The year of negotiating precariously

This is a reproduction of the Guardian article written by myself and Michael Strauss 'The year of negotiating precariously' in the Guardian on the 23rd of July 2015 which can be read on the Guardian web site here. Or you can read it here.

The year 2015 may be recorded as one of the most extraordinarily successful – or disastrous – years in the history of international diplomatic negotiations.

Most have been well reported – the recent agreement with Iran –the Pacific trade agreement. The Eurozone’s probably tragic imposition of controls over Greece.

Each of these takes on critical geopolitical, macroeconomic, or environmental crises. But almost none of them addresses the pervasive social, cultural and micro economic crises that afflict up to 2 billion people on a daily basis. Those are the invisible personal crises of poverty, hunger, sickness, and non-education which cumulatively play an integral role in building and triggering the more ominous, more obvious, and easily reported on threats.

Almost completely out of major media view, the 194 UN member nations are wrapping up three years of talks on a model that will guide the next 15 years of global policy decision making. It is dedicated to providing every person on the planet with necessary food, water, energy, health care, housing, jobs and education, as well as assuring their rights, freedoms and access to information. It attempts to sustain oceans, forests, agriculture, land ecosystems, and the earth’s climate.

The sustainable development goals (SDGs) were initiated at the UN Rio+20 summit in 2012. And although Rio+20 was dismissed at the time by many as either sadly disappointing, or an outright failure, it has become increasingly clear that the conference played a similar role to that played by the Brundtland Commission for the Earth summit in 1992. It created a framework to integrate environmental, economic and social policy that would be sustainable far into the future.

It also agreed on an ambitious attempt to merge the sustainable development policy agenda with the earlier, often distinct, development policy agenda that in many national and UN agencies still functions separately.

To accomplish all this, Rio+20 set in motion a complex processes that will culminate in September.
The sustainable development goals

The major part was the SDG process. It has agreed 17 goals and 169 targets that will all but certainly be accepted with a couple of small changes to a few targets.

And while it’s true that the 17 SDGs are far more numerous and complex than their eight predecessor MDGs, that very complexity has allowed them to address issues with a breadth of cooperation and intentional specificity. This achieved the buy-in of a vast range of governmental, non-governmental and private sector actors whose active cooperation will be critical to achieving their successful implementation in the far more economically complex and politically turbulent world of 2015.

The only outstanding issue being negotiated is the political declaration of this transformational agenda that will be presented to the heads of state of all nations to agree when they meet in 
September in New York.


The most difficult question still being negotiated is determining how the new goals and targets should be funded.

As we write, Financing for Development (FfD) – a process that grew out of the traditional development programme funding track and was tasked with providing the answer – has just concluded a major conference in Ethiopia. Its results fail to elaborate the financial architecture or the required funds for financing the SDGs. There is no certainty these can be added on before September.

That could be disastrous. A funding failure would seriously undermine both the confidence of poorer countries in the commitment of wealthier countries, and limit the overall chances of the SDGs’ implementation success.

Such a failure would also drastically increase the pressure on the separate climate financing negotiations currently in progress to support any agreements on climate in Paris.

Climate change

This year will end with the one of the biggest pieces of the post-2015 policy jigsaw – the UNFCC Climate Conference in Paris.

Similar to the SDGs, the climate agreement is looking for funding. In Copenhagen, $100 bn was promised per year by 2020. By 2014 the fund had mobilised $10.2 bn. A shortfall of commitments will put addition strain on negotiations as developing countries look to see funding for the Green Climate Fund.

But there have been significant developments since Copenhagen to indicate that some of the necessary political will is now in place for an agreement that will require actions by all countries that will be broad, but may be voluntary.

And in the very specificity of their targets, the SDGs help deal with dynamics like this.
The reaction of the media

But for the SDGs to succeed, they will require broad public understanding and cooperation. The role of media will become essential. And that will prove a challenge.

A primary misunderstanding is that the SDGs are very different form the millennium goals agreed in 2000. The SDGs are universal – not just for developing countries. They cover all of sustainable development – not just traditional development issues.

The process to agree the goals has been one of the most inclusive ever, from intense intergovernmental consultations to hundreds of stakeholder meetings in every region.

Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general of CIVICUS, a global alliance of grass roots organisations, echoes what many of the NGOs who were active in the MDGs but who were initially skeptical of the SDGs, now seem to think of the Post 2015 agenda: “The process so far has been more inclusive than many of us expected and the resulting document is stronger than we anticipated. But now everything rests on member states to commit themselves to an ambitious framework that surpasses the meagre expectations of global governance.”

Tomorrow is today

The SDGs represent a new paradigm in intergovernmental policy substance – and in the process that has created them.

And in a year of extraordinarily complex and critical global crisis negotiations, the biggest, broadest, possibly most idealistic – but ultimately the most essential – might be the one almost nobody of the general public has heard anything about yet.

Felix Dodds is an author and a senior fellow at the UNC Global Research Institute and an associate fellow at the Tellus Institute. Michael Strauss is the executive director of Earth Media, an independent political and communications consultancy based in New York


  1. Are you aware of campaign to have extensive damage of our environment recognized as criminal acts of Ecocide by Polly Higgins an international environmental lawyer . For more info see Ecocide is a Crime on Facebook
    In Feb 2015 End Ecocide on Earth submitted a petition with 189k signatures to EU Parliament Citizen law council


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