TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Apr13/04)
25 April 2013
Third World Network

United Nations: Formulation of SDGs promises to be challenging
Published in SUNS #7572 dated 24 April 2013

New York, 23 Apr (Ranja Sengupta*) -- The second session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) heard a wide range of perspectives by UN Member States on conceptual aspects of the SDGs and poverty eradication.

The session was held on 17-19 April at the UN headquarters in New York. The Open Working Group (OWG) was established under the UN General Assembly as one of the major decisions of the Rio+20 Conference of June 2012 (the UN Conference on Sustainable Development).

A seven-page summary of the discussion of the two focus areas of the agenda was presented by the OWG Co-Chairs, Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary.

The Programme of Work for 2013-2014 that will shape the SDGs has still to be agreed upon. There was, however, agreement on the clusters of issues for the next two sessions of the OWG.

The third session on 22-24 May will address food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, drought, desertification, land degradation and water and sanitation. It is expected that the Programme of Work for 2013-2014 will be adopted then, making this a key meeting, as the Programme of Work will unquestionably influence the formulation of the SDGs. The fourth session of the OWG on 17-19 June will address health and population dynamics, employment and decent work for all, social protection, youth and education.

At the opening of the recently-concluded session on 17 April, Co-Chair Kamau said that the objective of the meeting was to take stock of the lessons learnt from the past experiences of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to discuss an overview of the current conceptual proposals for SDGs and tackling the problems that emerge from the exploration of these conceptual issues. He said the framework could benefit from discussions on stronger global partnerships and means of implementation (MOI).

Many developing countries stressed, up to the end of the session, the centrality of international cooperation and MOI, and Co-Chair Kamau assured them that these would be part of the future discussions.

Many developing countries in every OWG meeting have called for MOI to be part of every issues cluster. This insistence is due to the fact that most developed countries have retreated from their commitments to provide MOI to developing countries, as revealed in the difficult negotiations on MOI during the June 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The mandate to formulate SDGs is from the Conference's outcome document, "The Future We Want."

(The latest draft of the Programme of Work of the OWG has MOI and global partnership for achieving sustainable development as stand-alone issues, and three days have been allocated for this at the sixth session of the OWG on 9-13 December.)

According to a developing country delegate, some of the other issues that will continue to generate differences, even controversy, are energy; conflict, peace and security; and oceans. The framing of the issues related to the climate change session will also be key.

The first topic of the 17-19 April session on conceptual aspects of the SDGs dealt with issues including guiding principles and framework, possible themes and priorities for goal-setting, global partnership, means of implementation, and convergence between the SDGs and the post-2015 development agenda. The second topic was on poverty eradication as part of the overarching framework (with sustainable development).

The Co-Chairs' summary of the three-day meeting was presented at the last session on the afternoon of 19 April and this is their perspective of the proceedings of the OWG session. This was followed by a discussion on the suggested programme of work of the OWG till early 2014.

In their summary, the Co-Chairs expressed their "sense that early anxiety is giving way to growing intellectual curiosity" and reflected that the OWG agrees that "our task is to gradually craft the backbone of the transformation agenda".

The summary states that MDGs are one important touchstone for the OWG's work, inevitably a point of departure, and that while there is much to learn from - and build upon - in the MDGs, it can be agreed that they will not be enough.

On the conceptual aspects of SDGs, the Co-Chair's summary states that, "we must conclude any unfinished business of the MDGs, and set a goal of complete eradication of poverty in a clear timeframe". It posited that, "we are unlikely to reach that goal in a sustainable way if we do not address the economic, social and environmental factors that make for durable poverty eradication. So, integration of the three dimensions is a critical means to sustainable poverty eradication and people-centred development."

The summary highlighted the need to call for "strong cooperative global action" as human activities in one part of the world can have consequences for people living in other parts. The report pointed towards the need to embed the SDGs in a broader narrative, "a narrative of the transformative change needed to realize our vision of sustainable poverty eradication and universal human development, respecting human dignity and protecting our planet, mother Earth, living in harmony with nature for the wellbeing and happiness of present and future generations".

On the principles of SDGs, the summary states that, "Many of you reiterated that the (1992) Rio principles should guide the formulation of the SDGs, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities" and that, "At Rio+20 it was agreed that the SDGs would be based on Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and fully respect all Rio principles."

The summary added, "there was broad agreement that the SDGs should build upon commitments already made and should contribute to implementation of outcomes of all major summits in the economic, social and environmental fields."

However, such "broad agreement" does not amount to a clear conclusion or consensus: this part of the summary reflects the position of developing countries that many developed countries do not fully support, preferring to have simple goals and even retreating from especially their commitments to provide the means of implementation (finance and technology).

The summary also noted that, "It was also broadly recognized that defining SDGs is not the occasion for negotiating or renegotiating existing agreements, treaties that are under the responsibility of other international fora and processes."

On the characteristics of SDGs, the summary stated that defining the SDGs is a way to prioritize - to identify the critical problems to address, critical goals needed to be set, and critical actions needed to be taken. It recognized that "development is a complex process of structural change, a complex way how to combine growth with progress" and "there are no magic bullets" to achieve this, especially sustainable development "which no country has yet successfully achieved".

It pointed towards the "need to be faithful to the complexity in the narrative and in our broad post-2015 agenda, while aiming for simplicity in the goals we set ourselves." Reflecting the views of Member States (mostly developed countries), the summary states, "Many noted how important it is to retain this positive feature (simplicity) of the MDGs. Not to do so could jeopardize the chances of success. As one of you said, ideally the SDGs should be "tweetable".

While the summary noted that all agreed on the universality of the SDGs, there were different understandings of how this should be reflected in the goals.

"Many share the view that the SDGs must speak not only to developing countries but also to developed countries, and not just in terms of conventional development cooperation, important as that is. Shared responsibilities are broader if we are to achieve sustainable poverty eradication and development. Many of you mentioned in particular the need for all to achieve sustainable patterns of consumption and production, with developed countries taking a leading role".

It also pointed out that global goals can reinforce national actions, while respecting countries' different priorities and circumstances and also empower civil society.

On a very important note, the summary pointed out that, "there will be need to allow flexibility to countries to adapt global goals and especially related targets to their needs". In this respect, the summary referred to Colombia's suggestion of "a global dashboard of targets and indicators" under each goal from which countries could select those most appropriate and relevant. The idea suggested that, "this would also allow flexibility for countries to take on more ambitious targets over time, should they make better than expected progress".

On the issue of scope of the SDGs, the summary said, "The MDGs did not recognize the many dimensions of poverty, which go beyond monetary income. In building on the MDGs, many of you have said that the gap the SDGs are meant to address is one of integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, and implementation of integrated solutions. SDGs could serve three functions: norm or priority setting; coordinating global action; and measuring actions and outcomes at the national level."

Three possible types of goals are highlighted in the summary: (i) human development related goals with little environmental impact associated with their attainment (e. g., education); (ii) human development related goals with important environmental dimensions - e. g., water, food, energy; (iii) goals related to common management of global resources, the Chairs suggested. Further, "women and disadvantaged groups, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities must be addressed through ambitious and measurable targets and indicators in all relevant goals."

On "Realizing and measuring SDGs: means of implementation and global partnerships", the summary states that, "We cannot set goals for ourselves without considering carefully how we are to achieve them. We will continue to discuss means of implementation and a renewed and strengthened partnership for sustainable development in the course of our work. We expect to dedicate time specifically for that discussion. We will also keep close track of progress of discussions in the financing expert working group."

The summary acknowledged that, "Many of you say that means of implementation and partnerships should usefully be considered in relation to each goal we set, while some cautioned that just as goals and their achievement will be interrelated so will be the means of achieving them". The summary also acknowledged that the needs of countries in special situations will need to be considered. It added that new thinking on international cooperation beyond the traditional donor-recipient relationship is needed.

On measures of progress, the need to look beyond GDP was highlighted in the important act of measuring though "not all that is valuable can be measured".

The summary also highlighted the importance of quality measures that came up several times during the discussion, for example, completion (of schooling) and literacy rates in the area of education, or access to quality nutritional food in the area of food security. The need to be able to collect reliable and timely data and addressing capacity constraints in meeting data requirements by building institutional capacities as early as possible was seen as important.

Another issue that came up was the need to tap the best scientific knowledge, including both natural and social sciences, to inform the work, including in the setting of sensible targets and the choice of indicators, but also in the monitoring and evaluation of progress.

In terms of timeframe, the need to have a longer 30-year period of reference was highlighted by some members, while some harped on the need to ensure that countries and governments are held accountable within shorter incremental periods. There is also a need to recognize that a rapidly changing world will present unexpected challenges and new developments, both positive and negative and that an ever-increasing global population must also be kept in mind.

On poverty eradication, the report underlined that "it is central to the OWG, it is at the core of the SDGs and it must be mainstreamed in all our work".

The summary also identified critical drivers of poverty eradication such as "inclusive and robust economic growth, decent jobs and productive livelihoods; equitable access to basic goods and services, such as water, food, energy, health and education, social protection; and sustainable management of natural resources. Empowerment of women and gender equality as well as the access of poor people to justice were stressed as a critical driver".

The summary however did not mention issues such as trade, finance, intellectual property rights and technology transfer which had been raised repeatedly by several developing countries as being key structural factors behind poverty and inequality.

Some of the other questions that came up and are due for more discussion were; whether to have stand-alone, cross-cutting or both sets of goals; how to recognize and enunciate the multidimensional nature of poverty; and how to address inequality in the goals. The risk to those with incomes just above the poverty line (of falling back into poverty) as a result of various shocks, and, the ‘poverty of opportunity', were some of the issues raised in the report.

On convergence, the summary stated, "it was widely agreed that at the end of the day, when we come to 2015, we would like to have a single, coherent development agenda with poverty eradication and SDGs at the core".

Among the various efforts in this regard, the "need to track and communicate with the other processes underway to define the post-2015 development agenda", get technical support from UN technical support team, and to reach out to the scientific community to provide technical inputs on setting appropriate goals, targets and indicators, were pointed out by the Co-Chairs.

The concluding session ended with a discussion on the further programme of work to be focused on the thematic areas which had been proposed by the Co-Chairs. The Co-Chairs said that while the dates were not up for discussion, inputs could be given by Member States on the thematic areas that were suggested.

There were several responses to this proposed programme. The G77 and China suggested having the MOI and indicators discussion for each of the thematic areas.

Switzerland suggested adding topics such as human rights, governance and population dynamics and suggested moving topics such as MOI and global partnership (currently scheduled under session 6) to the end.

Argentina said that the programme of work "should not prejudge the structure of the MDGs" and agreed with the G77 that MOI should be touched upon with every issue.

The United States said it could suggest other programme of work but will cooperate with the programme suggested by the Co-Chairs.

India said if areas such as human rights were to be added, the discussion could be together with the right to development. Further, India wanted global economic governance to be added to session 6, and financial stability to be added to the macroeconomic issues under session 5.

The second session of the OWG ended on a note of some optimism and dynamism but also pointed towards the major areas of interest, differences and concerns from the Member States. It gave an inkling of what some of the national priorities will be for countries as a group and individually, in the current global context. It showed that there is still a long way to go before SDGs can take shape.

(* With inputs from Chee Yoke Ling.)