What the SDGs mean for tech and transparency

pope shakiraAs far as odd couples go, the Pope and Shakira is one of my new favourites. You wouldn’t necessarily think of putting them on the same stage, but that’s just what the UN did when they adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) last week. The SDGs are the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and largely dictate the policy priorities of official aid agencies, governments and, by extension, civil society groups and NGOs. Copious amounts have been written about the new goals and debates will likely continue for a long time after the SDGs have come to an end – indeed, a not-so-mini industry of commentary, academia and events has grown up around the SDGs. Whatever one may think of the SDGs themselves or of the idea underpinning them, the reality is that they constitute one of the most visible and influential drivers of development policy and practice around the world.

Only time will tell which goals receive more attention and funding and which are deemed less relevant or important. But as things stand, what do the SDGs say about priorities when it comes to technology and transparency? In terms of access to ICT and the internet, SDG 9 commits towards ‘universal and affordable access to internet in LDCs by 2020’. It’s a noble goal, but is it practical without universal literacy? SDG 4 commits to a goal of ensuring ‘x% [to be decided] of adults… achieve literacy and numeracy’ by 2030. And what about language? In 2015, the dominant language of the internet is still English. If universal access is to have true value, then the ability to access a wide variety of materials in a range of languages must also be worthy of consideration? One way that the SDGs attempt to address this issue is by supporting ‘domestic technology development, research and innovation’ and we’re very pleased to see this particular goal included. ICT and the internet are not gifts to be bestowed upon the people of the world by developers in the tech centres of North America and Europe, but rather need to be co-created by technologists, coders and individuals across the world. For that to happen, investment in domestic technology is a necessity, as is investment in scientific and technical education. Of course, in a world where a significant number of people struggle to get enough to eat or to access basic health services, investment in science and technology is a hard sell. India’s space programme, for example, has come in for heavy criticism in recent times, as people have asked why a country with a space programme should continue to receive international aid. The simplistic implication is that investment in space research is a waste of money that carries little or no benefit and while it may be a rather naïve way of framing a debate, it nevertheless demonstrates the difficulties that countries face justifying investment in technology and innovation.

These are just some of the issues concerning the SDGs’ approach to technology and ICT and there are many, many dimensions to each and every goal that can be unpacked, debated and reformulated. But even this back-of-the-envelope exercise in examining the SDGs proves that little is uncontroversial and the myriad of issues, objections and challenges is messy and complicated. So are the issues of transparency and accountability any less fraught than those of science and technology? The short answer is no; if anything, transparency, accountability and corruption provide an even more complex morass of issues and problems than technology. SDG 16 has most to say about these issues, although the components of SDG 16 are couched in very broad language. Indeed, it could be argued that the aims in goal 16 are so broad as to be largely meaningless. 16.5, for example, aims to ‘substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms’. Trying to put this into practice, however, becomes much more complex. Whose definition of corruption and bribery do we use and how do we measure levels of corruption and bribery within a country? It’s problematic and not as easy as it might at first seem. Often, corruption is measured in terms of perceptions of corruption and those can be influenced by a whole set of factors that can lead to a distorted view. 16.6 is no less broad, aiming to ‘develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels’. The problem isn’t with the sentiment per se, but concerns the practical implementation and measurement of such a goal. That’s not to say that hard-to-measure goals should not be included, but more a reflection of the fact that including them perhaps requires a more thorough treatment than they have perhaps been given to date.

This is one take among many others on the SDGs and I don’t pretend that it’s complete or well-rounded, but it’s an attempt to add to the debate. It doesn’t question the underlying ideology behind the goals, nor do I attempt to offer alternatives or better formulations of the goals – I wouldn’t want to try.

P.S. Choosing my favourite religious leader+celebrity combination was a close run thing, but Shakira and Pope Francis narrowly beat the Dalai Lama and his friendship with Charles and Camilla.

The Dalai Lama encourages his new head gardener to 'put his back into it'.

The Dalai Lama encourages his new head gardener to ‘put his back into it’.