Why agreeing on new post-2015 development goals is 'complicated'

    Csaba Körösi and Macharia Kamau, co-chairs of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. The group only has two meeting left before it submits a set of goal recommendations for the post-2015 development agenda to the United Nations General Assembly. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / United Nations

    Over the past year, government representatives have been meeting at the United Nations to formulate a set of development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which will expire in 2015.

    There are only two Open Working Group meetings left before the OWG needs to submit a set of goal recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly that will then be negotiated in the next phase of the post-2015 process, which starts in September and culminates with the Post-2015 Summit the following year.

    The most recent draft of the Sustainable Development Goals, which was developed through a consensus building process among governments, was released on June 3 and has been received largely positively by the international community. This is the case for instance, for goals related to ending hunger and food security, water and sanitation, inclusive education, sustainable cities, and climate change — all of which offer some innovative proposals to provide governments a universal framework for addressing some of these challenges and for measuring progress.

    Additionally, the new draft includes a separate area on Means of Implementation, which are not targets, but rather instruments for achieving the new development goals. MOIs include recommendations such as implementing macroeconomic policies like taxes, increasing official development assistance commitments, phasing out fossil fuel subsidies, and providing universal access to information and communication technologies. Some of these MOIs — those related to taxation schemes, for example — have the potential of being as controversial as some of the SDGs.

    Besides looking at traditional development outcomes, the draft includes proposals for improving governance; rule of law, and for promoting peaceful societies. It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that civil society has called for two separate goals, one for peaceful societies, and another one for governance, the draft includes both sets of issues in one goal. According to some, the one-goal proposal is a political strategy of those in charge of drafting the document to guarantee that both issues remain in the final iteration of the goals given that some governments are not keen to keep them in the final document. This strategy has the potential of being successful in the long-run.

    There is still space for improving the current proposals. Below are some recommendations to strengthen the current draft:

    1. Decrease the number of goals and targets. The draft document includes more than 200 targets divided into 17 focus areas ranging from poverty reduction to climate. Even though each focus area has its merits, having more than 10 goals would be unmanageable for the international community. Looking at the existing list, some of these focus areas and attached targets could potentially be combined to reduce the overall number and avoid redundancy. At the end of the day, all remaining targets should be universal, measurable, politically feasible, and should relate to issues that are likely to impact on the prospects for sustainable development.

    2. Develop a common vision for these goals. One of the main reasons why the draft is perceived as a “laundry-list” or “Christmas tree” is because it lacks a narrative or common vision that ties together all of these goals and targets. Some may argue that this vision or narrative was developed as part of the Rio+20 outcome document “The Future We Want,” when in reality that is not true. The World We Want provided an overview of many development issues, but it failed to provide a clear answer to its main problem statement: What is the world and future we want? How can these targets help achieve that? These are questions that need to be answered before the new developing goals are in place, even if resolving them within the OWG process is not realistic.

    3. Determine the definition of concepts. The draft seeks to measure progress toward concepts such as participatory decision-making and access to justice. Even though there is a common believe that definitions of concepts such as participation are universal, in reality, they are not when factors as representation (whose voices count) are considered. The lack of providing a definition to the concepts causes repetition within the document. For example, in the governance area, there are three targets related to participation in decision-making process. To eliminate redundancy, members of the OWG must agree on these definitions and operationalize them through relevant indicators and MOIs.  

    4. Forge ahead with the new development agenda. The impact of the new development goals will depend on how successful the international community, governments and non-governmental representatives alike, are in guaranteeing that the best target recommendations are included in the “zero draft.” Civil society organizations must rally behind crucial focus areas and targets. There are many challenges that need to be addressed before the Sept. 2015 deadline. However, if the international community collaborates in the creation of SDGs that are universal, measurable, and feasible, the current draft can be transformed into a useful tool to drive progress toward sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.

    From where I stand, it appears that we are on target for developing an ambitious document, but as they say: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

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    About the author

    • Olimar maisonet guzman profile

      Olimar Maisonet-Guzman

      Olimar Maisonet-Guzman works is policy coordinator for IREX’s Center for Collaborative Technologies where she explores the use of emerging technologies such as drones, data and new media in international development and citizen engagement. Previously, she worked worked at the U.S. State Department and as a policy coordinator for the United Nations Rio+20 and the post-2015 negotiations.