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A tool designed to help policymakers choose the best Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals when they expire next year has been launched by an international organisation that promotes global sustainable development.

Tests of Success for the SDGs was launched by the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future earlier this month (7 May). It aims to inform the UN Open Working Group’s efforts to develop a new set of goals and the intergovernmental talks on post-2015 development.

“Our aim was to contribute a helpful addition to the discourse that did not dictate what the goals should be, but rather how they should be designed,” says Farooq Ullah, the forum’s executive director.

The tool can be used to choose, design and assess SDGs, says Ullah, providing both a reminder of commitments already agreed on for decision-makers and an “accountability mechanism” for stakeholders to use to assess progress in designing the goals.

“At some point, the Open Working Group will need to go from a very long list to a short one and our tool offers one methodology to get there.”

Molly Elgin-Cossart, Center for American Progress

The tool consists of a series of questions or ‘tests’ presented in a matrix and designed to ensure that potential goals will be effective and ambitious.

“There is much high-level, theoretical and abstract discussion going on in the diplomatic negotiations, but the goals need to be specific to spur action,” says Molly Elgin-Cossart, a senior fellow at educational institute the Center for American Progress who helped in the tool’s creation.

She tells SciDev.Net that the tool breaks down high-level concepts into five concrete categories that can be summarised as follows: Does this work for everybody? How much bang for the buck does it provide? How much will the world change by 2030 because of this? Does it speak to the average person? And can you take action or is it just words?

“At some point, the Open Working Group will need to go from a very long list to a short one and our tool offers one methodology to get there,” says Elgin-Cossart.

Ullah hopes UN agencies, governments and stakeholders will take up the tool. He tells SciDev.Net that the group’s co-chairs have offered positive feedback about it.

Jonathan Reeves, a senior researcher at UK-based policy research organisation the International Institute for Environment and Development , who, as part of the Independent Research Forum (IRF2015), developed a similar SDGs toolkit and applied it to the working group’s latest progress paper, says although an analytical tool may be particularly useful for developing country policymakers and negotiators, “they will tend to have less capacity for getting to grips with such a tool”.

Reeves adds that the explanatory notes accompanying the one-page tool are too lengthy to be user-friendly, so it will be necessary to engage with intended users and coach them in its application.

He also thinks the tool is less successful in its aim of being an accountability instrument as “the questions to be used for the assessment of goals and targets are rather open to subjective interpretation”.

“Agreement of differentiated ambitions and responsibilities among nations is probably the most politically sensitive part of the negotiation,” Reeves highlights. “And it will be difficult to find universally acceptable ways of achieving this.”

>Link to the tool