SDGs the Way Forward

2015 will be here very soon

We have come a long way from the meeting in Solo in July, 2011 when Paula Caballero Gomez from Colombia floated the idea of Sustainable Development Goals as the replacement for the MDGs in 2015 with the support of the governments of Guatemala and Peru.

For those who have been part of the discussion, the last 3 and half years shows how difficult it can be to develop policy at the intergovernmental level. It also has been one of the most open and transparent processes that I have seen while working at this level for 25 years.

The first few months saw the UN DPI NGO Conference in September 2011 put forward the first suggestions of goals and targets. This was followed by the government retreat in Colombia in November 2011. This was the first time the governments discussed the idea and it was interesting to see the initial opposition from a number of the development Ministries’ donor countries to the idea of anything other than an MDG+ agenda. One felt you could add a couple of SD Targets here and there and it would be fine. This was a position often echoed by a number of northern development NGOs in the beginning.

The Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group (SDG OWG) process was exhausting but also fascinating. At the end, there were 17 goals and 169 targets. Following the report, the UN GA resolution on the 10th of September made the OWG report on SDGs “the main basis for integrating Sustainable Development Goals into the post-2015 development agenda.” The vast majority of governments were happy with this position. This includes key European countries such as Germany and France but a few countries the UK, US, Canada and possibly a couple of other northern countries wanted a smaller number. The UK had already been lobbying against the EU position informally in the run up and at Rio+20 it had lost a lot of respect with governments, particularly within the EU.

Why 17 and not 10-12?

The main argument put forward is that the number is too many to explain to the general public. I’ve expressed this before and I’ll do it again here. The MDGs dealt with ONLY developing countries, and only development issues. The SDGs deal with ALL countries and sustainable development. I would also add to this that what we are looking for is a transformational agenda NOT an MDG+ development agenda. This is OUR chance to realize the hope of the first Rio conference in 1992 and build a more robust sustainable development blueprint for the 21st century for EVERYBODY. Finally, the reality is that some goals and targets will be more relevant to certain countries than others and this enables a constructive national dialogue and then an ownership of what needs to be done by national stakeholders.

The Synthesis Report and what changes can be made on the SDG side?

I do believe that the opportunity given to governments and all of us to reflect on the outcome document from the SDG OWG before the negotiations start was a great decision. If I was writing the SG’s report the section on the SDGs, I would respect the work undertaken by the governments in the SDG OWG (70 countries) and the UNGA resolution leaves what the countries had agreed along except in the following four areas:

1.       If there is a missing target that should be included but was missed – an example of this would be antibiotic resistance, which came to the SDG OWG late and the report of WHO came out a week after the SDG OWG last meeting. Here WHO is estimating deaths at around 25 million, similar to HIV/AIDs. It also will have a huge impact on food security as often animals kept in close proximity to each other are pumped full of antibiotics and they will become anti-biotic resistant and so farming practices will have to change drastically in the coming 15 years. Sweden raised this issue but only a few countries took it up.

2.       Where an agreement in other UN forum (particularly legally binding ones) exceeds the target in the SDG OWG. As the process was negotiated, there may be a few areas at the end where the advice from other UN bodies wasn’t integrated into the final document. It would be important to suggest changes here because those more progressive targets would have been negotiated in an area where experts from that area negotiated them.

3.       The integration targets – As the move to reduce the number of targets happened, we lost a number of ‘Nexus’ type targets. These will be critical to ensure that the implementation is done cross-sectorially.

4.       Clustering the Goals was an issue raised in the SDG OWG and I think that might still be a good idea – it might also allow for a meta-goal in social, environmental, economic and governance.

Means of Implementation

Another question which needs some work within G77 is whether ‘Means of Implementation’ are best suited in a goal and target approach.

In a previous blog I suggested that it might be worth going back to the 2002 South Africa non-paper. This approached the delivery of goals and targets with policy recommendations under each goal area. I tend to think that this would allow clearer actions and not then becoming a limiting issue. This was the suggested SA approach in 2002:
a.       proposed targets and timeframes
b.      proposed actions (including capacity building, education and technology facilitation)
c.       resources
d.      institutional mechanisms
e.      co-ordination
f.        monitoring
g.       stakeholder involvement
h.      implementation plan sustainability

To read the SA non paper go here.

This would also reduce the number of targets by around 40 as these would become part of policy guidance. The approach to MOI might be best if the MOI is relevant to a particular goal. There are more general MOI funding issues around the delivery of the goals and targets as a whole but perhaps they are best dealt with in the ‘Financing for Development’ Conference.


One of the major outcomes from the 2015 process will be a Declaration by Heads of State – this clearly will need to reflect what is in the SDGs, but what else should it do? This is the 70th anniversary year of the UN and so the Declaration should also embrace a recognition of where we have come from but also what needs to be done in the future. It should inspire this generation to give its commitment to delivering the goals but also perhaps this is where the issues of peace and security should be found. After all, the Rio Declaration states that:
“Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect
international law providing protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development, as necessary.” (Principle 24)

Perhaps the starting point for such a Declaration should be the Preamble to Agenda 21 which stated:

“1.1. Humanity stands at a defining moment in history. We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being. However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future. No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can - in a global partnership for sustainable development.”

The words are as true today as they were in 1992, unfortunately the lack of delivery of Agenda 21 has made those challenges in many areas even starker.


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