The MDGs had been criticized for being developed in a non-transparent manner by a few UN bureaucrats in 2000. Therefore, in order to seek input legitimacy for the new goals, a consultation process involving a wide range of stakeholders worldwide was set in motion in 2012, ending with the General Assembly’s formal adoption of the SDGs in September 2015.

The year 2015 was a “super-year of development” in terms of policy-making, also including a Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa and a climate agreement under COP21 in Paris. The SDGs merge development and environmental concerns and make demands on all countries until 2030. Subsequently, the next few years will see a translation process of the goals into domestic policymaking, involving new challenges for input legitimacy and new (de)legitimation attempts at global, national and local levels.

Magdalena Bexell and Kristina Jönsson organized a panel on “The Sustainable Development Goals: from global to local governance” at the conference Global Visions and Local Practices: Development Research in a Post-2015 World.
Magdalena Bexell and Kristina Jönsson organized a panel on “The Sustainable Development Goals: from global to local governance”.

In August, we organized a panel on “The Sustainable Development Goals: from global to local governance” at the conference Global Visions and Local Practices: Development Research in a Post-2015 World. The conference was timely, of multidisciplinary interest and provided a forum for debate between researchers and practitioners on concerns that will keep both groups busy for several years ahead.

Papers and panel discussions nurtured our ongoing studies of legitimation of and by international organizations within the LegGov program. A recurrent theme was a widespread skepticism in several countries on the merits of goal setting for development, whether national or international. Conference keynote speaker professor Andrea Nightingale claimed that global bodies are notoriously divorced from their constituencies. We view the SDGs consultations as a UN effort to address this gap even if the consultation process as such had its flaws in terms of inclusion and exclusion. Papers showed that opportunities to participate and influence development work was a key concern. The SDG consultations manifest that legitimation attempts by international organizations increasingly target multiple actors beyond member states elites. This raises key questions that we believe are paramount to engage with. For instance, to what extent do intended audiences of legitimation vary with the institutional context and/or policy domains of global governance? Under what conditions do legitimation attempts by international organizations target external groups (e.g. companies, civil society, other international organizations) rather than internal ones (member states or staff)? Academic studies have so far primarily looked at either member states elites or civil society actors as targets of legitimation attempts by international organizations.

The UN sustainable development goals.
The UN sustainable development goals.

While SDG consultations were unprecedented in scope, we propose that the legitimacy of the new goals are in the long run likely to depend on two other sources of legitimacy: substantive and output-based ones. Thus, we believe that the goals’ substantive fit with people’s main development concerns, such as healthy lives, good education, economic development, and climate change will be key to whether they become a policy instrument in their own right. Accordingly, in future research we wish to explore what substantive policy conflicts appear as globally adopted goals are to be interpreted at local levels and with what implications for legitimacy.

Yet, even more important will be the SDGs output legitimacy, the extent to which they are realized and contribute to actual change. The perceived success of the consultation process can rapidly be forgotten if expectations attached to the SDGs fail to be realized. Research on the MDGs demonstrates that output was in the end the main ground of assessment. For instance, a reduction in infectious diseases through the distribution of vaccines and improved treatments contributed to output legitimacy. However, goal-setting risks making the development agenda too narrow in scope or discriminating issues that are hard to measure, such as the fulfillment of various rights. In the case of the SDGs, a major concern with regard to output is the holistic and ambitious approach in relation to resources, vested interests and political will. The UN currently invests much energy in creating SDG follow-up and review mechanisms, and individual countries launch a range of initiatives to bolster work towards the goals.

In a few years time it will be possible to evaluate the relative success of different legitimation and delegitimation attempts in the eyes of various groups. Selecting such groups requires careful thought however. Whose opinion is to be represented in our research? Citizens, elites, civil society organizations, businesses, experts or others? For example, despite high-profile Swedish political ambitions, it turns out that only three out of ten Swedes have at all heard about the Sustainable Development Goals. While an interesting finding in itself, questioning claims on input legitimacy, it also presents a challenge for researchers wishing to study legitimacy beliefs related to the goals, now and in the future.

Magdalena Bexell and Kristina Jönsson

The conference “Global Visions and Local Practices: Development Research in a Post-2015 World” hosted some 400 participants, and was jointly organized by Stockholm University, the Swedish Research Council (VR) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).