08.07.2014 | Third World Network

SDGs: Means of implementation in latest ‘zero draft’ fall well below expectations

By Ranja Sengupta and Bhumika Muchhala*

Means of Implementation remains the most fiercely contested issue in the negotiations of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations headquarters in New York. 

With the release of the Co-Chairs’ revised version of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ‘Zero Draft’ on 30 June, the intergovernmental negotiations during the final session of the Open Working Group (OWG) in mid-July becomes even more critical. The OWG Co-Chairs are Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary.

(The 30 June version is available at:

Means of Implementation (MOI), currently under Goal 17, has witnessed a heated battle between the developed and developing countries through the entire course of the twelve OWG sessions that have transpired since March 2013.  In fact MOI was not on the initial agenda when the OWG had its first session to plan out its course of work. This was finally included as a topic for the 6th Session at the insistence of the developing countries.

Developing countries have argued that committing to and achieving the SDGs will be an impossible task without adequate means of implementation and a genuine global partnership for development, in the ethos of an enhanced Goal 8 of the Millennium Development Goals, not partnerships in the plural. MOI must primarily come from the developed countries, the developing countries led by the Group of 77 have insisted. They must include finance and technology but also address global systemic issues such as fair rules of trade and investment, sovereign debt restructuring, financial regulation, intellectual property rights, access to new and additional financing and tax evasion and avoidance, just to name a few.

[Developed countries have also made commitments under numerous United Nations treaties, declarations and programmes to provide financial resources, technology and capacity building.]

The debate over MOI and a global partnership for development has entered a critical stage as the OWG moves towards its concluding session in mid-July. The latest revision of the Zero Draft on SDGs includes goal-specific MOI (i.e. MOI under each Goal) as well as a stand-alone goal on MOI.  Goal 17 is classified under the categories “trade”, “finance”, “technology”, “capacity building”, “policy and institutional coherence”, “multi-stakeholder partnerships”, and “data, monitoring and accountability” with a total of 17 targets covering these areas.

The text released by the Co-Chairs reflects a compromised response to various proposals placed by the Member States during the 12th session of the OWG 16-20 June. That session, which continued in the informal format of its preceding week, saw very clear positions emerging on MOI and global partnership for development as Member States gave their overall as well as target by target positions on Goal 17 based on the first version of the Zero Draft.  Prior to the Session, the G-77 and China group of developing countries had submitted a strong and detailed proposal on MOI in which they had outlined a number of MOI for each goal.

During the course of the OWG the developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have continuously made strong cases for both goal-specific MOI along with a stand-alone goal.  However until the last ‘Focus Areas’ document released by the Chairs before the 11th Session of the OWG in May, goal-specific MOI had not found its place among the SDGs.  As a response, the 2 June version of the Zero Draft included for the first time goal-specific MOI under Goal 17.  However, the stand-alone MOI on systemic issues such as trade and finance was then dropped. 

[Prior to the Zero Draft, the Co-Chairs had produced a Focus Areas document that reflected their sense of the OWG discussions, from which a set of goals was culled for the Zero Draft document for negotiations. This is made available on 2 June.]

This ‘either-or’ approach on MOI was unacceptable to developing countries and LDCs, and thus the Co-Chairs integrated both goal-specific and stand-alone MOI into the zero draft for the first time.  However, both MOI sections are alarmingly weak and insufficient.

[The chapeau of the Zero Draft states that the SDGs “are accompanied by targets and will be further elaborated through indicators focused on measurable outcomes. They are … global in nature and universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. … Targets are defined as global targets, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances.”]


During the 12th OWG session, there was a clear divide among the Member States on these issues in several aspects. According to sources, most of the developed countries seemed to want to shift MOI discussions to other UN fora.  In a classic case of ‘forum-shifting,’ developed countries stated that the Financing for Development Conference is fixed for July 2015 and that the report of the International Committee of Experts on Financing for Sustainable Development (ICEFSD) is due in August of this year, and this is the rationale for their demand that all content related to systemic and financing issues should take place in those arenas, not under the OWG.  Developed countries argued that the SDGs must show respect for other UN intergovernmental processes and must not supercede them. The OWG could be, at best, a forum for re-affirming earlier commitments but not for making new commitments, they suggested.

The developing countries and LDCs, on the other hand, argued that financing-related issues and MOI in general must be resolved in the OWG as they cannot be expected to commit to the SDGs without knowing what means are available for their implementation.  In addition they also argued that given the vast differences in resources available to the developed countries, the North must finance development in the South, especially since the former are historically responsible for much of the underdevelopment in the latter.  Developing countries have since the beginning stated that the MOI are at the center of the SDGs; without them, the goals and targets, no matter how visionary and ambitious, are useless at the operational level.

According to several delegates, repeated requests from the developed countries to defer discussions on MOI to other fora received in fact a gentle chiding from the Co-Chair who said that while the OWG had no intention of preempting the mandate of the ICEFSD the important task of the OWG was to look at MOI in detail, disaggregate them and examine goal-specific as well as stand-alone components. He reminded them that in any case the Committee was expected to wrap up its work by end July.

[The International Committee of Experts on Financing for Sustainable Development was also established by the Rio+20 process and has been having consultations both in New York and in regions since last year. It is expected to submit its Report to the Secretary General in August.]

The question of goal-specific versus the stand-alone goal on MOI was an area of aggressive divide. While the developing countries and LDCs welcomed the inclusion of the goal-specific MOI, the developed countries argued very strongly against it.  According to some negotiators, several proposals were made by developed countries to club together the goal specific components into thematic categories.  Goal 17 of the latest draft seems to be a result of this exercise.

The current structuring of MOI under Goal 17 seems to be a welcome move as there appears to have been a broad consensus between the developing and developed countries on a stand-alone goal on MOI during the 12th OWG session. But the approach differed considerably. While the developed countries saw this as a way to eliminate the goal-specific components, the developing countries felt that only a combination of a stand-alone and goal-specific MOI and on a global partnership for development could address implementation challenges of SDGs. They had argued that a stand-alone goal that reflects especially a global partnership for development and that includes global systemic issues as a whole, was missing in the first Zero Draft of 2 June (though it had included goal-specific MOI). They had also asked that the goal-specific MOI be placed alongside the relevant goal so that each SDG and its implementation instruments are clearly and visibly linked.


However, though the current version of the Zero Draft includes both goal-specific and stand- alone MOI, and places the former under the specific goals (and not clubbed under Goal 17), the actual targets are grossly inadequate to cover the necessary instruments and those that are included are often weak. Most of the MOI proposals of the G-77 and China are missed by a long distance.  If the attempt of the Co-Chairs was to appease both developed and developing countries they have failed as the whole text on MOI has been considerably weakened in this version. Some of these problems are highlighted below. (A more detailed analysis of the targets on MOI and global partnership for development will follow soon.)

While the stand-alone MOI covers quite a few global systemic issues, the specific targets remain weak and are often over-generalized.

For example, on trade, targets 17.22 and 17.23 in the earlier draft (relating to Goal 8 on economic growth and decent work) have been combined under trade in 17.1.  But references to the “development friendly” outcomes of the Doha Development Agenda are now missing. This had meant special and differential treatment for developing countries, a principle which has been challenged repeatedly by developed countries in later talks in all areas mentioned under 17.23.

The new manifestation in MOI 2.b of target 17.7 on hunger, food security and agriculture in the earlier draft, simply states “phase out all forms of agricultural export subsidies”. The references to “reduce distortions in international trade” as well as to the “2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Declaration” are conspicuous in their absence. These were referred to in the G-77 proposal as well. These are crucial components of a fair trade framework for agriculture. For example, distortions in international trade could include addressing the historical inequities in domestic subsidies rules that were unfairly laid down and misused by the developed countries.

The MOI section on finance (targets 17.4 to 17.6) evades almost all of the key areas of international financial and trade architecture and the substantive reforms that have been called for repeatedly by developing countries through the course of the OWG, as well as in various UN resolutions (of the UN General Assembly Second Committee), conference outcomes (Rio+20, Financing for Development, etc.) and intergovernmental processes (ECOSOC, etc.).  Debt resolution mechanisms (including debt restructuring), financial regulation and financial stability, governance reform (including voice and representation in international financial institutions), sharing of risks and returns in public-private partnerships, tax evasion and avoidance, and corporate transfer mispricing are glaringly absent from the finance MOI. 

One of the most regressive alterations is that of the previous language on debt, in target 10.12 in the goal on inequalities among nations: “assist developing countries in attaining long term debt sustainability through coordinated policies aimed at fostering debt financing, debt relief and debt restructuring” has been reduced to simply “assist developing countries in attaining long term debt sustainability.”  Chopping off the measures by which to attain debt sustainability undermines the very point of an MOI on sovereign debt, which is arguably one of the most critical and long-standing systemic problems in the global economy.

The MOI on strengthening domestic resource mobilization in target 17.5 stops at “international support to improve domestic capacity for tax collection” and fails to address the key structural impediments to domestic resource mobilization in developing countries – that of chronic tax evasion and avoidance, including practices such as transfer mispricing by multinational corporations that operate in developing countries.  While mobilizing additional international financial resources from multiple sources is addressed, the critical word “new” is missing.  Financial resources need to be both “new and additional” as committed to by developed countries in order to avert the common trend of fungible donor money (funds being shifted from one category to another).  Global civil society in particular has tracked the phenomenon of fungible donor financing for years, and has stressed that financing for sustainable development should not come out of financing for other areas.

While earlier commitments on official development assistance (ODA) are repeated in target 17.4 (without an increased allotment of GDP) it does not come with a year-based deadline, in the manner that most of the targets are presented.  This consistent practice of attaching deadlines to the targets but not to the MOI demonstrates a lack of urgency ascribed to the MOI compared to the targets.  This will undermine the operational means by which to achieve the targets, thus running the risk of undermining the targets themselves. 

However, there is inclusion of two new MOI targets under Goal 10 that addresses inequality: “10.a: respect the principle of special and differential treatment for least developed countries in relevant international agreements including the World Trade Organization” and “10.b:  direct ODA and encourage financial flows, including foreign direct investment, to states where the need is greatest, in particular LDCs, African countries, SIDS, and LLDCs”. These are positive developments, however they too are not given tangible deadlines.

On technology, the MOI always seems to be limited to environment-friendly technologies and not to socially relevant, or economically productive technologies which are also essential for sustainable development.  The technology discussion so far seems to be largely confined to the environment pillar but not to the economic and social pillars of sustainable development.  Furthermore, technology transfer is never mentioned, as target 17.7 confines itself to “international collaboration and access” and target 17.9 focuses on the Technology Bank and capacity building mechanism for LDCs.  Thankfully however, the latter includes a deadline of 2017. 

On another positive note, target 17.8 mentions the “full use of TRIPS flexibilities,” which is a key demand of all developing countries in the area of technology.  Developing countries’ use of TRIPS flexibilities has also survived in the MOI for the health goal (3.b) on access to vaccines and essential medicines; however, it does not include language on strengthening public sector-led production of vaccines and essential medicines in developing countries, which in the long-term is equally important to the more urgent need for affordable access to life-saving medicines in the short term.

The most serious challenge to Goal 17 comes from the segment on “multi-stakeholder partnerships”. First, this section fails to underpin that the framework of international development cooperation between developed and developing country governments must lie at the heart of the SDGs. Secondly, while this section ignores the specific role of civil society as a development partner, the role of the private sector is highlighted as a key component of partnership, especially under target 17.14. This target specifically mentions initiatives such as GAVI (on vaccines and immunization), SE4All (sustainable energy) as models to be replicated whereas problems related to these are well known. For example GAVI, in spite of some positive aspects, has posed a major challenge to national level low-cost development of vaccines in developing countries. During the 12th OWG session, particular developed countries reportedly mentioned GAVI as a good example to be placed under the Health MOI, and the result has been its elevated inclusion as an exemplary model in a big stand-alone MOI Goal target.

The MOI on multi-stakeholder partnerships also fails to include any language on ex ante assessments, accountability measures, selection criteria of partnerships, or guidelines on reporting by the partnerships to the General Assembly.  Without such critical accountability and transparency measures, multi-stakeholder partnerships are given undue freedom and power, further undermining the role of the state and the sovereignty of UN Member States.

While the “global partnership for sustainable development” that is essentially about inter-state partnership is in the title of Goal 17 it is not substantively addressed in the document.  Far from enhancing MDG Goal 8 into a meaningful pact for global development and progress, the MOI on multi-stakeholder partnerships institutionalizes the private sector into the operational framework for sustainable development without the necessary checks and balances. 

A large swathe of global civil society organizations and networks has been raising public alerts to exactly this occurrence, as recent research and reports have demonstrated the growing role and influence of multinational corporations and philanthropic foundations in the UN.  While there may be positive potential for the participation of the private sector at large, the absence of accountability, transparency and reporting measures is a serious blind spot that can have long-term adverse consequences for countries and communities globally, especially the most vulnerable.

Another critical gap remains the inability to make the MOI time-bound, accountable and monitor-able. Many of the MOI and global partnership for development targets are obviously non-quantifiable thus making them weak and easy to evade. This was clearly one of the largest failures of MDG 8.  But it is also evident that more accountability, measurability and timeliness can be built into these targets. The G-77 and China proposal on MOI included very specific timelines for several targets, and had also attempted to quantify some, but most of that language is not included in this version of the Zero Draft. For example, while the G-77 had clearly suggested timelines for elimination of agricultural export subsidies and transfer of environmentally sound technologies, these timelines are not mentioned in the draft.

Without specific timelines and deadlines, the MOI will be hard to track and easy to ignore.  The actions of implementation then risk being delayed or stalled, at best, and at worst, ignored or flouted. In this case, the entire SDG framework at large will be rendered dysfunctional.  Unless Goal 17 targets and goal specific MOI are made more accountable it is likely that the SDGs will follow the example of the MDGs and end up being a car without fuel and sustainable development will remain as elusive as ever.

(* With inputs from Mirza Alas.)