Last week, the UN released 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for adoption at a three day global summit, to mixed reviews. The Open Working Group (OWG) tasked to complete the goals aimed to create a framework that would be universal in its representation of both developing and developed nations, and thorough in its treatment of pressing development issues. While many regard the document as an ambitious expansion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some critics fear that vagaries and omissions of key concepts will hinder its utility as a catalyst for positive change.
What does this mean for the global agriculture and food agenda? The targets of Goal 2—“to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”—highlight the successes and potential pitfalls of the UN’s new global development strategy.
As with many of the other goals, the objectives set by Goal 2 are ambitious—the UN calls for an end to hunger and all malnutrition as well the doubling of agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers by 2030. To alleviate hunger and global malnutrition, supporters feel that there is “no choice but to go big” by establishing an ideal target.
These goals are more multi-faceted than those outlined in the MDGs. The latter focused specifically on halving the proportion of people worldwide who suffered from hunger, to great success—this target was nearly achieved by 2015. But the former’s inclusion of malnutrition and food insecurity, and the promotion of small-scale producers, productive capacity, and responsible environmental practices, lends attention to critically important issues. As outlined in a recent Chicago Council report, malnutrition presents serious health risks to individuals, as well as a societal economic burden in the form of lower productivity and higher health costs. Additionally, investment in smallholder farmers strengthens agricultural value chains and alleviates poverty. In this way, the SDGs represent a “more holistic vision of society:” one that takes into account the multidimensional nature of global problems.
But while the agricultural development and food security communities cheer the inclusion of these goals, some observers have highlighted challenges to their accomplishment. With respect to the agricultural production targets, universal achievement is virtually impossible: for many middle- and upper-income nations, a doubling of agricultural output is infeasible. Other such national targets also present disadvantages to countries with unfavorable starting conditions. For example, in 2000, Africa had the lowest per capita income of any region, and was thus unlikely to achieve the MDGs’ call for a 50 percent reduction in poverty by 2015. Despite significant progress, its comparative performance “looked worse” as a result. Here, many critics take issue with the construction of the SDGs, as they did with the MDGs—blanket objectives can hinder or diminish the efforts of individual nations and undermine the intended universality of the goals.
And, for the all of the expansions made by the OWG, critics identify a number of important points missing from Goal 2. Curiously, the targets neglect food insecurity as a result of disease or violent conflict, despite the recent significance of such crises. Liberians suffered from severe food shortages and malnutrition as food production crashed at the worst of the Ebola epidemic. The millions of refugees displaced by the violence in Syria face a similar plight, with available food aid insufficient to support their growing numbers. The goals also fail to address issues of food insecurity and malnutrition in urban areas, which are home to more than half of the global population, and they make no mention of obesity—a growing epidemic in both developed and developing countries.
Though the SDGs are somewhat limited in scope and generalizability, they present an admirable vision for progress and provide a platform to attract funding and innovation to development issues. The question on everyone’s mind is implementation: how will states and donors find ways to address each goal appropriately given contextual constraints? Moving forward, “careful, accurate assessment of the state of a country” will be critical to maximize success. And, relevant actors must expand their implementation efforts in areas where the goals are weak. Such efforts pertinent to Goal 2 might involve policies directed towards people living in areas plagued by protracted violence or natural disasters to bolster food security, or an emphasis on the diversification of diets and crops to promote nutrition and stable access to food.
The SDGs are a welcome framework for addressing and generating aid for development issues. But they remain that: a framework. The success of the goals will depend on how the international community puts them to work.
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