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Blog for Routledge: Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals: A transformational agenda for an insecure world

In this exclusive blog post, Routledge author Felix Dodds, discusses the development of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a forthcoming book that will tell the complete story.

On September 25, Heads of State met in New York and adopted the ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development' (UN, 2015). This had been a long process that started in Solo, Indonesia, in July 2011 when the governments of Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and UAE suggested that instead of replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with another set of development goals that would deal with impacts of policies, that a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ should complement the MDGs. These SDGs should challenge the root causes and not the symptoms that they should be – not only for developing countries, but for all countries. They also shouldn’t just address development, but also sustainable development.

Stakeholders had the first attempt at identifying the SDGs took place just two months late at the September 2011 UN DPI NGO Conference Sustainable Societies Responsive Citizens. The stakeholders suggested 17 SDGs and associated targets as possible outcomes from Rio+20.

As momentum toward Rio+20 gained, the SDGs were seen as a possible outcome from the conference. In 2011 and 2012, the traditional development community fought hard against the replacement of the MDGs by the SDGs – some development NGOs continued the opposition until mid-way through 2014. As one of the architectsfor the SDGs Paula Caballero Director of Economic, Social and Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia pointed out often that ‘entrenched poverty is a universal agenda and it's linked to sustainable consumption and production. If we are really serious, we need a universal agenda rather than stop-gap paternalistic approaches to dealing with poverty. We need scientists to tell us what the thresholds of sustainable production and consumption are,’ (Caballero, 2014).

Although Rio+20 did not adopt the SDGs, it set in motion the process by which they would be adopted through the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group (SDG OWG). Readers if they are interested in how Rio+20 approached this and other issues such as the green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development should read the Routledge published book From ‘Rio+20 to the New Development Agenda by Dodds, Laguna and Thompson’.

The development of the SDGs was the most participatory policy process the UN has ever undertaken. Prior to the SDG OWG meetings in 2014, there had been over 120 national consultations organized by UNDP, 11 thematic consultations, a citizen online process which over 7 million people participated in and a High Level Panel of Eminent People chaired by the Presidents of Liberia and Indonesia and the Prime Minister of the UK. In addition to many stakeholder and multi-stakeholder meetings and reports all informing the SDG, OWG made up of 70 countries but only 30 seats at the table. This required a buddy system for many of the 30 seats creating some interesting combinations of countries such as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka or the Netherlands, Australia and the UK or Cyprus, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates or Iran (Islamic Republic of), Japan and Nepal. One of the advantages of this is that it took many countries out their political groupings and the result was some different thinking. This resulted in the agreement within the SDG OWG for 17 SDGs and 169 targets which ultimately were then endorsed a year later by Heads of State.

The story of how the SDGs came about and what influenced them and the role different countries, stakeholders and intergovernmental bodies played in the process will be part of a new Routledge book Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals: A transformational agenda for an insecure world coming out in the late summer of 2016. The book will be written by Nikhil Seth (former Director of the UN Division on Sustainable Development – the secretariat for both Rio+20 and the SDG negotiations) Jimena Leiva Roesch (one of Guatemala negotiators) and myself. We hope it will help capture the astonishing story that is the SDGs.

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