Are some SDGs more important than others? Revealed country priorities from four years of VNRs

post by evelynciara · 2020-08-16T06:56:19.326Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW · 6 comments

This is a link post for


  Key findings
    Which SDGs receive the most and least attention in the VNRs?
    Does the attention given to individual SDGs remain constant over time?
    Are countries prioritizing the same SDGs?

Earlier this year, I wrote a post [EA · GW] about how a group of 85 experts ranked the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prioritizing among the SDGs is important because there are 17 goals and 169 targets, and some of these goals are much more important and easy to achieve than others.[1]

This UN document attempts to get a sense of how various countries' representatives implicitly prioritize the SDGs based on how much their voluntary national reports (VNRs) on SDG progress talk about each of the goals. I couldn't find much metadata for this document, but according to the first footnote, it was "prepared by the CDP Secretariat on behalf of the CDP Subgroup on VNRs." The document metadata shows that the PDF file was created on July 22, 2019.

Key findings

Which SDGs receive the most and least attention in the VNRs?

Does the attention given to individual SDGs remain constant over time?

"Attention to SDGs varies over time. Those SDGs in focus at a given HLPF[2] receive more attention than in other years, but no clear trends emerge."

Are countries prioritizing the same SDGs?

"There is great variation in country reporting. This reflects the variety of priorities and approaches at the country level."

  1. See this Economist op-ed criticizing the SDGs for exactly this reason. ↩︎

  2. HLPF stands for High-level Political Forum. The HLPF is an annual UN conference on the SDGs. Each year's HLPF focuses on a different subset of the SDGs. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Halstead · 2020-08-17T14:15:30.707Z · score: 17 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The SDGs seem to me to be antithetical to effective altruism. The SDGs :

  • Are in part 'kinky' development goals that place an arbitrary low bar on development goals, such as eradicating $1.90 per day poverty.
  • Don't prioritise among competing goals, such as climate change, growth, and education.

EAs should be focused on the question of how governments can most cost-effectively increase social welfare (broadly conceived) in their own countries. If we do this, we will meet all of the arbitrary "low bar" goals anyway. For discussion of national development vs kinky development, see some of Lant Pritchett's blogs.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-08-17T18:00:52.413Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This criticism of the SDGs makes sense to me on its face. However, I noticed that Lant Pritchett writes the following on the website you link to, which seems in tension to that criticism:

I argue the new SDGs, while derided by many for being overambitious were the developing world’s reaction and rejection of the “low bar” kinky vision of development represented by the MDGs.
comment by Halstead · 2020-08-18T07:46:06.963Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is true, but they do contain low bar elements, such as $1.90 per day poverty. He also clearly thinks they are a bad way to think about development. I think it would be better if economists and EAs focused on an expanded GDP metric that includes income growth as well as other important contributors to wellbeing

comment by jared_m · 2020-08-16T17:32:03.713Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Those who focus on the climate SDG may enjoy interviews with renewable investors Jane Mendillo of Harvard's endowment and Reuben Munger as much as I did.

Pairing the two illustrates how rigorous investment firms like Munger's bring deal-structuring expertise that can fashion profitable investments in renewables that otherwise wouldn't attract profit-seeking capital like that of Harvard, Anthony Sabia's CDPQ, or Bernard Looney's BP (fourth link). The first link includes an interview with Mendillo and Sabia, which covers Harvard's investments in replanting trees - a result of a labor supply of motivated financiers whose expertise enables them to structure complex but socially valuable deals, so natural resources capital can flow toward reforestation instead of (say) oil projects in Alberta.

All to say that, 80K team's capacity allowing, it might be worth expanding the front-office finance career profile in link 3 to describe how finance careers could allow EAs to help fund climate or pandemic preparedness solutions at places like CDPQ, Harvard or In-Q-Tel, or to open their own shops like Munger did. Munger opened his $1B Vision Ridge fund (which he did at a concessionary salary versus his prior job as a value investor, but still at a healthy salary) in order to finance climate infrastructure that otherwise might not have come online absent his involvement.

1) Relevant Mendillo points (begins at 24:20):

2) Fantastic Munger interview:

3) 80K profile on finance careers:

4) BP's announcement:

*Note: both Mendillo and Sabia left their roles in recent years. I expect their endowments' portfolios have not become less sustainable since they set high watermarks for sustainability

comment by EdoArad (edoarad) · 2020-08-16T08:57:59.882Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

CDP = Committee for Development Policy :)

comment by evelynciara · 2020-08-16T20:44:57.596Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)