26.06.2014 | Third World Network

SDGs: The disappearing act of the “inequality” goal

By Ranja Sengupta

A stand-alone goal on addressing inequality continues to see a serious divide between developing and developed countries. Member States in the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals that is meeting at its 12th session on 16-20 June in New York are negotiating a set of goals and targets based on a “zero draft” prepared by the OWG Co-Chairs Ambassadors Macharia Kamau (Kenya) and Csaba Korosi (Hungary).  They met in “informal-informals” mode on 9-11 June with intense work on the first seven proposed goals as the July deadline for the OWG’s work draws closer.

After several OWG sessions where developing countries have been pressing for a specific goal related to inequality, especially inequalities between countries, this was included in the zero draft that was circulated by the Co-Chairs and posted on the UN website on 2 June. In the letter accompanying the zero draft, the Co-Chairs stated:

“As we promised at the close of the last session of the OWG, we are now pleased to share with you the “zero draft” of goals and targets, in preparation for the next session to be held in June. As indicated during in the previous session, we have included in this draft a proposed focus area to ‘reduce inequality within and among countries’, bringing the total number of focus areas to 17.”

(Before the zero draft, the Co-Chairs had prepared a “focus areas” document reflecting their sense of the Member States’ inputs to the formulation of sustainable development goals, and this document was refined with further inputs at subsequent OWG deliberations. The zero draft has evolved from that.)

A twist came with the unofficial release of a new set of goals that was also proposed by the Co-Chairs on 16 June. These include 15 goals instead of the 17 of the zero draft. The reduction in number came from the merging of Goal 1 on poverty eradication and Goal 2 on inequality. The combined goal 1 now reads: “End poverty and reduce inequality in all their dimensions everywhere”.

The other merger happened between Goal 12 on Sustainable Consumption and Production and the Goal 13 on Climate Change. The proposed new goal (now numbered 11) was titled: “Promote sustainable consumption and production and actions to address climate change”.

This re-disappearance of the stand alone inequality goal has assumed significance given the clear divide between developed and developing countries on its inclusion and the repeated disappearance act of the goal indicates the flexing of muscles in the OWG landscape, according to an observer. The Co-Chairs’ 2 June zero draft was seen as a significant development with its inclusion of the goal on inequality. This crucial issue was dropped from the April version of the focus areas document earlier prepared by the Co-Chairs, and restored back as Goal 10 in the zero draft. Goal 10 was titled “Reduce inequality within and among countries” and included both within country and between country inequalities.

This restoration of inequality as a stand-alone goal in the zero draft had come as a result of repeated interventions of the developing countries, in particular the Group of 77 and China, as well as other countries, which had expressed gross dissatisfaction that it had been dropped earlier. The developing countries have insisted that inequalities between countries have been a major driver of inequalities globally and historically and must be included as a stand-alone goal among the SDGs. This is also in keeping with the principle of universality that is part of the terms of reference of the OWG from the Rio+20 Outcome Document, “The Future We want.” This means that both developed and developing countries have to undertake commitments across the goals but based on their national circumstances. Targets on “within country” inequalities tend to put a disproportionate burden on developing countries, according to the G77 and China, whereas “between country” inequalities will assign due responsibilities to developed countries as well. In spite of rather weak language on between country inequalities in the zero draft, its re-installment had signaled an openness to engage with complex and difficult issues that matter critically for sustainable development.

During the informal discussions so far this week, it is clear that the issue of inequality continues to remain an area of clear divide. Developing countries are arguing for the stand-alone goal on inequality. Several developed countries have argued quite the opposite with many of them stopping short of saying they do not want a stand-alone goal, though they suggested moving each and every target out of the inequality goal and placing them under other goals. The future of the stand-alone goal thus remains uncertain in spite of strong interventions by CSOs to retain it. Several civil society presentations to the Co-Chairs during the morning interactive sessions have suggested that a stand-alone goal on inequality be retained in addition to referring to inequality in the goal on poverty. (It is the practice of the OWG Co-Chairs to meet regularly with CSOs attending the OWG sessions in what are called “interactive sessions”.)

The other merger proposed by the Co-Chairs did not find much enthusiasm either. Ambassador Kamau of Kenya clearly admitted that there was no acceptance by Member States. In looking at climate change, which is a again a much debated area in terms of its stand-alone existence, he outlined 3 options before the Member States. The first was to keep a stand-alone goal, the second was to drop it and mainstream it across the other goals, and the third was to keep it but after merging with other goals. Since the sustainable consumption and production merger was rejected, other combinations (such as with energy) were floated. But from the informal discussions, there was not much headway on this.

CSO participation at the OWG “informal-informals”

The current OWG session also had its share of undue excitement on the first day over the presence of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the informal-informals.

The June session of the OWG saw the beginning of the “informal-informals” as Member States moved closer to the deadline for the completion of the work of the Working Group. The informals were launched mainly at the behest of the developing countries which sought line-by-line discussions on the proposed sustainable development goals that thus required extra meeting time in addition to the agreed formal sessions. The previous OWG session in May agreed to schedule informal-informals before the final two sessions in June and July. (The final formal session of the OWG will be on 14-18 July, with 5 days of informal-informals preceding that session.)

The 12th session of the OWG on 16-20June was preceded by 3 days of hectic informal negotiations on 9-11 June where Members discussed Goals 1-7 based on the zero draft released by the Co-Chairs on 2 June.

When the formal session opened on 16 June, the Co-Chairs proposed extending the informal-informals to go through the rest of the 17 goals. While there was some difference of opinion on this, the procedure was adopted by the Co- Chairs. However, no specific discussion had taken place on civil society participation, and members of CSOs who were present in the room were politely but firmly asked to leave the room as discussions resumed on Goal 8.

Not surprisingly, the CSO representatives, many of whom had spent significant financial resources and time to be present in New York for the OWG-12, united across the Major Groups and other stakeholders to voice their strong opposition to the fact that an officially open process had just become secret without any prior official notification. The CSO representatives presented a letter endorsed by a significant number of global CSOs during their interaction with the Co-Chairs on Tuesday morning, 17 June. The Co-Chairs asserted that in spite of the “confusion” of Monday, the session would be kept open to civil society members who were physically present though the informal talks will not be shown, as is usual, through the live UN webcasting. 

This has been a rather surprising turn of events considering the whole mandate of the OWG comes from the Rio+20 Conference where accredited CSOs were allowed to be present during the informal talks. When this took place in Rio in June 2012, it was lauded as a positive step towards more transparency in UN intergovernmental proceedings. Many Member States had also appreciated the value of CSO inputs that were generated through CSO presence in the informals. 

(Paragraph 248 of the Rio+20 Outcome Document, The Future We Want, states: “We resolve to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on sustainable development goals that is open to all stakeholders, with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the General Assembly. [...]”)

However, after everyone settled down, the ongoing OWG talks in New York resumed with CSO presence though the talks are still informal in nature. The session is now continuing with additional evening meetings from 6-8 pm.

The informal OWG deliberations are supposed to move back to the formal mode on Friday, 20 June.