Reducing inequality…in national wealth

The next in the blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, is from Dr Andrew Walton, Lecturer in Political Philosophy in School of Geography, Politics and Sociology.

In the current proposal for the Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 10 states the aim to ‘reduce inequality within and among countries’.  For many (good) reasons, much articulation of this goal has focused on its first component – reducing inequality between co-citizens within countries.  But it is important also to consider what should be the appropriate target for the second component.  What should be our aim and measure in reducing inequality amongst countries? My suggestion is to lessen the gap in per capita national wealth – the value of each country’s financial and physical assets.

Measures of (in)equality

The basic idea of measuring (in)equality involves comparing the circumstances of certain actors.  Thus, any conceptualisation of equality must specify an answer to two questions:

  1. Which actor should be compared?
  2. What aspect(s) of their circumstances should be compared?

There are different ways to conceptualise and measure (in)equality historically [1]:

Model Actor Aspect(s)
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Countries Final value of goods & services produced within nations’ borders
GDP/capita ‘Average’ citizen (country ÷ population) Final value of goods & services produced within nations’ borders
Income Persons or households Disposable income / expenditure
Wealth Persons or households Assets, including financial holdings and physical goods, such as real estate

Perhaps obviously, these models ask us to think about (in)equality in rather different ways.  For example, on current figures using GDP suggests that China is better-off than Switzerland, whereas GDP/capita suggests the opposite [2].  Similarly, both GDP and GDP/capita suggest that Brazil is a relatively well-off country, but measuring income and wealth highlight that it is home to individuals who are worse-off than almost the entire populations of similarly well-off countries [3].

What these differences highlight is that asking which model we should use to measure (in)equality pushes us to explore deeper philosophical questions about our underlying reasons for being concerned with (in)equality, and to find a measure that is tailored to these concerns.  My suggestion here is that some of our underlying concerns point in the direction of exploring how countries compare in per capita wealth [4].

Why compare countries and why compare them per capita?

For many people it will seem obvious that there is something important about whether their country is well-off.  It is sometimes thought important for ensuring that their country is respected by others and very commonly because it has a significant impact on whether its citizens have comfortable lives.

Some argue that comparing national circumstances is a mistake. They suggest that, ultimately, it is only the welfare of people that matters and, as noted above, cross-country comparisons can hide that some individuals within countries are badly-off.  Advocates of this view might argue that Goal 10 should be collapsed into one goal: measuring (in)equality amongst individuals worldwide.

We should reject the conclusions of this argument.  Because the SDGs also consider (in)equality within countries and have other goals targeting aspects of individual welfare, they will not overlook the worry mentioned above.  Meanwhile, because one thing that benefits people’s welfare is to participate in the collective decisions and development of their nation, even this individual-centred view can acknowledge the importance of a world involving country groupings and, thus, the additional relevance of cross-country comparisons.

However, we should accept the point that countries are, in essence, valuable only insofar as they benefit their populations and our comparisons between them should reflect this concern.  It is for this reason that our cross-country comparison should focus on a per capita measure, which looks at how some aspect of a country’s circumstance relates to its people.

Why compare wealth?

Some possible ways we could make per capita inter-country comparisons would be the following:

Model Actor Aspect(s)
GDP/capita ‘Average’ citizen Final value of goods & services produced within nation’s borders
Wealth/capita ‘Average’ citizen Assets, including currency, stock, bond holdings and physical goods, such as land, natural resources, and rights to global commons
Capabilities ‘Average’ citizen Human development indicators, such as life expectancy, education, income

A reasonable case could be made that reducing inequality between countries in any of these respects would be a worthwhile target.  Nevertheless, I proposed at the beginning of this post that the goal should be to focus on wealth/capita.  Two related points support this view.

First, neither GDP/capita nor capabilities takes full account of the aspects of a country’s circumstance that affects the welfare of its population.  To take two clear examples, currency reserves and natural resources, which are considered in wealth/capita, but not these other measures, both allow a country to provide its population with economic security and future consumption [5].

Second, many of the assets that countries hold are a matter of luck.  For example, no country did anything to entitle it to the oil or gold that lies within its borders and, indeed, much of their economic wealth arises from the fortunes of the market.

In cases where there is a good that many actors desire and which no actor is entitled automatically to own, it seems sensible to distribute that good equally.  If Isaac and I are sat beneath a tree feeling hungry when an apple falls on his head, it seems reasonable for us to share it.  Similarly, insofar as it is valuable for countries to hold financial and physical assets and their current holdings have arisen from good fortune, there is a reason to aim for equalising their shares.

Moving towards international equality

A more fully fledged case for measuring inter-country (in)equality in terms of per capita national wealth is that achieving parity in this regard can, under certain conditions, represent a truly idealistic aim.  There is a moral argument that a distribution of assets is fair if it mirrors what each relevant actor would have bought with equal purchasing power in the context of all goods being priced at a market-clearing equilibrium [6]. Such a distribution, in the international context, would entail equality in per capita national wealth and it is fair because it reflects the equality of all parties in their access to these goods and allows them to shape their holdings according to what they believe is worth having.

Realising this aim is perhaps a more long-term project than for the framework of the SDGs.  Nevertheless, it helps show the value of building our understanding of (in)equality in national wealth and beginning to reduce it, whilst casting light on some important steps for moving towards this goal:

Pursue (the second component of) Goal 10 by:

  • Establishing a national wealth index and collect data on countries’ standings.
  • Setting a target of reducing inequality in per capita holdings.

Connect these targets and their longer-term aim to:

  • Adding impetus to Goal 16.7 of ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making, in order for countries’ choices about asset holdings to reflect the collective interests of their people.
  • Helping articulate Goals 17.10-17.12 on shaping international trade towards an equal and equilibrated market.

Dr Andrew Walton is lecturer in political philosophy at Newcastle University. His main research interests are in global justice, liberal-egalitarian and socialist thought and questions of justice in public policy.


[1] The essential ideas used to construct this table are taken from Milanovic, B., Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

[2] These figures can be found via UN, ‘National Accounts Main Aggregates Database’, available at [Accessed 17th June 2015].

[3] See, for example, Credit Suisse, ‘Global Wealth Report 2014’, available at [Accessed 17th June 2015].

[4] This suggestion is elaborated in more detail in Walton, A., ‘On the Currency of International Equality’, forthcoming.

[5] It is worth noting that Capabilities also seems to point towards important aspects of human welfare.  However, many other SDGs will pursue these kinds of concerns anyway, leaving space for the second part of Goal 10 to speak to the concerns I mention here.

[6] This view is most commonly associated with Dworkin, R., Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).


SDGs need to align with global policies for biodiversity

Dr Philip McGowan is a Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity and Conservation in the School of Biology at Newcastle University. He has worked for many years in international species conservation. In this blog, part of the cross Societal Challenge Theme Institute series giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Dr McGowan argues the SDGs need to align with the global policies already in place on biodiversity in order to genuinely protect our planet.

Comma butterfly or Polygonia C Album on summer lilac

Goal 15 requires the protection of the terrestrial environment by stopping the deterioration of biodiversity, using resources wisely and restoring ecosystems where needed. Goal 14 has similar requirements for the oceans. These join a plethora of global commitments and processes intended to promote conservation and ensure a sustainable environment, and lessons suggest that they are hard to address. To avoid the SDGs becoming just another set of commitments to be met, clever thinking would help chart the course for policies and action to fill a range of these commitments and lead to genuine protection for our planet.

Global commitments for biodiversity

The importance of biodiversity to humans and the survival of our planet — and the seriousness of its currently observed deterioration — has resulted in a range of global political commitments known as Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs). These include the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (181 Parties), the Convention on Migratory Species (154 Parties and Member States), Convention on Biological Diversity (196 Parties), the Convention on Combatting Desertification (195 Parties) and the World Heritage Convention (161 Parties), to name a few.

All are concerned with the deterioration of biodiversity, whether it is species, habitats or the processes that lead to degradation and, as the numbers in brackets above indicate, many countries have signed up to these conventions. In addition, many governments felt a need to strengthen the interface between science and policy, in the manner that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for that subject, and consequently, the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was established recently and now has 124 member states.

Thriving  coral reef alive with marine life and shoals of fish, Bali.

This attention on biodiversity is welcome and very badly needed, especially given suggestions that we are heading for the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history [1]. It is an important statement by governments that biodiversity conservation, which was a target in support of Millennium Development Goal 7, is now raised to the level of a Goal with its own set of contributory targets. There are some significant challenges ahead, however, in determining how best to pursue this bold Goal, especially in light of the wide range of other commitments that countries have. Two examples illustrate this.

Connect SDGs with biodiversity goals in place

The adoption of the SDGs surely marks time to streamline all these global goals and targets so that political, social and scientific efforts are most effectively directed to where they will have the biggest gain on our ability to look after the planet. Although some of the conventions above are mentioned in the SDGs’ preamble, the wording of the goals and their targets could show much stronger convergence with these other processes. For example, much of our concern about species is ultimately captured by Target 12 of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 (CBD), which commits the CBD’s Parties to: By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.

This target replaces the Convention’s ‘2010’ target of Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss, which was also one of the targets by which the Millennium Development Goal 7 Ensure Environmental Sustainability was to be measured. Although the status of species continues to decline, we do know that conservation action can stop extinctions [2]. Some conventions address the particular needs of species and can play a role in halting extinctions, but clearer synergy between these MEAs would be hugely helpful in maximising the benefit of political commitment, maintaining and increasing civil society input and making the most of scarce resources.

There are elements of the CBD’s other targets (known as ‘Aichi Targets’) that are captured in the targets for Goal 15 (and indeed Goal 14), but there are also many areas where they do not overlap. If prioritisation becomes necessary, which of these targets (in both the SDGs and the CBD) might make the most significant contribution to planetary sustainability? Which should governments pay most attention to? How can conservation policies and actions be best aligned effectively to stem the deterioration in biodiversity? Indeed proposed Target 15.1 suggests that actions should be in line with other international agreements, but clearer guidance for achieving this is needed.

Measuring trends in biodiversity is difficult

The second example that illustrates the challenge in meeting Goal 15 lies in the wording of the Goal itself and the targets proposed for it. There are two points. First, it is interesting that some habitats have been singled out for mention, whilst others have not. For example, there is specific mention of managing forests sustainably, when there is evidence that grasslands have experienced a much more significant decline in extent since 1700 [3]. Secondly, the wording of the Goal and contributory targets do not make for easy measurement. As noted above, the CBD has a clear commitment to stop the extinction of species and the SDG has expanded this to halting the loss of all biodiversity.

Grassland in the Philippines. Grasslands are experiencing rapid decline.

Grassland in the Philippines. Grasslands are experiencing rapid decline.

Given that the CBD defined biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”, it is clearly not an easy task to measure this and conclude that there are no further declines. Hence the shorthand use of species in many cases, and habitats in others, to reflect the declining state of biodiversity. Is that still enough, given our increasing understanding of the variation and interactions between species and ecosystems?

All in all, the commitments made under the SDGs are to be welcomed but the real work comes in aligning these bold new responsibilities with existing commitments and aspirations of many of the world’s governments. There is much to be gained from developing synergies amongst the objectives and workplans (whatever they are called in each case) of these MEAs. The challenge is to translate the political aspirations that are captured in the wording of Goal 15 (and indeed Goal 16) and targets into indicators that can be measured and reflect appropriate metrics by which to assess the status of biodiversity.

[1] Barnosky et al. 2011 Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction arrived? Nature 471: 51-57.
[2] Hoffmann, M. et al (2010) The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates. Science 330: 1503-1509
[3] Boakes et al. 2010 Extreme contagion in global habitat clearance. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 277: 1081–1085.

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

A healthy diet for sustainable development

The United Nations proposed Sustainable Development Goals include ending hunger, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture (Goal 2), healthy lives and well-being (Goal 3) and sustainable consumption and production patterns (Goal 12). To achieve these goals we need to move towards a diet that is adequate, healthy and sustainable for all, argues Dr Wendy Wrieden from the Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society. Part of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.


Many public health organisations emphasise a healthy balanced diet consisting of at least two-thirds fruit, vegetables and whole grain cereal products, with smaller amounts of meat, fish and dairy. This model has also been adopted to create a more sustainable dietary pattern (see for example the New Nordic Diet [1], and the Double Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian population. It is well established that consumption of meat and animal products use proportionally more resources than plant foods in both land and energy and generate more greenhouse gases [2]. Therefore to realise the sustainable development goals that address diet, plant-based diets should be emphasised as a healthier more sustainable option.

Lessons from the UK on diet and sustainability

A move towards a more plant-based diet (i.e. fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereal products with minimal processing) would be good for population health and the environment. A plant-based diet is likely to be lower in calories [1] which should alleviate the obesity epidemic as well as prevent chronic diseases such as cancer.  Researchers in Scotland have shown that the ‘Livewell Diet’ can be achieved which meets the recommendations for health  (as displayed for example in the eatwell plate and the UK Dietary Reference Values [3] ) and results in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.Eatwell plate diet

The Livewell Diet is characterised by five main sustainable diet principles: waste less food, eat less processed food, eat more plants, eat less meat and buy food that meets a credible certified standard.  However, convincing consumers of the need to change their diet is not easy and our work on the Scottish Diet [4] using UK food purchase survey data, with adjustment for waste showed that there has been little change in the diet over the period 2000-2012.

Make access to fruit and veg-based diets a priority

Vegetable diet

While eating fruits and vegetables is the basis of a healthy, sustainable diet, the daily average fruit and vegetable consumption has shown no change since 2000 i.e still less than 2.5 portions per day (5 a day recommended). There were similar findings for fibre intake which remained low and only equated to around two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance. Red and processed meat consumption did reduce slightly, but processed meat was around two-thirds of total meat consumption thus adding to energy costs due to processing.

What was apparent from this study is that there are clear socioeconomic differences as those who consume large amounts of meat and sugar, and less fibre, fruit and vegetables tend to be more from deprived groups. However, even for the least deprived fifth of the population the goals for fruit and vegetables, fibre and free sugars were not being met. Using the UK as an example, to meet target 2.1 creating access to diets mainly based on fruit, vegetables and fibre is necessary for ending hunger by 2030 and for 2.2 in ending malnutrition.

Is a healthy diet more sustainable?

We should not assume that a healthy diet will always be more environmentally sustainable. The general public have different ideas as to what constitutes a healthy diet such as the current trend for low carbohydrate which could reduce the plant contribution to the diet even more. Plant-based diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates and lower in proteins [5].  The environmental impact of diet to date has been restricted to considering the greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions up to the time the food reaches the regional distribution centre (RDG), often termed pre-RDG GHG.

This does not take into account the post RDC GHG of aspects such as refrigeration and transport of fruit and vegetables and the waste generated (25% of avoidable household waste compared with 6% for meat and fish). Broader environmental issues need to be considered such as land use change, use of water resources, seasonality of food production, pollutants and biodiversity [6], not to mention the actual cost of the diet to the consumer. In addition there is evidence that organically produced food is not necessarily “environmentally superior”- this appears to be the case for poultry, eggs and milk [1] [7] [8] and is of particular relevance to target 12.2 in achieving “…sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources”.

There are plans for these aspects to be incorporated into further work at Newcastle University in the coming years building on the current Life Cycle Analysis work carried out on eggs, poultry and pork in the School of Agriculture Food and Rural Development [7] [9] and expertise in dietary assessment  and survey methodology in the Human Nutrition Research Centre [9] .

Reduce dependence on animal-based diets

We need to define healthy and sustainable diets that are culturally and financially acceptable across the globe, especially in meeting targets 12.2-12.5 in reducing food, energy and chemical wastes at all levels of the food production chain. Most of the diets designed to date are for developed nations but what about the developing nations aspiring to a more Western diet and increasing the demand for animal products. There are no targets for reducing dependence on animal-based diets which is interconnected with achieving less energy intensive and low-carbon economies.

High consumption of red meat (particularly processed meat) is widely known to be poor for health and production is resource intensive.

Inequalities in dietary intake occur within countries and health and social inequalities are a contributing factor as well as an outcome. The problem will not be solved by health and agricultural scientists alone, but requires combining expertise from a range of relevant disciplines.  We need to also understand the causes of poor dietary intake and work with social scientists to address the economic and cultural reasons for inequalities that will ultimately allow us to achieve Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone.

[1] SAXE, H. (2014) The New Nordic Diet is an effective tool in environmental protection: it reduces the associated socioeconomic cost of diets. Am J Clin Nutr, 99, 1117-25

[2] MILLWARD, D. J. & GARNETT, T. 2010. Plenary Lecture 3: Food and the planet: nutritional dilemmas of greenhouse gas emission reductions through reduced intakes of meat and dairy foods. Proc Nutr Soc, 69, 103-18

[3] Department of Health (1991), Dietary Reference Values for Food Energy and Nutrients for the United Kingdom.  Report of the Panel on Dietary Reference Values of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA) Department of Health report on Health and Social Subjects 41. London: HMSO

[4] Wrieden, W.L., Armstrong, J., Sherriff A, Anderson, A.S., Barton K.L. 2013., Slow pace of dietary change in Scotland: 2001-9. British Journal of Nutrition, vol 109,pp.1892-1902

[5] TURNER-McGRIEVY et al (2015). Randomization to plant-based dietary approaches leads to larger short-term improvements in Dietary Inflammatory Index scores and macronutrient intake compared with diets that contain meat

[6] MACDIARMID, J.  et al. 2012. Sustainable diets for the future: Can we contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by eating a healthy diet? Am J Clin Nutr, 96, 632-9.

[7] LEINONEN , I.,WILLIAMS, A.G , J. WISEMAN,  J.,GUY , J. & I. KYRIAZAKIS. I. 2012a.Predicting the environmental impacts of chicken systems in the United Kingdom through a life cycle assessment: Egg production systems. Poult. Sci. Vol. 91:pp26-40:

[8] LEINONEN, I., WILLIAMS, A.G. AND KYRIAZAKIS, I. 2014. The effects of welfare-enhancing system changes on the environmental impacts of broiler and egg production. Poultry Science. 93, 256-266.

[9] FOSTER, E & ADAMSON, A. (2014) Challenges involved in measuring intake in early life: focus on methods. Proc.Nut.Soc, 73 (2), 201-9

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

Universal access to water is about democracy


Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals aims to ensure ‘availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’. This is in line with the notion that access to water is a human right, which was approved in resolutions by the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council in 2010. Ensuring that access to water and sanitation is provided for all is not merely a question of technical accessibility, but about democratic politics. However, if this is to be achieved, especially in the developing world, we need to critically examine the dominant international trends that treat water as a commodity as this is a major impediment for achieving Goal 6. Professor José Esteban Castro writes as part of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This post is also available in Spanish.

Water bottles

The challenge

The 2014 UN report on the progress made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that despite considerable advancements, access to safe water and sanitation services continues to be a major concern. Although the report celebrates nominally reaching the target for reducing by half the proportion of the world’s population that do not have access to “improved” water sources, it predicts that 45 countries will not meet the target. Moreover, the report recognises that people with improved water sources “may not necessarily have safe water” [1]. In short, if we consider water quality and safety, we are far from meeting the MDG target for water.

The situation is even direr in relation to sanitation services. The MDG progress report confirms that one billion people worldwide still practice open defecation, and that we are very far from meeting the MDG target of halving the world’s population without sanitation by 2015 [1]. We must remember that the MDGs aim at halving the proportion of the world’s population without access to these essential services. A very large number of humans will continue to suffer from preventable diseases and early death even if the targets were met. This means, according to probably too optimistic official figures, that 0.7 billion people would still lack access to water even if we meet the MDGs, and 1.73 billion people would still lack access to some form of sanitation after 2015.

Water commodification

In recent years, water has been declared the “next commodity” [2] by financial experts worldwide and a process of massive water (and land) grabbing is taking place now in Africa, Asia, Latin America, but also Europe [3]. This includes different forms of commodification, including privatisation of water resources and water-based services. Privatising water is an example of the more general process of commodification of life in general, turning natural goods into marketable private property.

In urban areas, the key expression of water commodification is the rise of the bottled water industry, and bottled water has been called by some the “ultimate” commodity. We have already excellent examples of how to tackle this latter threat, as shown by the ban on plastic bottled water in favour of publicly-provided tap water adopted by the governments of leading world cities like San Francisco and New York. Similarly, many world cities, including Atlanta, Berlin, Jakarta, and Paris, among many others, are cancelling the privatisation of water and sanitation services and returning these services to the public sector [4]. These examples of de-commodification are paving the way forward.

If we are to achieve “available and sustainable drinking water and sanitation for all” as stated in Goal 6, we will need to guarantee access to safe water and sanitation infrastructure even for the large share of the world population that cannot afford to pay the full cost of these services. The countries that have managed to provide universal access to these services, such as most of Western Europe or the US, achieved this during the 20th century because they accepted that these services are not a commodity, but a public good that must be universally available to everyone. This historical lesson needs to be taken seriously into account if we are truly committed to achieving Goal 6. The indicators to be adopted for measuring progress in relation to Goal 6 must contemplate relevant economic, political, and social factors that have an impact on access to water and sanitation services.

Water as a human right

In making essential water services accessible to all, the main confrontation is between exclusionary and inclusionary societal projects. The former produce inequality and injustice by treating water as a commodity that must be available only to those who can afford to pay the market cost. Inclusive projects are grounded on the principles of equality and substantive, material democracy, and conceive access to these services to be a public good that must be guaranteed by the state. The confrontations between these divergent societal projects can be exemplified with the debate about the human right to water. This debate focused on access to small amounts of water needed by human beings for a dignified life, estimated by the World Health Organization at roughly between 50 and 100 litres per person, per day for domestic needs.

Protest against water privatisation in Brazil at the World Social Forum in 2003. Credit: WATERLAT GOBACIT

For many years a large number of countries involved in this debate rejected the possibility of sanctioning access to water as a human right, with highly divergent arguments. Finally, in July 2010 122 countries voted in favour of the UN resolution and sanctioned the human right to water, but 41 countries abstained from the vote while 29 were absent. [5] Global society, or at least the governments representing their people, does not have an agreement on something as basic as granting an essential amount of safe water to every human being on the planet as a right, just for being human. It is a clear example of the social, political, and ethical dilemma that we face.

Implementing the human right to water in all countries should be a target for Goal 6. However, the target must be specified with relevant indicators. Countries should put in place legal and policy mechanisms to prevent the commodification of water resources and services. If countries continue to allow the control of water resources and services by private companies and wealthy individuals, the human right to water will be no more than a romantic idea never put into practice.

Implementing the human right to water also requires tackling the world’s water crisis, particularly the pollution of water bodies and the human-driven processes of desertification and desiccation. These are enormous tasks that many governments in the developing world, including those already committed to the human right to water, will find extremely difficult owing to financial restrictions, lack of human resources, etc. The indicators for this target must take into account the need for international co-responsibility in this matter.

The role of democracy

A large share of the global population continues to lack adequate access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities, which is the result of structural social injustice and inequality. Policy decisions in relation to water and sanitation services worldwide, including Europe, have almost always been implemented in the absence of democratic public debate. Water politics and management are seldom transparent to citizens, largely unaccountable, and tend to be openly authoritarian and top-down. There are currently no effective mechanisms to enable common citizens to exercise democratic control over these activities. In deciding on indicators for Goal 6, there are two main aspects to foster the democratisation process in relation to water:

  • Democratisation of access to safe water and sanitation designed to promote substantive democratic practice in the water sector, based on the principle of equality.
  • Policies that make the activities of government and management of water and sanitation services subject to citizen scrutiny and control.

Summary of action points for reaching SDG 6:

  • Realise the causes of failure to meet adequate access to water and sanitation are multidimensional, involving natural, social, and individual processes and factors that require systemic solutions drawing on interdisciplinary expertise and inter-sector collaboration in policymaking and implementation.
  • The water sector must be subject to democratic control that democratises water politics and management, which requires putting in place effective legal and administrative mechanisms for meaningful citizen involvement.
  • Governments, international financial institutions, aid agencies, and other relevant actors must abandon their support for water commodification and privatisation. Policies of water commodification that prevailed for the last three decades failed to contribute towards the MDGs, and have created widespread social conflicts.
  • Support the development of public-public and public-community partnerships to make universal access to water and sanitation a public good and a human right in practice. Rebuild the policy and planning capacities of the public sector at all levels, with emphasis on local authorities.

Despite significant improvements towards achieving the MDG on reducing the deficit of water and sanitation services coverage, there is still an enormous gap to achieve the goal of universal access to these services. The Declaration of the Human Right to Water by the UN in 2010 provides an opportunity to rethink and reconfigure the priorities and the mechanisms to be adopted in the post-2015 development strategies. However, the process leading to that declaration also contains a warning: dozens of countries did not support the notion that there is a universal human right to have access to essential water and sanitation, and the reason for many is that they consider that these services must be commodified, not treated as rights or as public goods.

Achieving universal access to essential water and sanitation services is an inclusive political project, which by definition cannot be achieved through exclusionary politics, such as the commodification of water and water services. It will require long-term planning, not just to build the necessary infrastructures and extend coverage, but also to make the systems sustainable over time and the services available to all, independent of their capacity to pay. The public policies required to achieve the universalisation of essential services must be grounded on the principle of equality, and must subordinate economic efficiency and private profit to the higher goals of democratic wealth distribution and civilised well-being.

Esteban Castro is a professor of sociology at Newcastle University in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology. His research focuses mainly on Latin America and Europe, especially Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. He coordinates the international research network WATERLAT-GOBACIT ( dedicated to research, teaching and practical action in relation to the politics and management of water. He is also doing research on the interrelation between socio-ecological inequalities and injustice and the democratisation process in Latin America.

[1] UN. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014. New York, United Nations, 2014, pp. 44-45. MDG report/MDG 2014 English web.pdf.

[2] Castro, José Esteban. Water is not (yet) a commodity: Commodification and rationalization revisited, Human Figurations, 2013, Vol 2, Issue 1;rgn=main

[3] Mehta, L., G. J. Veldwisch, and J.r Franco (Eds.), Special Issue: Water grabbing? Focus on the (re)appropriation of finite water resources, 2012, Vol. 5, Issue 2

[4] Kishimoto, S., E. Lobina, and O. Petitjean (Eds.). Our public water future. The global experience  with remunicipalisation. Amsterdam, London, Paris, Cape Town, and Brussels, Transnational Institute (TNI), Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU), Multinationals Observatory, Municipal Services Project (MSP) and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU). 2015,

[5] Amnesty International and WASH United, Recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation by UN Member States at the international level. An overview of resolutions and declarations that recognise the human rights to water and sanitation. 2014,

Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes:

Solving the energy trilemma

The world faces steep challenges in meeting current and future energy demands with low-carbon energy sources. How can Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals: ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all’, be achieved? Written by Professor Phil Taylor, Director of the Institute for Sustainability, this is the third post of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, providing recommendations for the SDG targets and indicators that will be officially decided in September 2015.Big truck on pipes background

Achieving universal access to secure, sustainable and affordable energy is known as the ‘energy trilemma’. If SDG 7 is to be realized it requires an approach to energy that is customer-led — a society pull rather than a technology push. Access to energy is important for a variety of reasons including health, economic development, education, and communications, but target indicators need to identify what kind of ‘modern energy’ is required and for what purpose.

SDG 7 needs to define what is meant by the term ‘modern energy’. If it means high power quality, then the standards used in Europe or other developed parts of the world may not be appropriate for countries that do not require the same level of power quality to meet their needs. High power quality also means higher infrastructure costs and higher levels of carbon in the energy system. We must be careful in assuming that all people, all cultures want the same type of access to affordable and reliable energy. Simply because richer nations have energy infrastructure everywhere doesn’t mean that other countries want the same, which is why ‘energy for all’ should be attuned with local cultural values and needs of individual countries.

Price carbon and boost low-carbon energy 

Target 7.2 is about increasing the share of renewables, but does not mention the amount of renewables or the role of other low-carbon sources of energy such as nuclear. In order for countries to make the transition to low-carbon energy nuclear should also be an option, especially in eliminating dependence on coal. There should be a target in place that increases renewable energy generation specifically. While much progress has been made in the deployment of renewable energy technologies, there is much work to be done in increasing generation of renewable energy itself.

If for example China and other countries continue to build coal fired power stations how can the share of renewables be increased? And if renewable energy generation increases there will need to be a reduction in non-renewable energy sources if benefits are to be realised. Decommissioning (or reducing the running time) of fossil fuel-based energy sources cannot take place all at once, but needs to be planned carefully, which requires a ‘system architect’ [1].

Indicators for Target 7.2 need to address the actual cost of carbon otherwise it will be very hard for countries, especially low-income economies, to invest in renewables instead of fossil fuel based sources of energy. Countries need appropriate costing and taxation of carbon. Transparent and appropriate costing of carbon through carbon trading or taxation schemes will ensure access to sustainable energy supply for all by taking revenues generated and reinvesting them into the low-carbon transition.

There are currently smart grid technologies and electrical energy storage options [2] for increasing access to renewable energy, but the share of renewables will never change significantly unless the balance sheet or investment proposition is changed for fossil fuels. An indicator that looks at the costing of carbon in relation to increasing the share of renewables would help set countries on track for a low-carbon future. As renewables continue to penetrate the global energy market all countries will start to run into energy balancing problems for the grid and issues with stability.

Energy storage test bed at Newcastle University

This is why energy storage is vital to making clean energy resources available to all. While energy storage is viewed as too expensive for wide scale deployment now, it is only a matter of time before it becomes widely available as the cost of carbon increases and the cost of renewable energy supply goes down. Demonstrations in the UK have shown the viability of electrical energy storage and the valuable impact it has on energy efficiency and distribution [3].

For developing and developed economies there is also potential for using recycled batteries from electric vehicles to provide on or off-grid energy supplies. This prospect is of special interest to isolated rural or urban communities who do not have access to reliable energy infrastructure. Community-led off-grid sources of electric power, mainly from renewables, need to be seriously considered for target 7.b as this would likely help countries save considerable capital by using microgeneration instead of centralised services. There is evidence that community-led energy projects can build stronger communities and reduce costs and off-grid communities in developing countries, such as Malawi, have improved health outcomes [4]. Therefore an indicator for off-grid energy services is needed.

Aside from the problems with generalising “modern energy” to all countries and cultures, the proposed indicators do not specify whether developments emerge from centralized electricity grid infrastructure, or from customer-driven, off-grid supply. These need to be considered seriously within the indicators, particularly as a way of accounting across cultures and needs.

Community-led power schemes, mainly from renewables and supported by technologies such as second-life electric vehicle batteries will meet the needs of both rural and urban groups – and, driven by user needs, add “appropriate” to affordable, reliable and low-carbon energy solutions. The speed of deployment and capital requirements of microgeneration and local delivery also compare favorably to centralised services as well as embedding energy-sector economic activity within communities.

Increasing energy efficiency

There is a problem with the way we buy and sell energy in European countries such as the UK. There is a set of generation-obsessed national and international energy policies in place that provide rewards, targets and incentives for renewable energy generation, but little for energy savings. What underlies all of this is the ‘unbundled’ [5] energy market that separates energy supply from transmission and distribution.

In terms of profit, the energy supplier has little value in increasing energy efficiency in an unbundled market because they simply sell electricity, and have nothing to do with the wires that deliver it. When you have a split between supply and assets you break the link between consumption and infrastructure savings, which makes energy efficiency hard to get off the ground. However, this is not the case in all countries.

For example in India the supply company and the utility are part of the same business. In the case where they have overloaded grid infrastructure and don’t want to make costly upgrades to the grid, they could decide to put energy efficiency measures in place instead. Since the supplier and utility are bundled together this can be done easily and the savings from energy efficiency could outweigh costs of investing in more infrastructure. However, we also need to encourage efficiency at the level of the end-user which smart grid technologies play an important role in allowing energy users to monitor their energy usage and identify potential savings.

An indicator for Target 7.3 should address specifically what business models countries are using to increase and deliver energy efficiency. If they are using bundled models this is more likely to increase efficiency overall than if the supply and transmission were separate. Other countries that are beginning to establish or increase accessibility to electricity should avoid having an unbundled market. Instead they should look at developing a system that sells energy as a service [6] rather than by the kilowatt-hour.

Smart grid lab at Newcastle University

When considering energy, similarly to dealing with hunger, cities and urban energy systems must be given due attention for Goal 7 as the majority of populations will increasingly live in urban areas. While the goal focuses on global access to sustainable energy supply the largest energy demands come from cities, to balance supply with demand requires digitally-enabled solutions to providing sustainable energy, which are being tested at Science Central in Newcastle, UK. In making the low-carbon transition cities will not only be able to increase energy efficiency, but reduce air pollution, improve public health and well-being, and create new forms of economy based on innovation.

Summary of action points for reaching SDGs on energy:

  • Support bundled instead of unbundled energy markets as a way to increase energy efficiency and ensure sustainable energy supply for all.
  • Account for off-grid solutions as part of user-appropriate energy provision and promote community-led energy provision to unlock non-centralised energy supply.
  • Set a target for not only increasing the share of renewables but total renewable energy generation as part of a low-carbon transition plan.
  • Cost carbon appropriately as it is mainly a ‘hidden cost’ in most countries’ energy balance sheets and diverts attention from the actual cost of fossil fuel dependence.
  • Define what is meant by ‘modern energy’ in the targets and indicators for Goal 7, helping countries define their own energy needs and values, which should be led by community initiatives.

[1] Taylor, P. ‘We need an independent architect to redesign the UK energy industry’. The Guardian.

[2] Taylor, P. Energy Storage – Sheltering networks from the ‘perfect storm’

[3] Lyons, PF, Wade, NS, Jiang, T, Taylor, P, Hashiesh, F, Michel, M, Miller, D. ‘Design and analysis of electrical energy storage demonstration projects on UK distribution networks’, Applied Energy, 137: 677-691

[4] ‘Evaluation of Off-grid Community Managed Renewable Energy Projects in Malawi’. IOD PARC

[5] Anuta, OH, Taylor, P, Jones, D, McEntee, T, Wade, N. (2014) ‘An international review of the implications of regulatory and electricity market structures on the emergence of grid scale electricity storage’, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 38: 489-508

[6] Hinells, PBM, Rezessy, S. ‘Liberating the power of Energy Services and ESCOs in a liberalised energy market’.

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To end urban hunger, focus on low-income housing and settlements in cities

Millions of adults who live in low-income urban areas regularly fall short of the calorie requirement recommended for a healthy life. The relationship between low income housing and food security needs to be targeted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to achieve Goal 2: ‘to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture’. Dr Suzanne Speak (GURU, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape) contributes to the Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institute blog series by showing how the UN SDGs could end urban hunger.

Image 1 outdoor kitchen Nigeria

Food security for the urban poor 

In its 2013 report on the State of World Food Security, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that one in eight people in the world were suffering from chronic hunger and undernourishment in 2011-13. While the crises of acute famine or drought afflicting small farmers and rural dwellers are well reported to the international community, the ongoing, daily undernourishment of many low-income people in urban areas is less well understood or prioritised.

The focus on food security has, until recently, been overwhelmingly on rural problems and on issues of food availability at a global and national scale. The UN Sustainable Development Goals do little to address this rural focus. Despite SDG 2 aiming to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’, there remains no explicit reference to urban hunger. Yet many millions of urban adults regularly fall short of the 2,100 kilocalories recommended for a healthy, active life. Urban food insecurity has been significantly overlooked, especially by some of the professionals who could influence it most. Food security remains invisible to urban planners and managers in comparison to other problems such as unemployment, overcrowding and decaying infrastructure [1].

Urbanisation has brought with it the urbanisation of poverty and now, many low-income urban populations are equally at risk of poverty and food insecurity. Indeed, the UN itself acknowledges the food security and malnutrition issues associated with this urbanisation of poverty [2]. There are many reasons for this urban food stress.  While it is difficult for urban policymakers to intervene to address all of them, here are three points around housing and settlement policy which can help drive urban food strategies. 

  1. Increase secure livelihoods

Urban dwellers pay up to 30% more for their food than rural households [3]. However, livelihoods are unstable, being more dependent on waged income from precarious informal employment.  Much of the informal-sector activity takes place outdoors (construction, street vending, or rickshaw drawing), making the rainy season an especially difficult period. Seasonal variations need to be taken into consideration when designing urban interventions. Urban households may need to remit funds back to the rural family, putting further stress on income and budgets.

The UN SDGs can help to address the problem of urban food insecurity through focused work on urban poverty.  However, poverty is not the only issue affecting urban food security.  We need to recognise the synergy between food security and several of the goals, especially Goal 11 on cities and human settlements, and Goals 6 and 7 on water, sanitation and energy.

  1. Promote sustainable urban agriculture and improve access to land

As the homes of the poor are usually small they have less storage to set food aside for harder times. Urban agriculture could play a significant role in managing fluctuations in food availability and support women who are unable to work outside the home. Indeed target 5a urges ‘reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land ….’  Urban land is as vital for women’s livelihoods as is rural land.  However, authorities seldom recognise this.  Many urban migrants, men and women, tend to have good agricultural skills but there is less land available. However, encouraging urban agriculture for low income households would support SDG 12 to Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”.

City authorities can do much to support both food security and gender equality by enabling the urban poor to have access to land for livelihood and agricultural purposes, and reconsidering their attitudes towards urban agriculture. This cannot be achieved easily, given the spiralling cost of urban land in many cities of the south. Nevertheless, urban planning policy can, and in some countries does, manage to regulate in such a way that undeveloped urban land can be temporarily put to more productive use.  This requires municipal planning authorities to have strong vision and commitment to addressing urban hunger.  It also requires strong governance and improved capacity within municipalities to develop and enforce regulation, such as land banking, which pushes up the cost of land and removes it from productive use.

  1. Ensure easy access to food markets and adequate conditions for cooking

The absence of markets and the small size of low-income housing, which has limited kitchen facilities, means an over reliance on street vendors and processed ‘snack’ foods for daily calorie intake.  Street foods are often more expensive, and less nutritious, than home-prepared foods. Urban household budgets also compete with other resources such as water, devoting a significantly higher share of their limited household budget to drinking water than rural households.

SDG 6 aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. However, food safety can be more problematic in urban settlements, where inadequate space and services for food production and storage have implications for both individual and public health.  The lack of basic water, sanitation, drainage and solid-waste disposal services makes it impossible for the poor to prevent contamination of water and food.

Reliance on street foods further exposes urban residents to higher levels of food contamination and low nutritional intake. In this respect, two SDGs are particularly relevant — SDG 6 to ‘ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ may be critical in improving food safety.  Targets 6.1 – 6.5 are especially relevant to enabling low-income urban people to avoid food borne disease and lead healthier lives in general.  In this respect they will be more productive for the city and better able to improve their own livelihoods.

Even if food can be purchased and stored effectively, much cooking is done on open fires or kerosene stoves, both of which produce toxic fumes in small, badly ventilated houses.  In this respect SDG 7 can help in its determination to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

SDG 11 recognises the importance of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. However, this cannot be achieved until the availability of, access to and use of food in low income settlements is recognised as a specific and urgent issue, and addressed by urban professionals not simply those engaged in agriculture.

Image 2 processed food in India

Summary of action points for reaching SDGs on hunger:

  • The UN SDGs can help address urban food insecurity by targeting urban poverty, but it is not the only issue affecting food security which includes human settlements, water, sanitation and energy.
  • Rather than be seen as inappropriate in urban planning by city managers, low-income households should be encouraged to take up urban agriculture to alleviate hunger in cities.
  • Create food markets, sharing networks and urban agriculture projects to decrease reliance on street food which is often more expensive, less nutritious and more likely to be contaminated than home-prepared meals.

These are only some examples of actions that could be taken to address food security for the urban poor. However, the importance of markets and income-earning opportunities cannot be over-emphasised as it is sustainable livelihoods that will enable people to ensure their food security for present and future generations. Urban planners and similar practitioners could play a key role in achieving food security, improving food nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture together by focusing on the plights of low-income urban areas.

[1] Maxwell, D. (1999). The political economy of urban food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.World Development, 27(11), 1939-1953.

[2] United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition August 2013 available at:

[3] World Food Programme. Annual Session. Rome 20-23 May 2002 Report on Agenda Item 5 Policy Issues (

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Sustainable Development Goal Indicators are technical, but also political

This is the first of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), exploring the targets and indicators of sustainable development that have been mapped out for the United Nations post-2015. The Theme Institutes are well placed to contribute to the SDGs, which aim to address the social, economic and environmental aspects of sustainable development. Dr Graham Long is Senior Lecturer in Politics, in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, and he introduces the series, hosted by the Institute for Sustainability, with a political context for the SDGs, arguing that the goals in practice may differ from what has been set out on paper.

Earth sunrise North America with light clouds

SDG indicators: the technical track

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) currently under negotiation at the UN have reached the ‘science bit’. A dedicated technical track is in place to decide upon the indicators to accompany the goals and targets – that is, what will be (and indeed what can be) measured. This exercise will extend into March 2016.  The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) and National Statistical Commissions are charged with arriving at an account of how progress towards the goals will be measured. Alongside a set of global indicators, particular national and even regional indicators might also emerge. When, say, David Hulme – a leading international expert on the Millennium Development Goals – calls for academic engagement, the coming months may be a decisive moment for just that.

This is all good, technical stuff on which academics have the knowledge and the mindset to engage – assessing weighty issues of methodology and measurability, science and statistics, proxies and paradigms, disaggregation and ‘data revolution’. Via the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Scientific and Technological UN Major Group, as well as other expert groups and networks, academics have already had input into this process. Indeed, the Scientific and Technological Major Group’s core role is to facilitate the participation of the scientific community on matters of sustainable development. The UNSC, SDSN and the Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution, have all recently run open consultations on these kinds of technical questions. As new drafts of the indicators are prepared, we can expect opportunities for input to continue.

However, just because this is a ‘technical’ exercise, doesn’t mean that it’s not also political – that is, it is fundamentally about “who gets what, when and how”[1]. Indeed, the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) states that it expects “broad political guidance” from states on questions of indicators. States (and other actors) involved in negotiating the SDGs are acutely aware of how important the indicators are for the framework that results. Given very broad goal areas, and targets (currently) of varying quality and effectiveness, the indicators will bear a lot of the burden of the SDG framework. They can, in effect, ‘make or break’ the agreement that results. What we choose to measure will dictate where states’ activities are directed as states are keen on saying, ‘what gets measured gets done’.  The concrete indicators will be taken to indicate, amongst other things, what these broad and aspirational goals were really driving at in the first place.

Indicators and the review process

Accurate data – and the right data – will be important for the review and follow up framework for the goals. Data is indeed “the raw material of accountability”, as the IEAG proclaims. However, there is a lot more to accountability than just data – notably, the responsiveness of actors and the presence of standards and sanctions. The SDG agenda is not even really about accountability – even though it will be accompanied by a monitoring mechanism of some stripe. These are “aspirational” and “voluntary” goals, and their complexity tells against attempts to allocate responsibilities to particular actors.

Even if we are speaking of ‘monitoring’ or ‘follow up’ rather than accountability in a strict sense, indicators are but raw materials of a process. They have to be assessed in appropriate structures and forums. Whilst the indicators themselves are technical, the arenas in which they will be used are decidedly not. And without institutions that allow for scrutiny, all the scientifically valid indicators and successful measurement in the world will not give us effective review or monitoring, let alone accountability. This framework for monitoring and review is up for discussion at the next set of intergovernmental negotiations in May. Received wisdom indicates that state, regional and global institutions will have a role, with the recently-established “High Level Political Forum”. However, much of how this will operate is still to be decided.

Financial graph and red pen

Reflecting goals and targets

On the one hand, a broad and complex agenda to apply to every country suggests that comprehensive coverage would require a large number of indicators. On the other, there is a clear limit on the number that will be practicable. In the context of these conflicting imperatives, which indicators are finally chosen is a question with great political significance for the goals. It looks important to select indicators that at least reflect the spirit, intent or guiding idea of each goal area. Indicators must strive for technical rigour. But if they do not accurately capture the key aspirations for each goal, then the goal in practice – come March 2016 – will not reflect the goal on paper in September 2015. Again, this demonstrates how important the formulation and selection of indicators will be. States, through negotiation, will decide on the essence of the goals and exercise final control over how this judgement will be made, something that will surely prove to be difficult and controversial.

The limit to the scope for “technical” assessment is clearly indicated by the way that, even as the indicator process was confirmed as technical, many states vigorously rejected technical proofing of the targets, even though the targets are very mixed in quality and just as crucial. For some states, evidently, the targets are too political to be technical. Other states invoked technical inputs precisely to make the opposite political point. When the Scientific and Technological Major Group – offering “the science perspective” – reported that only 29% of the targets are “well-formulated and based on latest scientific evidence”[2], this finding was widely invoked in favour of proofing and pruning of targets.

No escape from politics

We should proceed with caution about any assumption that the indicator debate, by virtue of being “technical” or “scientific”, is not also political. For those stepping into such issues, ‘forewarned is forearmed’. But also, the SDGs offer a much broader agenda for study by almost every branch of the sciences and social sciences – from assessments of their ultimate ends and assumptions, or their place in a wider history of ‘development’ initiatives, down to the detailed content of every indicator. The SDGs need expert scrutiny in every root and branch. Not only where such academic input would be welcomed by states, but also precisely where it might not be.

[1] To adapt Harold Lasswell’s phrase from his book Politics: who gets what, when, how (New York: Whittlesey House. 1936).


These are the author’s personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any larger organisation. (Contact to find out more)

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