Sustaining the SDGs

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2015 is a crucial year for the global development agenda: in September, world leaders will meet in New York at a UN summit to finalize development goals and benchmarks for the next fifteen years. A United Nations Open Working Group has already come up with a list of 17 sustainable development goals, which will be a focal point of the summit.

Sustainable Development Goals originated in the 2002 Rio+20 summit.  There, participating countries and intergovernmental organizations agreed to set Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 global development agenda, in line with the principles of Agenda 21.  World leaders decided to launch the SDGs in 2015 as it is the 15th year since the announcement of the Millennium Development Goals, meant to eradicate poverty and achieve economic development across the globe.

SDGs are meant to be a step forward from the Millennium Development Goals, though they are not meant to redirect focus from the MDGs.  Fundamentally, sustainable development goals are different from the MDGs, in focus and creation. While the MDGs focus mostly on improvements in productivity, education, and health, the SDGs are broader, striving for environmental sustainability, social inclusion and human rights, all alongside economic development.

The initial list of 17 SDGs is significantly larger than the 8 MDGs, which critics call too narrowly focused.  Another point of criticism is that the MDGs were drafted by a small group of economic experts, who were mostly from the developed world. The SDGs have incorporated many more opinions; the Open Working Group that drafted the SDGs is composed of representatives from 70 countries. Beyond country representations, the SDGs incorporate public opinion from UN surveys. The My World Survey asked people to prioritize the areas they would like to see included in the SDGs, and its results have been incorporated into working group discussions.

The MDGs have served as helpful guiding principles for governments as well as donors and investors working to end poverty.  Policies motivated by the MDGs have achieved groundbreaking results, especially in the efforts to fight malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS.  At the same time, the MDGs failed in important aspects, notably in the lack of coordination between national and international institutions and adapting to national and local contexts.

The Rio+20 outcome document that outlines the SDGs, “The Future We Want” and the long drawn process of finalizing a set of SDGs, suggests that they will overcome many of these shortfalls.  However, the ambitious goals framed under the SDGs and the huge investments required (estimated at $66 billion a year in a social safety net and $7 trillion overall for sustainable infrastructure) will inevitably require greater involvement from businesses and developing country governments. In light of these issues, policymakers must acknowledge and address key themes as they lead the world into its next phase of development.

  1. Reconciling the Global North and the Global South: The rise of emerging economies like India and China challenges the current world order.  The North has become increasingly concerned about the growing solidarity of Southern nations. As just one example, under IMF pressure, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff was forced to acknowledge that her country’s membership of the new BRICS bank in no way indicated possible withdrawal from the IMF.  The Global North needs to recognize and accept the rise of the Global South and find ways to collaborate with the South.  Institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the BRICS bank can provide additional capital to support infrastructure projects in their member countries, supplementing the limited financial resources of the World Bank.  Simultaneously, the Global North must play a key role in providing subsidized low cost technology to developing countries to enable them to reduce their carbon emissions at a minimal cost to their development.
  2. Greater involvement of private and local stakeholders: The March 2002 Monterrey conference stressed the importance of markets in achieving the MDGs and called on governments to support and co-operate with markets in this function.  The SDGs need to build on this principle to achieve better coordination between private and public stakeholders. In many developing countries, the informal economy and the market have stepped in to provide goods and services in the absence of strong formal government structures.  Countries such as China have taken advantage of these informal networks and improved the healthcare system in several African countries by channeling their aid through private channels and targeting locals. Additionally, businesses are taking more responsibility for sustainable development.  At the World Economic Forum in Davos, many CEOs spoke of the need for bold SDGs. More than 1300 companies across the world have signed onto the Principles for Responsible Investment, and stock exchanges in Hong Kong and Johannesburg now require their listed companies to produce regular sustainability reports.  All these trends point favorably to greater partnership among public, private, local and international players working together to actualize the SDGs.
  3. Customization and Specificity:  In the Rio+20 outcome document, the SDGs are described as “universally applicable,” though they take into account “different national realities”.  Adapting SDGs according to local and national contexts will be critical to their success.  While pursuing the MDGs, foreign donors and national governments often adopted a cut and paste approach in their development strategies, failing to adapt the MDGs to the specific context of the country. In the same way, certain SDGs may be more significant for certain countries than others, and so, it is important to prioritize goals for each country and focus on achieving those first. Since there are many more SDGs than MDGs, not prioritizing the SDGs in each country may well lead to the SGDs being nothing more than a hollow promise.


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Rhea Kumar

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