From MDGs to SDGs – science and democracy in global agenda-setting

Coordination: STEPS Centre – Adrian Ely (

NB: The STEPS Centre is keen to identify partners for this forum.

Description: The Millennium Development Goals were crafted over years of debate amongst a relatively small number of (primarily donor) actors around the OECD’s development assistance committee (DAC). The DAC’s 1996 report ‘Shaping the 21st Century’ proclaimed “we believe that a few specific goals will help to clarify the vision of a higher quality of life for all people, and will provide guideposts against which progress toward that vision can be measured.” As a baseline for donors to focus their efforts and measure their impacts, the resulting goals have played an important role however they raise significant questions for science and democracy as we move forward.

The post-2015 international development framework, including discussions around ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ is already involving a far larger and more diverse range of actors and interests than its predecessor. The UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals that was set up following Rio+20 comprises 30 members (countries across the world including traditional ‘donors’, emerging economies and some of the poorest). In his initial input to this group, Ban Ki Moon wrote “overall, the SDGs should seek to envision a more holistic and integrated agenda for advancing human well-being that is equitable across individuals, populations and generations; and that achieves universal human development while respecting the Earth’s ecosystems and critical life support systems. Strengthening the interface between science and policy can contribute to defining one set of appropriate goals, targets and indicators of the post-2015 development agenda.”

This forum begins to ask how we – as social actors engaging with political debates around the world – begin to think about and influence one set of goals, targets and indicators for global sustainable development.  In particular, how do we avoid the potential tyranny of focussing on goals that are amenable to measurement at the expense of following our true aspirations of globally sustainable, socially just and equitable development?

Relevant questions currently being discussed in the UN and surrounding organisations centre around:
– Should the SDGs focus on absolute poverty as the MDGs did, or adopt a focus on equity, targeting and measuring relative poverty – and if so, at national or international levels?
– Beyond attending to the needs and wants of poor communities around the world, (how) do we attempt to ascertain an appropriate emphasis on environmental objectives? Can science form the basis of such decisions and if so which environmental targets and impacts do we prioritise? If so, what kind of science?

Whilst various earth system science frameworks (for example around planetary boundaries) offer guidance at the international level, decisions around SDGs will need to address diverse local perspectives and be flexible enough to allow prioritisation and implementation at national levels. Scientific evidence and advice can help us to make these decisions, but at the base of them are political value judgements that should be influenced by, and accountable to, citizens. The forum will exchange ideas around these issues with a view towards policy engagement and campaigns over the coming two years.

Disponible en / Available in: French

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