE) — which is entertainment media that incorporates an educational message to the audience to increase their knowledge about an issue, and create favourable attitudes that can change overt behaviour — is showing us that it does. In fact, researchers have found that television viewing of soap operas has an effect equal to 1.6 years of additional education. So, can we leverage content on screens to educate and create positive change through repeated messaging, powerful storytelling, and strong characters?

 

Characters change the narrative and our mindsets

There are some fundamental reasons why long-format and character-based content, notably, soap operas, are effective in changing behaviours. Firstly, unlike commercials and campaigns, soap operas are multi-episode series that are viewed over a long duration. Second, these scripts are built around a relatable but powerful character.  These characters, in turn, have an impact on us as viewers. Indeed, the journey of a strong character takes viewers into a world where they start seeing themselves in the character. As these characters transition — taking tough calls, overcoming situations, challenging social norms, and succeeding — viewers’ mindsets about issues also begin to change. New role models, frames of references and their decisions become acceptable and possible.

Take for example, Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon (I, A Woman, Can Achieve Anything), a TV series made by Population Foundation of India, and funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where I work. The plot is built around a strong-willed female lead character Dr Sneha Mathur, a young doctor who leaves behind a lucrative career in Mumbai to work in a small town. The series was scripted to influence social norms and behaviours on sex-selection, child marriage, spacing between pregnancies, quality of healthcare, and domestic violence — largely difficult and taboo subjects to deal with. An Interactive Voice Response Service (IVRS) accompanies the TV series, providing a discussion forum for 1.7 million viewers as well as a platform to share feedback. Research by Dr H. Wang and Dr A. Singhal has demonstrated how an open, democratic, audio-centric platform can shed light on audience discourse that is triggered by content. The IVRS provided an avenue for user-generated discussion, saw participation from men, women, and youth, and spurred pro-social actions that were inspired by the story line and characters. This is telling of post-viewing impact and engagement possibilities.

 

Right messaging can trigger reflection and behaviour change at scale

Broadcasting soaps and other forms of entertainment education via mass media is an opportunity to influence not only the mental models of individual viewers but also the mental models that are accepted by the wider society, creating possibilities for large-scale change. Since our decisions are impacted by family and community, it benefits individuals when others view similar messages. Interestingly, BARC India data finds that India is a country that is driven by family viewing, and this shows in the increase in the number of TV households. Such collective viewing habits indicate that an entire household’s mindset can be changed together. This is particularly noteworthy in India, where decision-making rights are often vested in the family and not in the individual.

For example, women and girls typically do not have the agency to influence decisions about their bodies and their health. The teledrama AdhaFULL or ‘Half-full’ — produced by BBC Media Action in collaboration with UNICEF – addresses issues such as underage marriage, sex-selective abortion, and sexual health of adolescents, to generate critical conversations among young Indian viewers and their parents. This initiative and others have demonstrated that messages provided in the context of everyday life can change a listener’s expectations about the possibilities of adopting new practices. Entertainment education can serve as a social mobiliser, an advocate, or an agenda setter by encouraging difficult, but important conversations.

Academics have demonstrated that there is a link between what we see and how we behave. Data tells us that we are spending more time on our screens. Together these facts are full of caution and promise, for content creators and scriptwriters to take note for the type of content they produce, and leverage the power of screens to promote positive attitudes on key social issues. And indeed, while more studies to chronicle the impact of viewing on socials norms are needed, there is now enough evidence available to suggest that consistent exposure to media can bring sustained change.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Archna Vyas is the Country Deputy Director for Communications at the India Country Office of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)

Kenya’s March Towards Demographic Dividend with Investments in Health Sector Partnering with The Netherlands

H.E. Frans Makken is Ambassador of the Netherlands to Kenya

By H. E. Frans Makken
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 1 2019 – Demographic dividend is a term which is increasingly preoccupying discussions among development economists and the donor community in general in Kenya. The term refers to countries with the greatest demographic opportunity for development and those that are ushering in a period in which the working-age population has good health, quality education, decent employment and a lower proportion of young dependents. Smaller numbers of children per household generally lead to larger investments per child, more freedom for women to enter the formal workforce and more household savings for old age. When this happens, the national economic payoff can be substantial, and this is the demographic dividend.

Frans Makken

African countries are rightly excited about the prospects of reaping a demographic dividend, based largely on their unrivalled potential of a youthful population. However, whether Africa can reap the benefits of a future demographic dividend will depend on how the continent prioritizes those Sustainable Development Goals that that will give the continent a competitive edge through its youth. In Kenya for instance, one study has estimated that the demographic dividend may not happen before 2055.

In most African countries –including Kenya, high birth rates are weighing down on economic growth as large numbers of under-15 youths need to be supported by a smaller group of workers. Kenya’s fertility rate stands at 3.7 while a rate of 2.5 or less is required to reach the tipping point where the working-age population surpasses the inactive part. Yet, a high working-age population is not the cure-all; the quality of the work force is even more important and how it meets the demands of the market and fits its wider ecosystem.

In my tour of duty, I have over the past four years worked closely with the Kenyan government and non-governmental actors to address some of the challenges, including in the areas of health and food security. The Netherlands strongly believes in the power of partnerships and innovation to ameliorate those bottlenecks.

One of the goals of the Kenyan government, through the UN Development Assistance Framework (2018 – 2022) is to front-load the realization of the demographic dividend by prioritizing strategic investments in the four key pillars of Employment and Entrepreneurship; Education and Skills Development; Health and Wellbeing (including family planning); and Rights, Governance and Youth Empowerment.

In September 2017, The Government of Kenya announced at the United Nations General Assembly the establishment of the SDG Partnership Platform, to realize Kenya’s vision to achieve universal health coverage. The Platform has since received global recognition from the UN as a promising practice to accelerate SDG financing and impact and has become a flagship programme under Kenya’s new UN Development Assistance Framework 2018-2022.

The Platform supported by the Netherlands was established under the leadership of the Government of Kenya, and with support of the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office and key private sector partners such as Royal Philips. The Platform convenes leadership from government, UN, development partners, private sector, philanthropy, civil society, academia, and faith-based organizations and is championing the delivery as one of SDG partnerships which catalyze investments and innovations to drive SDG impacts, as for example in health and well-being (SDG3). The outcomes are visible and appreciatable. Healthcare needs are being assessed and primary and community based healthcare is being strengthened in the country.

As the Netherlands is moving from aid to trade, we strongly believe in the contribution of the private sector in achieving the SDGs and investing in the youthful population. In this context, I am pleased to welcome a health sector trade mission comprising of leading innovative Dutch companies working on e-health, public health, medical equipment and training seeking partnerships with their Kenyan counterparts. The trade mission taking place from 1-3 July will be led by Dr. Erik Gerritsen, Dutch Vice Minister for Health who will also meet government officials to discuss cooperation that will lead to mutually beneficial business deals and better health outcomes in Kenya.

By advancing shared-value partnerships, Kenya will be able to sustainably create more health, education, and employment opportunities for its young people and offer a safety-net to many.

Indeed, Kenya is on the way to realizing its demographic dividend; together, we can together make the journey to that goal shorter. Kenya can become a blue print for the rest of Africa.

Kenya’s March Towards a Demographic Dividend by Investing in Health and Partnering with the Health Sector from the Netherlands Visiting Kenya

H.E. Frans Makken is Ambassador of the Netherlands to Kenya

By H. E. Frans Makken
NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 1 2019 – Demographic dividend is a term which is increasingly preoccupying discussions among development economists and the donor community in general in Kenya. The term refers to countries with the greatest demographic opportunity for development and those that are ushering in a period in which the working-age population has good health, quality education, decent employment and a lower proportion of young dependents. Smaller numbers of children per household generally lead to larger investments per child, more freedom for women to enter the formal workforce and more household savings for old age. When this happens, the national economic payoff can be substantial, and this is the demographic dividend.

Frans Makken

African countries are rightly excited about the prospects of reaping a demographic dividend, based largely on their unrivalled potential of a youthful population. However, whether Africa can reap the benefits of a future demographic dividend will depend on how the continent prioritizes those Sustainable Development Goals that that will give the continent a competitive edge through its youth. In Kenya for instance, one study has estimated that the demographic dividend may not happen before 2055.

In most African countries –including Kenya, high birth rates are weighing down on economic growth as large numbers of under-15 youths need to be supported by a smaller group of workers. Kenya’s fertility rate stands at 3.7 while a rate of 2.5 or less is required to reach the tipping point where the working-age population surpasses the inactive part. Yet, a high working-age population is not the cure-all; the quality of the work force is even more important and how it meets the demands of the market and fits its wider ecosystem.

In my tour of duty, I have over the past four years worked closely with the Kenyan government and non-governmental actors to address some of the challenges, including in the areas of health and food security. The Netherlands strongly believes in the power of partnerships and innovation to ameliorate those bottlenecks.

One of the goals of the Kenyan government, through the UN Development Assistance Framework (2018 – 2022) is to front-load the realization of the demographic dividend by prioritizing strategic investments in the four key pillars of Employment and Entrepreneurship; Education and Skills Development; Health and Wellbeing (including family planning); and Rights, Governance and Youth Empowerment.

In September 2017, The Government of Kenya announced at the United Nations General Assembly the establishment of the SDG Partnership Platform, to realize Kenya’s vision to achieve universal health coverage. The Platform has since received global recognition from the UN as a promising practice to accelerate SDG financing and impact and has become a flagship programme under Kenya’s new UN Development Assistance Framework 2018-2022.

The Platform supported by the Netherlands was established under the leadership of the Government of Kenya, and with support of the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office and key private sector partners such as Royal Philips. The Platform convenes leadership from government, UN, development partners, private sector, philanthropy, civil society, academia, and faith-based organizations and is championing the delivery as one of SDG partnerships which catalyze investments and innovations to drive SDG impacts, as for example in health and well-being (SDG3). The outcomes are visible and appreciatable. Healthcare needs are being assessed and primary and community based healthcare is being strengthened in the country.

As the Netherlands is moving from aid to trade, we strongly believe in the contribution of the private sector in achieving the SDGs and investing in the youthful population. In this context, I am pleased to welcome a health sector trade mission comprising of leading innovative Dutch companies working on e-health, public health, medical equipment and training seeking partnerships with their Kenyan counterparts. The trade mission taking place from 1-3 July will be led by Dr. Erik Gerritsen, Dutch Vice Minister for Health who will also meet government officials to discuss cooperation that will lead to mutually beneficial business deals and better health outcomes in Kenya.

By advancing shared-value partnerships, Kenya will be able to sustainably create more health, education, and employment opportunities for its young people and offer a safety-net to many.

Indeed, Kenya is on the way to realizing its demographic dividend; together, we can together make the journey to that goal shorter. Kenya can become a blue print for the rest of Africa.

Is there a Co-Relation Between Human Development & SDGs?

By Pedro Conceição
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 1 2019 – “People are the real wealth of nations,” began the first Human Development Report (HDR). That 1990 report marked a turning point in the global development debate.

During the second half of the 20th century there were growing concerns about the tyranny of gross domestic product (GDP). Many decision-makers seemed to believe that economic growth and wellbeing were synonymous.

But those who understood what GDP actually measures disagreed. Their arguments were well encapsulated in Bobby Kennedy’s now famous speech in which he noted that GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Thirty years later global development stands at another milestone. The 2030 Agenda is an opportunity to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure lasting peace and prosperity. Can human development thinking inspire a new generation of analysis, measurement and decision-making to revolutionise global development once again?

How does human development relate to the SDGs?

There are many links between the human development approach and the 2030 Agenda. But it is worth noting up front that the two are fundamentally different things.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a globally agreed tool for assessing development progress. Human development, meanwhile, is a philosophy – or lens – for considering almost any development issue one can think of.

In other words, the SDGs provide a development destination. Human development allows one to design the route to get there. Two characteristics of the approach make it particularly suitable for designing the policies that nations need to achieve the SDGs.

First, the SDGs are ‘integrated and indivisible’. And so, though the goals are discrete, the policies for achieving them need to recognise the interlinkages between the different areas. The human development approach stresses the importance of integrated thinking and the ‘joined up’ nature of development.

For instance, when trying to make it easier for someone to find work, one also needs to think about that person’s health, other responsibilities (at home, for example), education, access to transport, freedom to take a job (particularly for many women), and so on.

Second, while all nations have agreed on the importance of the SDGs, it is for each nation to pursue the goals according to their own priorities. And so, any broad development approach will need to be flexible if it is to be useful to many countries.

Human development can be thought of as broad as – or broader than – the 2030 Agenda. It is an approach that can be applied in different places, by different people and in different ways to tackle different issues.

Measuring and communicating progress

The SDGs comprise 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators. Some commentators see the quantity of targets as a weakness. Others argue it is a necessary reflection of the complexity of life.

Whatever one thinks, the number of indicators undoubtedly makes it difficult to readily summarise a nation’s overall progress against the 2030 Agenda. Indeed, it is often argued that one reason for GDP’s dominance in political debate is that it provides a ‘one number’ measure of progress that captures public attention.

The Human Development Index (HDI) provides an alternative single-number measure, capturing progress in three basic dimensions of human development: health, education and living standards. It enables cross-country comparisons similar to – but broader than – those provided by GDP.

Mahbub Ul Haq, the father of the HDI, recognised the convening power of a single number: “We need a measure of the same level of vulgarity as GNP – just one number – but a measure that is not as blind to social aspects of human lives as GNP is.”

But the HDI has also attracted criticism. This is primarily because – as with almost all composite indicators – it is impossible to avoid rather arbitrary weighting when combining component indicators measured in different units: life expectancy (in years of life), income (in purchasing power) or education (in years of expected and actual schooling).

If this is problematic for the HDI, built from just four indicators, then imagine the uproar if one tried a similar approach with the SDGs’ 232 indicators.

Is there a middle ground? There might be a case for using the HDI as one of a very few measures to summarise progress towards the 2030 Agenda. Many of the SDGs relate directly to the HDI: poverty, health, education and work, for example.

Others – such as peace and hunger – relate indirectly. And if the HDI is moving in the right direction, it is rather likely that those SDGs are progressing too.

This is not to say that the HDI should replace those targets and indicators. It cannot. But the index can offer a rough indication of whether a nation is progressing against many of the SDGs.

Finding other summary measures – to sketch a fuller picture of progress towards the 2030 Agenda – is undoubtedly a challenge given the diversity of goals and targets. But work we are planning at UNDP might help.

It is fair to say that the HDI has not evolved as dramatically as the world’s development challenges have over the past 30 years. Some of the challenges the planet is grappling with are new, such as understanding what the rise in artificial intelligence might mean for the labour force a decade from now.

And some global challenges are more urgent than 30 years ago: the frightening pace of climate change being the most obvious example.

Indeed, the natural environment is a crucial component of the 2030 Agenda. But neither the HDI, nor our other composite indicators of human development, touch on environmental concerns. We intend next year to investigate how environmental – and other – considerations could be included within a composite development index.

Looking to the future

The development world is rightly focused on the SDGs. But global development will not, of course, grind to a halt in 2030 even if all the SDGs are achieved. Old concerns will continue. New ones will emerge.

And the HDR has an important role to play in ensuring we keep one eye on the horizon, even if most attention is focused on the next 11 years.

For example, this year’s HDR will be about inequality. An emerging theme suggests that although many countries are making progress in closing key development gaps, new fissures are opening just as quickly.

In many countries today, for example, the gap between rich and poor children has closed when we look at whether they have access to primary education. But differences between these children are widening when we consider the quality of that education, or whether they have access to other schooling, such as early childhood education.

These ‘new’ inequalities will have lifetime consequences, particularly given the rapid technological changes that are already impacting labour markets. It is important that we pay attention to them now. It is also important that we get ahead of the curve to see what important gaps will emerge in the next decade, even if they are not included in the SDGs.

The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs – with their universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity – foreshadow a better world that the human development approach is helping to build. But the story of global development will not end in 2030.

It is our job to ensure that human development thinking will continue to shape the global development landscape for the rest of the 21st century.

* UNDP’s Human Development Report turns 30 next year. This is a moment both for celebrating the report’s impact, and for reflecting on how it can continue to help global development in a landscape dominated by the SDGs