We asked, you answered. As part of our Students Speak series, students share their thoughts on the effectiveness of the new set of goals and targets

If you were shaping a set of goals to end some of the biggest global problems, how many would be on your list? Can the world have too many goals and targets? We asked development students for their thoughts on the proposed 17 goals and 169 targets that form the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – the new agenda set to replace the millennium development goals (MDGs) in September. The response from students on the number of goals varied – some argued that the set of goals were overly-bureaucratic, while others said a complex problem warranted a complex set of solutions. Below are four of our favourite replies.

Goals must recognise that each country is different

The reason that the sustainable development goals are so long is that they are trying to be all things to all people. The UN wants the SDGs to be universally applicable. Instead, they should contain some recognition that different countries have different needs and capabilities.

This is especially important in the area of environmental protection. Here, the roles of developed and developing countries are very different. Can we really expect a country with citizens in extreme poverty to spend money on reducing overfishing? Separate lists of goals for low-income, middle-income and high-income countries would be shorter and less unwieldy.

Goals to protect the environment conflict with goals to end poverty and promote industrialisation. For example, target 12c concerns the removal of fossil fuel subsidies. This helps the environment in the long term but hurts the poor in the short term. Rich countries can protect the environment without increasing poverty by investing in greener energy. The SDGs should take into account this dynamic, rather than treating rich and poor countries as equals.

One respect in which the MDGs failed was that they were seen as only applicable to developing countries. They did not consider the role of developed countries to extend beyond funding. Yet developed countries have huge ability to promote or limit development in areas such as trade or tax policy. By explicitly aiming goals at developed countries, the SDGs could solve this problem.

Shreya Nanda, St Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge, UK

The devil is in the detail

Specific goals are extremely effective: while committing to “end poverty” is valuable, committing to “halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015” is operational. In this sense, the MDGs revolutionised development by taking the field from committing to values to committing to results.

However, the MDGs also presented a false sense of simplicity by leaving out critical aspects of development, overlooking harmful loopholes, and deviating from more ambitious agreements. While setting specific, realistic, and time-bound goals offers a way to progress forward, the format of a single goal-set encompassing all of development is not the most effective.

Instead, bodies like the general assembly should agree to big-picture policy objectives (like “end poverty”) and let the UN expert entities develop the goals to implement the plan. This is similar to what is already being done through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) with the Aichi biodiversity targets. Rather than cram as much biodiversity into the SDGs as possible (and then worry if there are too many targets), why not agree that biodiversity is important and let the CBD (with its own oversight bodies and technical experts) or the United Nations Environment Programme lay out the best ways to protect it?

While it would be great to have an all-encompassing development agenda that can be still be counted on the fingers of one hand, that’s simply not the way the world works. Specific goals should have a place in development, but not as another round of “all-encompassing” development goals.

Ryan Brenner, College of Law, Michigan State University, US

Sometimes, less is more

To pave the way for continued development and economic growth for the world’s poorer countries, a narrower set of measurable development targets is needed. With fewer goals – following the model of the eight original millennium development goals – a specific vision can be presented to the world, one that will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. That way, it’d be harder for governments to ignore a massive global effort, given the relative modesty of the number of objectives.

Although the newer sustainable development goals offer the opportunity of even greater advancement with 17 goals, ambition must be balanced with viability. Too many objectives will scare away bureaucratic policymakers and will doom the project to failure. Fewer development goals make it more likely for governments to craft political policies that will put their country on the pathway of progress, along with providing international aid groups with a road map to focus their efforts. Ethiopia has been an MDG success story: spurred by rapid economic growth and substantial support from the UN, the country is “on track” or “likely to be on track” on all eight goals, according to the World Bank.

The strength of the original MDGs came from their prioritisation of a small number of clear goals. With 17 goals, the SDGs run a great risk of becoming another quixotic UN project. The world must be given a proper plan to follow if it is to succeed in its moral quest. Sometimes, less is more.

Joseph Zeballos, Florida State University, US

Development is complex, so development goals should be too

The number of proposed SDGs is excessive, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The issues in development and environmental management are so complex and interlinked that they could not possibly be resolved in eight simple goals as the MDGs attempted to do. Those goals were just “themes” which really needed to be broken down further, and I believe the SDGs will make a better effort to do that.

It’s important for international policymakers to have more streamlined targets to follow, otherwise they run the risk of just “tick-boxing vague objectives” without really considering their long-term impact. For example with the MDGs, many countries were able to achieve universal primary education for children, but the quality of teaching, curriculum and post-primary education were not necessarily up to standard. The pressure to meet one target on education simplified the problem and neglected other secondary development indicators. Poverty is highly complex, therefore its solutions shouldn’t be overly simple. By having more tailored goals, related indicators can be addressed earlier in decision-making rather than later and we can avoid a generalised perception of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Takyiwa Danso, University of East Anglia, UK