Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity


Views from the Center


In July 2014, the UN’s Open Working Group published its list of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 accompanying targets with the aim of outlining the post-2015 priority areas for international development. While the goals had already been published, the post-2015 development agenda is still very much a work in progress. Last Monday (Jan 19), I watched CGD President Nancy Birdsall speak to the UN about her vision of the sustainable development goals. She had a specific proposal for an additional target that would empower citizens to hold their governments and the international system accountable. 

Nancy's remarks begin at 54:38.

  1. While 17 goals might sound like a lot to tackle, (there are only 8 MDGs) they are, in fact, not too many. Rather, their multitude reflects a more inclusive process in the formulation of the post-2015 development agenda. They recognize that development today needs to be less about what poor countries ought to do to catch up and more about what both rich and poor countries can do together to address global challenges. In today’s world of climate change, epidemics, and cross-border terrorism, it is more evident than ever that the actions of those at one side of the world affect the lives of those at the other. The Open Working Group confronted squarely two of our (arguably) biggest global challenges: climate change and inequality. Climate change is an existential threat to all of us, whether rich or poor, though its impact will be the most devastating for the most vulnerable. Inequality, both across countries and within countries erodes accountability, inhibits the forming of global citizenship, and threatens global cooperation to tackle the many cross-border challenges faced by our generation. If globalization is seen as unfair, with its benefits being captured by a global elite, the citizens of the leading and emerging economies will likely see more international collaboration as a threat, not an asset.
  1. The Sustainable Development Goals should focus as much as possible on empowering citizens to demand good government and policies in their own countries and at the international level. In order to make this happen, the targets and the indicators which back up the SDGs should be simple, accessible, and measurable. Every citizen in the world should see the SDGs as a mechanism by which they can hold their own government accountable, hold the UN system and the international governance institutions accountable.  Measurable goals and targets enable both citizens to track progress first hand and civil society organizations to bring citizens the information necessary to hold governments to their promises.
  1. Median income or consumption in a country is a good example of a simple and measurable target for the SDGs. The median conveys a great deal of information about poverty and well-being in a country. In many countries (like Lesotho, Malawi, or Zambia) the median is below $1.25 a day – in other words, more than half of the population lives below the international poverty line. The median is also robust and universal: if GDP growth only benefits the elite (the 1% or the 5%), the median will not grow; and the growth of the median remains a salient indicator for even middle-income and high-income countries, where extreme poverty had largely been eliminated.

Thus, every country should decide on a level of median consumption or income to pursue for the future - either as a target (the 170th) or as an indicator for inclusive and sustainable growth (SDG #8) and for reducing inequality within and among countries (SDG #10). Countries could choose the daily median income or consumption they will aim to reach by 2020 and then increase their targets and make new commitments in subsequent five year intervals, depending on what had been accomplished.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.