19.05.2014 | Third World Network

SDGs - a few steps forward, a few steps backwards

On Friday 9 May, the Co-Chairs of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) produced a narrative ‘chapeau' of two pages that will accompany the framework of the goals, sent to all Member States.
The 11th session of the OWG took place on 5-9 May at the UN headquarters in New York. The Co-Chairs are Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary.
Since the OWG started holding intergovernmental discussions in March 2013, developing countries in the Group of 77 and China (G77) have consistently called for a narrative to accompany the SDG framework.
The specific call was to extract the language of the narrative primarily from the Rio+20 Outcome Document, titled ‘The Future We Want.' This would prevent the risk of opening to re-negotiations the very language and principles that were agreed to less than two years ago in Rio.
Developing countries stressed that the narrative must reflect strong and comprehensive means of implementation, the global partnership for development, and explicit inclusion of the principle on common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.
The draft ‘chapeau' distributed to Member States makes mention of several fundamental concepts, frameworks and principles.
The Rio Declaration is reaffirmed, including Principle 7 on CBDR. The UN Charter, and its international laws and principles, are reaffirmed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to development, the right to food, gender equality, women's empowerment and the overall commitment to just and democratic societies.
According to many key developing countries, the reference to CBDR in the chapeau is positive, but it is not enough. There needs to be clear differentiation between developed and developing countries at the level of goals and targets in the SDG document, which so far has been absent. It is also problematic to merely insert the term "CBDR" into the goals and targets without genuine realisation of the principle in meaning.
Affirmation is provided as to the different approaches, visions, models and tools available to each country, in accordance with its national circumstances and priorities, to achieve sustainable development in its three dimensions
(environment, social and economic).
Although universal applicability of the SDGs is highlighted, a clear differentiation of roles and responsibilities with specific regard to the obligations under the means of implementation is absent from the chapeau.
Instead, mention is made as to how the SDG targets and indicators will take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development with respect to national policies and priorities. This is not the same as differentiation. Roles and responsibilities denote actual commitments and actions, whereas merely "taking into account" and "respecting" do not refer to differentiation of deliverables.
The only mention made of means of implementation (the most fundamental aspect of the SDGs to developing countries) is that of additional resources and the need for significant mobilisation of resources from a variety of sources. The agreed established language on means of implementation encompasses new and additional financial resources, technological development and transfer, and capacity-building.
Although the commitment to international cooperation is reaffirmed, it is not framed within the established multilateral context of cooperation between sovereign states. Instead, international cooperation is couched within a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and the private sector.
This explicit re-framing of international cooperation should raise alarm bells, as the global partnership for development, reflected in Goal 8 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), has been distorted into partnerships in the plural. This has paved the way for corporate-led or corporate-dominated initiatives, undermining the imperative of multilateral cooperation between states.
Adequate references are made to reaffirming commitments from international conferences and outcome documents, including the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, among others.
The Monterrey Consensus of the International Conference on Financing for Development and the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development are highlighted as indispensable for achieving the full and effective translation of sustainable development commitments into tangible sustainable development outcomes.
Equity and inclusivity are highlighted in the chapeau, as is the recognition that poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development.

At the conclusion of the 11th OWG session, Co-Chair Ambassador Kamau announced several key decisions on both content and process.
On process, he will open the first informal consultations with all Member States, to be held on 9-11 June, preceding the 12th session of the OWG, which will be held on16-20 June.
This marks the first time the OWG will meet on an informal basis, where all UN Member States can engage in candid and thorough discussions on specific issues in the SDG document prepared by the Co-Chairs. A second week of informal consultations will take place before the final scheduled OWG session in July.
This shift was a direct and positive response to the G77 Chair, Bolivia, who had at the outset of the 11th session called for a more direct method of deliberation in which all Member States, not only those of the OWG, can interact and discuss more thoroughly to improve the content of the draft report for SDGs.
The Group stressed that shifting the process toward informal negotiations would ensure a Member State-driven process.
[The Rio+20 Outcome Document mandated the OWG's establishment and restricted its membership to 30 countries. Due to the overwhelming interest of Member States, it was finally agreed that some seats will be represented by two or three countries, usually with these countries coming from the same region. There are thus 70 members in total, with some countries taking turns to be in the official 30 seats.
[In the inaugural session of the OWG on 14-15 March 2013, all UN Member States were invited to attend and this continues to be the procedure. The informal consultations will provide opportunities to all Member States to voice their views and provide inputs.]
Ambassador Kamau also stated that addressing inequality will be reinstated as a stand-alone SDG goal.
Inequality was a stand-alone goal in the second version of the SDG document, but in the third version it was removed and inserted as a secondary aspect within the targets of two other goals, i. e. poverty eradication and industrialisation. Many Member States, including the G77 and China, protested against this alteration.
However, the 16th goal of "peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law and capable institutions" will be maintained due to the sharp split among member states.
Many developing countries are against the inclusion of this goal area in the SDG document, stating a multitude of concerns, including that this theme shifts the focus of the SDGs away from the three dimensions of sustainable development, and includes security issues that are under the purview of the Security Council.
Developing countries have called for moving certain elements under this 16th goal to other goals; and those elements that cannot be relocated should be integrated into the narrative of the chapeau document.
Brazil, in particular, has stressed that this area of peace and rule of law includes a conceptual confusion between violence and conflict. Specifically, there is a prevailing notion that violence and organised crime should be singled out as important impediments to development, and that they are a problem only in developing countries.
Furthermore, rule of law should be an enabler to sustainable development, not an objective per se. Difficulties are also perceived in measuring the targets and defining the standards under this goal area, particularly in terms of what is the ‘right,' ‘correct' or ‘ideal' model of rule of law that could represent a yardstick for all countries.
Climate change is another contentious area of the SDG document.
Ambassador Kamau stated that due to the house (OWG) being split again, the goal on climate change will be retained, at least for the time being.
However, he acknowledged that a deeper conversation on this complex topic is still pending, as both sides of the fence are emphatic about either maintaining or removing climate change as a goal area. He noted that in response to the strong requests of developing countries, there will be a proactive attempt to streamline climate change into other goals in a manner that is acceptable.
Many developing countries have repeatedly argued that climate change should not be a focus area; it should be substantively integrated into all the other goal areas. In the 10th OWG session, developing countries stated that the SDGs cannot pre-empt or prejudge the outcomes of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
As such, the SDGs must adhere to the principles and provisions of the UNFCCC, in particular the principles of equity and CBDR, and ensure that the on-going discussions under the UNFCCC are not prejudiced or prejudged. The risk of including climate change as a goal is that it may unduly interfere with an on-going negotiating process that is extraneous to the SDG process.
On the crux of the SDG document, which is the area of the means of implementation (MoI), Ambassador Kamau said that there are a lot of good conversations and ideas that are emerging, and yet there is a lack of clarity and a lack of direction, especially in consistency. He said that there is a huge wave of ideas rather than clear direction, and thus the consolidation of MoI will require a lot more work from Member States.
It was also stated that the most complex part of the SDG document is that of the targets. Currently, there are about 149-150 targets, and the way the negotiations are proceeding there are going to be many more targets, precisely because Member States have expressed very direct terms on what MoI they seek.
Due to this, the scope of the SDG targets will be expanded, in that there will be additional space created to accommodate the targets specified by various Member States. The various language that has been proposed will be reflected, he said, so that all Member States can get a sense that there is inclusion of their specific demands.
This implies the danger of an incoherent SDG document and framework, one that contains all the shades in-between.
This may enable development agencies, international financial institutions and donors on the one hand, and national governments and multilateral processes on the other hand, to selectively choose which targets and points to address and prioritise in their dealings.
One key concern of some observers is that the SDG targets may contradict each other, especially if universality is not made a priority and developing country actions without adequate MoI from developed countries biases the SDGs.

At the outset of the 11th OWG session, the largest group of developing countries in the General Assembly addressed a number of concerns. Their most urgent priority was to stress that the notion of differentiation is absent from the SDG document.
They argue that it is necessary to reflect the different capacities, development stages and circumstances of Member States. It is also of crucial importance that developed countries take the lead in sustainable development and in particular, sustainable consumption and production, while also supporting developing countries in achieving both economic growth and sustainable development.
As such, the G77 and China underscored that a truly universal agenda requires tangible deliverables and commitments for developed countries at the forefront.
They highlighted that the CBDR principle does not appear in any of the 16 goals of the SDG document, which is mandated by UN convention to follow the outcome of the Rio+20 Outcome Document, which reaffirms at the outset the CBDR principle.