Similar to the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals are at risk of becoming political toys

Darren Shako

The SDGs should require governments to firmly outline their targeted standards, and create policies that will inform potential funding for development. This would be necessary for not only ending world poverty (Goal 1), but ensuring the respective goals are reflected in the improvement services on the ground. This includes securing availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (Goal 6), which is necessary for good public health (Goal 3).

Part of a blog series from Newcastle University Societal Challenge Theme Institutes giving recommendations for targets and indicators of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 6 is on ensuring ‘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 and political tool as it is a major impediment to achieving Goal 6.

“Do not mention anything about UN and the MDGs – they are all useless to us”. This was the response from a CEO of a leading agency with responsibilities for improving household well-being in Guyana. Another participant stressed “…all people do is quote figures, but no such developments are ever evident on the ground”. Both were responses to a presentation outlining Guyana’s performance for improving its water and sanitation coverage under the MDGs [1].

The statements made by my two colleagues at a focus group meeting led to an outburst of chatter, each expressing adverse sentiments to the use and impact of the actions intended by the MDGs and SDGs. While I had my personal reservations on the impact of internationally-agreed actions on countries like Guyana, such as the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade, the MDGs and SDGs, I was quite startled by their responses.

Guyana government

Parliament of Guyana.

Are international development agendas out of touch?

In this audience there was a general consensus that the MDGs, and many of the previous international development agendas, are all fantasy action-plans that are out of touch with the realities on the ground. It was clear that this group had little or no confidence in the MDGs, and the upcoming SDGs to generate actual improvements to alleviate poverty in Guyana due to historic actions of local politicians.

Making reference to my presentation of Guyana’s coverage figures for water and sanitation (extracted from the JMPs 2015 Report on Progress on water and sanitation), some participants noted the government of Guyana uses these ‘fabricated’ figures as marketing props. Meanwhile they evade opportunities to implement initiatives that would contribute service improvements people identify with.

I spent the last two years examining mechanisms through which households in the Caribbean can achieve universal access to an ‘adequate’ level of sanitation. Current sanitation services, although in many cases qualify as ‘improved’ facilities, would not contribute to environmental sustainability due to inherent systemic conditions [2]. Inhabitants are now demanding levels of services for water and sanitation that surpass the standards government is more inclined to meet. However, this supposition is rarely captured in progress reports, as countries like Guyana report high coverage levels, while services remain inadequate.

Safe water and sanitation still need work

Improving access to safe water and improved sanitation is a target of Goal 7 of the MDGs, and will be Goal 6 of the SDGs. But it has been on the international development agenda since knowledge of their impact on improving health was known. As with many other countries, Guyana is said to have attained the targets for improving access to safe drinking water expected under the MDGs, but the progress to date on sanitation improvements may fail to meet the intended targets.

While in Guyana’s capital city Georgetown, in discussing the seeming euphoric position of the authorities in meeting the targets for water supply with the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Guyana Water Incorporated, Mr McGarrell, I asked: “how can a country celebrate achieving the target for providing access to a safe water source, when the quality of drinking water is so poor?” A situation that led to the establishment of over 50 private water vendors over the last 10 years, operating in an uncontrolled environment and aiming to provide a safer alternative to the drinking water supplied by the national water company. But the alternative water supply is none the safer due to absence of regulation, standards and quality control and monitoring mechanisms.

To my question, he replied: “remember the MDGs target only requires the improvement of access, i.e. increasing the number of persons using an ‘improved’ water source. Quality of supply will be examined at a later date”.

He was right. The MDGs indicator for having clean and safe drinking water is the percentage of population using an ‘improved’ drinking water source. Guyana may have very well met those targets. But the quality of the water supplied by the national provider in some areas is so poor the population cannot consume it [3]. Yet it is still considered a success story by the authorities who report figures based on the definition of ‘improved’, while disregarding the health of the consuming population.

Link development with people’s needs

The situation of having access to an improved sanitation facility is even worse than the case of the water supply. A recent survey revealed that a large percentage of households refer to a water closet toilet facility, possibly internal to their homes. However, a high percentage of the population in Guyana are subjected to the use of pit latrines mainly due to their inability to finance their preferred water closet option. Due to the frequent flooding of the coastal area, where 90% of the Guyanese population resides, people continue to be exposed to faecal contaminated floodwaters, a century old problem.

The people of Guyana have not seen the on-the-ground development they need, particularly those celebrated by the authorities, hence the animosity towards international development as a whole. As such, understanding the needs of Guyana and similar countries is critical to achieving the MDGs and would certainly help guarantee the success of the upcoming SDGs.

Summary of action points for achieving SDG targets for sanitation and water quality:

• To achieve water and sanitation targets under the SDGs for countries like Guyana, they need to have access to water supply that is ‘truly’ safe and sustainable. They also need sanitation facilities and services that are ‘adequate’ for the perceived standards of the people.

• The SDG is on the right path in seeking to define “the future we want”, however, it would be imperative to highlight that the ‘WE’ represents the ‘people’ and governments must seek to understand their needs.

• National governments should set clearly defined standards for water quality and sanitation. They should design policies that demand the establishment of institutions and serve as the framework for guiding development funds and decision making.

When it comes to universal access to safe water and sanitation, it is the responsibility of the respective governments to take into consideration the prevailing systemic conditions and the requirements of the population. Only then would they be able to set standards and implement systems that would see the achievement of the SDGs.

Darren Shako is a PhD student in the School of Civil Engineering & Geosciences, researching urban sanitation for developing urban cities in the Caribbean.


1. Shako, D. 2014. Presenting a Case for Pursuing Universal Access to Adequate Household Sanitation in Guyana [Unpublished Presentation) Guyana Central Housing and Planning Authority.

2. Shako, D. (2013) Enabling Environment through Public Policies – achieving universal and sustainable access to ‘adequate’ sanitation in Guyana and the Wider Caribbean.

3. Kurup, R., Persaud, R., Caesar, J. and Raja, V. (2010) Microbiological and physiochemical analysis of drinking water in Georgetown, Guyana, Nature and Science, 8(8), pp. 261-265

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