10 Sustainable Development Goals that keep the eradication of poverty at the centre – a contribution to the thinking of the Secretary General’s Open Working Group on the SDGs

Written by Andrew Shepherd, Director of the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network.

This blog first appeared on Post2015.org

The Secretary-General’s Open Working Group has been in session for over a year now, and in March produced a compilation of 19 ‘focus areas’ which are an excellent basis for its formulation of prototype Sustainable Development Goals over the next few weeks. 19 is almost certainly too many for the Goals – 10 is a better number to aim for, and there has already been some reduction by amalgamation. OWG members will probably be reluctant to leave anything out altogether, since the battle has already been long and hard! So this means finding ways of combining and including more focus areas into fewer goals, so that it can present to the Secretary-General a structure which is convincing and intuitive, but also neat and memorable - and so capable of mobilising support from individuals, civil society, the media and  governments over the period of time necessary to implement the measures. Table 2 below produces such a structure of 10 goals.

Figure 1: The zero poverty tripod

Figure 1: The zero poverty tripod

The 2014-15 Chronic Poverty Report has a proposal for a Poverty Eradication Goal which should help the OWG achieve a smaller number of goal areas. This goal is formulated in terms of tackling chronic poverty, stopping impoverishment and sustaining escapes from extreme poverty – three dynamic objectives necessary and sufficient to achieving the goal.[1] This is the zero poverty tripod (Figure 1). Sustaining escapes from poverty provides a clear link to the sustainable development agenda – it cannot be done without environmentally sustainable forms of development. It also raises the issue of inter-generational equity, as the escapes of the current generation cannot be at the expense of future generations if escapes are sustained.

At the General Assembly’s full day of debate about Poverty Eradication, Social Protection and Employment in the post 2015 development framework on 23rd May 30, delegates representing  many more countries (the Bolivian representative spoke for the G77 + China; the EU rep for its 28 member states) stood up to endorse the idea that these three areas were strongly inter-related and that both employment and social protection are critical aspects of eradicating poverty – which all agreed should remain the central goal of the framework. 

My presentation in this session is here. This argues that a poverty eradication goal should be formulated in terms of the poverty tripod, and the details left to each member state to work out, as the emphasis on one target or another will be context and time specific: some countries will need to stop impoverishment more intensively than sustain escapes from poverty, at least for a period of time, for example; while others will need to tackle chronic poverty first and foremost, depending on the nature of poverty dynamics and the character of national politics. This flexibility might be welcomed by some – for example the G77 and China.

This means that countries need to have some latitude to set their own policy priorities. Thus, rather than setting detailed policy targets other than the three already mentioned for the poverty eradication goal, countries should be free to set their own targets so that poverty eradication proceeds as rapidly as possible. These three targets should be time bound – e.g. stop impoverishment by 2022; tackle chronic poverty by 2030 and so on, and the policies which will achieve them should be spelled out. Then at the international level what is required is a battery of indicators rather than targets to monitor progress as a whole over the key issues the international community has identified, through the OWG’s work.

However, the logic of the poverty tripod could equally well be used to rationalise the international structure of goals and targets leaving much less up to countries. This would satisfy those who argue that the post 2015 framework must have clear targets as it is these which will have ‘bite’ and will be paid attention to.

To get to a logical and comprehensive structure of goals and targets, it is worth pursuing such argument more widely. If poverty eradication is to be genuinely central it must help to determine the structure and content of the other goals, and also play a role in deciding whether a focus area is goal-worthy or not, based on the evidence linking the focus area to the poverty tripod. Thus: there are six focus areas which contribute strongly to all three poverty eradication objectives (or targets): (i) education (pre and post-primary, and links to the labour market as much as the basic education emphasis of the MDGs) – education is a portable asset that is less vulnerable to crises than other assets, it is also a critical ingredient to both raising the status of the poorest and sustaining escapes; (ii) social protection (social assistance tackles chronic poverty; it and social insurance helps prevent impoverishment and provide the psychological basis for savings and investment to sustain escapes from poverty), (iii) pro-poorest growth, especially generating numerous and decent jobs, but also promoting sustainable smallholder agriculture, (iv) sexual and reproductive health, which is universally and intimately tied up in stories of escaping poverty, impoverishment and chronic poverty, (v) gender equality, which is especially important to tackling chronic poverty; and (vi) the governance capacity to raise revenues to finance the necessary public expenditures under these various headings. All of these need to be strongly represented in the structure and content of the goals if they are to contribute strongly to poverty eradication.

There are then other OWG focus areas (and one area which does not figure) which contribute to one or two of the three objectives or dynamic poverty eradiation targets. These include:

Table 1. Focus areas contributing to one or two of the dynamic poverty eradication targets

Table 1. Focus areas contributing to one or two of the dynamic poverty eradication targets

What is missing so far from the OWG’s focus areas is the social norms which in some situations can keep people poor or impoverished – examples would be dowry or funeral systems which involve unaffordable expenditures; or early marriage, which contributes to inter-generational transmission of poverty. However, it is not yet clear how such issues could be readily formulated as goals or targets.
This analysis would lead to a structure of 10 goals as follows: 3-4 outcome goals, 3 input goals, and 3 underlying driver goals (Table 2).

Table 2. 10 Sustainable Development Goals, closely aligned with the Eradication of Poverty

[1] Extreme poverty is made up of people who are chronically poor – poor over long periods of time; and people who become impoverished for shorter periods, the transitorily poor. Extreme poverty would not be eradicated without people who escape poverty moving away from the poverty line so they are less vulnerable to re-impoverishment. Hence the three objectives.