Reflections on the Sustainable Development Goals: Interview with Myles Wickstead

On 16 October, the Energy and Environment policy centre had the chance to interview Professor Myles Wickstead and ask him questions about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Myles Wickstead is a Visiting Professor at the King’s College London Department of International Development. His career has been orientated towards development and diplomacy, first as a Head of the British Development Division in Eastern Africa (1993-97), then overseeing British Government development programmes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. He also coordinated the British Government White Paper titled ‘Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century’. From 1997-2000, he served on the Board of the World Bank (and as Development Counsellor at the British Embassy) in Washington DC; and from 2000-2004, as British Ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti and the African Union. He was Head of the Secretariat to the Commission for Africa from 2004-2005, whose report ‘Our Common Interest’ formed the basis of the 2005 G8 Communique on Africa. Having left government service in late 2005, Myles has been a Special Advisor to the Parliamentary International Development Select Committee and is on the board of a number of NGOs, Trusts and Foundations, including the Joffe Charitable Trust; BBC Media Action; and the Royal African Society.

Sustainable Development Goals

1552px-Sustainable_Development_GoalsThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

The 17 SDGs are integrated—that is, they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Through the pledge to ‘Leave No One Behind’, countries have committed primarily to fast-track progress for those furthest behind. That is why the SDGs are designed to bring the world to several life-changing ‘zeros’, including zero poverty, hunger, AIDS and discrimination against women and girls.


Do you think that a ‘unified vision’ as proposed in the SDGs is possible or even desirable? 

Myles Wickstead (MW): I think the word ‘vision’ is important because the SDGs aren’t really a detailed action plan, they are more of a framework that everybody will interpret in their own way. What is important is that all the elements of the SDGs should be addressed together, and that we should acknowledge that different countries will prioritise different SDGs. For example, countries that are insecure or in conflict will focus more on peacekeeping goals, whilst poorer but relatively stable countries may target issues related to hunger and poverty. 

Doesn’t this ‘à la carte’ model of letting countries choose which SDGs to prioritise undermine the efficiency of the SDGs as a whole? 

MW: Not at all; the target is to achieve all these SDGs by 2030. The focus is on getting everyone there; achieving some Goals will require strong international cooperation, in other cases the answers will be more country-specific. This is an on-going process and a number of countries report back each year in New York through Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) on the progress they are making. But this is not all about Governments; Goal 17 on Partnership makes it clear that reaching the SDGs is not all about what central governments do, but that the private sector and civil society also have crucial contributions to make.  It is important that all voices are heard.

Taking Amartya Sen’s definition of ‘development as freedom’ (economic, social, political), should we privilege some freedoms over others when thinking about developing countries’ development? Is economic growth a precondition for sustainable development or a result of it? 

MW: I believe that there is “freedom from” and “freedom to” and that the SDGs should bring together those different freedoms. There are seventeen goals and the one which was the most difficult to agree on was SDG number sixteen on Governance and Rights, and this links back to the Amartya Sen idea of freedom. All freedoms are self-sustained and inter-related and therefore should work together. 

I like to break down the SDGs into the “five Ps”: Prosperity (economic growth and livelihoods), People (equity), Planet (environment), Peace and Partnerships (role of private sector and the civil society which are increasingly concerned by SDGs). 

It is important to remember that the SDGs are universal; they apply equally to all countries, whatever their level of wealth. There is however a notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ regarding the contribution of states towards these SDGs; they all have the duty to act, but this duty can reasonably be expected to differ from one country to another, in particular when addressing ‘global public goods’  such as the environment, climate change or diseases that cross borders. 

LSE’s Jason Hickel critiques the new Sustainable Development Goals. He argues that they are actively dangerous because they lock the global development agenda around a failing economic model. What do you think about that?

MW:  Whatever economic system a country has, the SDG framework can be applied. Take as one example Ethiopia, where I used to be the British Ambassador, which has a history of strong government and state-led economy. Take as another India, which is a very large, slightly chaotic laissez-faire democracy. Both countries have made excellent progress towards the SDGs (and the Millennium Development Goals before them), with strong economic growth driving a very significant reduction in the numbers of poor people.  Some other countries have not had the same levels of economic growth; in others still there has been growth but the benefits have only been felt by a relatively small – and not the poorest – section of the population. Every country has to consider its history to think about future evolutions, but the overall goal remains the same regardless of the system used to get there. The strength of the SDGS is that countries as different as Ghana and Norway, for example, can make use of a single, comprehensive framework to guide their own national plans, and that is what they have done.  

Africa is excluded by the way it is included in the global economy (especially through the export of raw materials)… Is the issue not about whether to integrate Africa, but rather how to integrate it? One of the main issues that the continent faces regarding SDGs is how to finance initiatives, so wouldn’t it help if Africa was better integrated in the global economy?

MW: One key priority is that Africa has to add more value within Africa itself. Most of the continent has traditionally been an exporter of raw materials, but now countries like Ethiopia are starting to export added-value goods such as cars, or finished leather products rather than raw leather.  There is certainly an issue about how Africa is connected to the global economy – but in my view the way Africa is integrated within itself is more pressing. When we look at railways or road systems and at the infrastructure in general, they have traditionally connected mines, forests and other resources to ports to fit the extractive logic of Africa as a provider of natural resources. The transport infrastructure was historically designed to take goods out of the Continent, not to join it up.  So a key objective should be to increase connections within the continent by developing its infrastructure, and the recent agreement on an African Continental Free-Trade Area presents a real opportunity to develop an interconnected common market on the continent. This will eventually enable African countries to add more value to their commodities which in turn will attract more foreign capital and investors, which is already starting to happen. 

A lot of investment in infrastructure in Africa comes from other countries and can be seen as support for foreign influence (historically  the West, now China…), do you believe that it could be a threat to achieving the SDGs?

MW: China investing in Africa on the whole is a good thing, but African countries must be aware of the risks it implies. For example, Mozambique found itself in a position where they couldn’t pay China back after they financed the construction and rehabilitation of a port, which resulted in China taking control of the port. On the other hand, Ethiopia does accept aid from China but they aim to do so on their own terms. I remember once speaking with former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles and he told me about a case where the Chinese had constructed a road which quickly began to fall apart after completion; he made it very clear that there would be no further investment in Ethiopia if it was not put right swiftly! Investment from wherever it comes is generally a good thing, as long as it is on the right terms, which need to  be clear to the recipient. 

To what extent do you think the ‘advantage of backwardness’ is applicable to East Africa? Does it need to go through its own ‘industrial revolution’ first? Can the agricultural sector experience a sort of African ‘Green Revolution’?

MW: First, Africa probably doesn’t need to go through its own ‘industrial revolution’. It is already ‘leapfrogging’ thanks to technology, the best example being mobile phones and networks. In the case of Kenya, for example, mobile banking has played a very important role in the development of the country – and that is also a country where improved seeds and access to better farming equipment are improving agricultural yields.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Africa today is job creation, in the context of a rapidly growing population.  The African population is just over a billion today and will reach two billion by 2050 – which will translate into a large number of the active population left unemployed unless many new jobs are created.  So there is a risk that people, and young people in particular, will end up frustrated and angry and this could bring social turmoil and instability. It is also important to address the problem from the other end, and it is encouraging that the rate of population growth in Africa is slowing.  So this is not just about improved technology and better education, but also about population dynamics – and a key element here, as in so many other areas, is girls’ education. Get that right, and many other positive things will follow. It is a powerful example of the interrelatedness of all the SDGs. 



Interviewed by Ambre Barria & Mathilde Funck Brentano

Ambre Barria is a member of the Energy and Environment policy centre’s working group. Mathilde Funck Brentano is director of the Energy and Environment policy centre.










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