Governing the Future with Sustainable Development Goals: Hopes and Challenges

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The summit of world leaders that took place at the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of September marked an unusually harmonious moment in international politics. In the summit 193 countries acted in concert to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are set to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the beginning of 2016.

The new development agenda builds on the MDGs, and its Preamble declares that the SDGs are to complete what the MDGs failed to do. The final MDG report, which was released a week before the summit, shows that while progress has occurred in many spheres of global development, there have also been plenty of uneven achievements and shortfalls. These range from the world’s poorest remaining very unevenly distributed across regions and countries, to targets in improving maternal health not being fully met.

The SDGs reach far beyond MDGs in terms of their ambition, and they come with enormous potential. For example, instead of aiming to reduce extreme poverty rates the SDGs have set the bar higher with the aspirational target of eradicating extreme poverty everywhere. The new development agenda is also of unprecedented scope. While the MDGs comprised of 8 goals and 18 targets, the SDGs have 17 goals and there has been a nearly ten-fold increase in the targets to 169. The new agenda also recognises that some important development challenges, such as gender equality, are crosscutting issues that need to be taken into consideration in the implementation of all goals.

There are also positive developments in relation to human rights. Historically the relationship between MDGs and human rights has been tenuous, and the link between the two has been mostly implicit and under-developed. The MDGs have been criticised from a human rights perspective – among other thingsfor their non-participatory design process, for providing a ‘fig leaf of legitimacy’ to authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records, for enshrining goals that are less ambitious than those present in the human rights paradigm, and even for undermining international human rights law standards. The new agenda is more explicitly tied to international human rights instruments. The agenda states that the SDGs are grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties, and that they seek ‘to realize the human rights of all’ (Preamble, Paragraph 10). In other words, human rights can be understood as both the foundation and the aim of SDGs.

But ultimately at this point the SDGs represent only potential. A report published by the World Bank a week after the world leaders’ summit casts hope on meeting some of the targets enshrined in the SDGs, but it also emphasises that ‘business as usual’ will not be sufficient. Extreme poverty rate (counted as share of population living below $1.90 a day) has dropped from 37. 1 percent of the world’s population in 1990 to 12.8 percent in 2012, and it is expected to reach 9.6 percent this year. This means that there are still 700 million people living below the extreme poverty line. The World Bank reminds that the 2030 target on extreme poverty enshrined in the SDGs is still aspirational, and that contextual factors arising from the changing nature of the poverty are likely to make poverty reduction more challenging than it has been in the past. Furthermore, even if the 2030 target is met on average globally, deep pockets of multidimensional poverty are likely to persist.

Questions also remain about the comprehensiveness of the agenda. The simplicity of the MDGs was simultaneously praised and criticised. While the MDGs oversimplified many development goals and reduced them to few targets, it has also been suggested that this reductivism added to their ‘communicative force’. It still remains to be seen whether the 169 targets enshrined in the new agenda can form a basis for meaningful public deliberation on global development or whether the comprehensiveness of the SDGs means that the discussions over progress and stagnation are steered towards insular expert forums.

What makes the realisation of the SDGs also challenging is that governments appear to have ‘kicked the can down the road’ on many hard issues during the final stages of the intergovernmental negotiations. While for example the key conference on Financing for Development that took place in Addis Ababa , two months before the New York summit, was hailed by many governments and UN officials as a political success, there have also been plenty of critical voices.  The outcome document of the conference, which is supposed to offer a roadmap for financing the SDGs, may be criticised for lacking  concrete time-bound commitments and for failing to address some key development issues such as global tax reform.

Another important yet unresolved issue is accountability. As accountability was one of the shortfalls of the MDGs, there are reasons to be concerned about the future of the SDGs. Instead of outlining a clear blueprint for a meaningful accountability framework, the agenda identifies only a vague conceptual framework for future negotiations. The agenda commits states to establish a ‘robust, voluntary, effective, participatory, transparent and integrated follow up and review framework’ that focuses on tracking the process for the realisation of the SDGs (Preamble, Paragraph 72).

Linking the future accountability framework closely to human rights treaty bodies and facilitating exchange of information between all monitoring bodies would be a step towards the right direction. However, as the human rights treaty bodies have their own shortfalls in the promotion of accountability and compliance, attention also needs to be paid to the reformation of human rights treaty monitoring. As well, including civil society and National Human Rights Institutions in the oversight of implementation in national contexts is crucial. Finally, to be meaningful and comprehensive the accountability framework needs to extend also to corporations.

As declared in the Preamble, the new agenda is truly ‘a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity’. However, overall the SDGs enshrine an aspirational but vague agenda that can either serve as a driver of global development or be quashed by ‘politics as usual’. Therefore, we are truly facing a historic moment. Whether it will be a historic moment of failure or success remains to be seen in the next 15 years.

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Duncan French says

October 16, 2015

Thanks for this - very interesting.

Another worrying mismatch is between the global ambition of the Global Goals and the increasingly pan-regional / cross-continental approach to trade and investment. How can one square the argument that the best drivers of global development are international trade and foreign investment with recent attempts to circumvent a global approach with such macro-(though ultimately exclusionary) agreements as the now concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the yet to be finalised Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and the EU? For the global South, the value of the World Trade Organization diminishes with each new preferential trade (and investment) agreement they are not party to.