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Measuring Water in Meters

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As with anything in the United Nations (UN), there is much discussion and debate around every decision. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), noble as they are, is no exception. As the UN refines them, one of the thorniest issues is the matter of how to measure the progress and success towards the attainment of each goal. As gender equality is one of the mainstays of the next fifteen years, it is a topic that concerns women’s rights, and will be undoubtedly be up for discussion at Women Deliver 2016 in Copenhagen.

The current debate around quantifiable targets isn’t glamorous – we’d much rather hear, “ensure a safe childbirth for all mothers worldwide” than “reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births”. Numbers impose painful limitations on what we can do about excruciating realities.

But our own New Year’s Resolutions are proof enough that, for our own good, pomp should be second to practicality. Ambitious but abstract goals are much more likely to end in failure: lose weight; read more; be a better person; these are a few examples of abstract goals. Who hasn’t thought about these things? And who hasn’t hit mid-February with the pounds stubbornly on, a stack of books lying unopened in the living room, and still repeating that you’ll drop off those old clothes to the Salvation Army soon enough?

The Sustainable Development Goals have already been criticized for being too numerous and ambitious. It’s important, then, to make a strong case for their feasibility. The United Nations is sensibly attempting to come up with benchmarks that are achievable but significant and measurable but effective. This means trying to accurately measure distinctly incalculable entities in defined economic terms. When it comes to things like climate change and gender equality, it is akin to measuring the weight of water in meters.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) specified outcomes that were effective, but proved problematic in many ways. One simple example is that the MDGs gave countries national averages to meet. And indeed, they met them – decreasing poverty by x proportion, decreasing deaths by x percent – but may have led some to neglect the poorest of the poor, focusing on populations easier to improve. That is a crucial detail, and one which undercuts how we define ‘success’.

The other difficult reality to face is that these problems are thorny and impossibly complex. There is no perfect solution. We have to swallow the bitter pill that, for now at least, we may have to focus on saving the ones we can. For every measure proposed, there may be a compelling counter-argument for its inadequacy. When developing the quantifiers for the SDGs, we have to pick our poison. That may come across as a simple thing for a journalist to say from a position of comfort, but it is not easy to think about at night for anyone working in this field.

The upside is the SDGs do not exist in isolation. Improving one can boost the other. Taken individually, the Sustainable Development Goals are huge in scope; reading the list seems like an outline for a future utopian planet, rather than a roadmap to improvement. However, should they be looked at holistically – for example, sharing specific and modest targets between ‘promoting gender equality’ and ‘peace and justice’ and ‘reducing inequality’– they become the interlocking pieces of a puzzle, working towards a cohesive whole.

If as a New Year’s Resolution, we decide to be ‘better people’ overall, taking into account all of what that may mean and trying to tackle them all at once, we set ourselves up for failure. If we focus on losing weight, we may be sacrificing bonding time with our family at dinner. If we take more holidays, we may not be putting in our all at work. If we spend all our time hammering away at our personal lives, we leave little time for helping others.

But if we decide we’ll turn off our cellphones at dinner and talk to our spouses, or we’ll go to the gym twice a week instead of check our Facebook, or we’ll volunteer to help a co-worker out with a tricky project, we’re improving our energy levels, our ability to relate to others and our productivity all at the same time. We don’t do all of what we want in one single area, and may never be as thin as we want, have a perfect relationship, a highly successful career, and be the cornerstones of our community all at the same time. Although the individual goals seem modest overall, we constantly get closer to achieving them.

While that grossly oversimplifies the herculean task of making the world a better place, the same concept applies. Trying to do everything means we may ultimately do nothing. The goals should take into account that small changes and working together make a huge difference.

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Farahnaz Mohammed (you can call her Farah) is a nomadic journalist, based wherever there’s an internet connection. She has a particular interest in digital journalism and exploring innovation in media.

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