It’s Now or Never For the UN Sustainable Development Goals

This article is published as part of  Fridays With MUNPlanet, and its special series dedicated to world politics. The aim of this series is to bring you the analysis of global affairs by the established and upcoming scholars, decision-makers and policy analysts from various world regions. This week, Sarah Hearn (Center for International Cooperation, NYU) writes  about the three measures that are key to the success of the SDGs: package of global priorities, galvanizing the action, and accountability for progress. The author argues that "Heading in these three directions will require culture change across the UN," and concludes that "Mobilization by civil society and by young people everywhere can ramp up the pressure on the UN to succeed."

After years of extensive negotiations, the UN launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015. They comprise 17 goals and 169 targets for global social, economic and environmental development to 2030.

The framework’s lofty ambitions have important critics. The Economist described the SDGs as so broad and sprawling as to,”…amount to a betrayal of the world's poorest people." And William Easterly recently argued that the grand and voluntary ambitions of […] “the SDGs are as likely to result in progress as beauty pageant contestants' calls for world peace.

So what is next for the SDGs, are there concrete plans for achieving them? The short answer is not yet, but they are sorely needed if the SDGs are to gain traction and credibility. I have argued on MUNPlanet before that translating UN goals into action requires four main elements: (1) finding enough wins for enough constituencies; (2) using the sequencing of negotiations to arrive at a convergence of views and a package of priorities; (3) selling the vision hard at home and around the world, and (4) accountability for implementation.

The SDGs do go a long way to achieving the first criteria. Yes, they’re messy, but everyone wins something from the SDGs. Developing countries were heavily involved in negotiating the SDGs, in stark contrast to the Millennium Development Goals, which were defined by rich countries. The framework is also universal. This is a major paradigm shift in development, from paternalist aid programs to collective responsibilities. And the framework is much more ambitious than the MDGs, aiming to address the causes of poverty, as well as our common human fears and challenges across countries - from climate change, to violence, to access to medicine and technology, to macroeconomic instability and unemployment.

The UN now needs to build on this political consensus to translate the vision into action. The following measures will be crucial:

A package of global priorities for implementation. A Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July 2015 was organized before the launch of the SDGs to elaborate on the means of implementation for the goals. Some important commitments were made: to spending a minimum of $300 per capita on all people on social protection; to channel most aid to the poorest countries; to increase domestic revenues and attract foreign direct investment to developing countries; to create a Technology Facilitation Mechanism; and to tackle illicit financial flows. The latter could save Africa $1 trillion a year, much more than Africa receives in aid. However, no concrete plans or new resources were put on the table, leaving large gaps in aid and finance to the poorest countries. Indeed, aid budgets in Europe are now being cut to subsidize the refugee crisis. And the private sector wasn’t significantly involved in the negotiations, meaning there are few ideas on how to unleash private sector potential.

In the next year, the UN has opportunities to put a package of concrete plans and resources on the table.The UN could helpfully pull together a roadmap for securing international agreement on key areas.For example, in Paris at the COP 21 Climate Summit in December, new resourcesfor development can potentially be raised through global carbon emissions trading agreements. The UN and the OECD can elaborate on mechanisms for international cooperation to stop tax evasion and to stem illicit financial flows. The UN can promote agreements on cutting the costs of sending remittances (which are far larger than aid to developing countries). And it can use the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey in 2016 to secure international commitments to financing crisis and disaster prevention and sustainable recovery.

Selling the vision and galvanizing action. The UN can help everyone to make better use of existing resources and assets through leveraging public and private resources into new global partnerships focused on achieving the SDGs. Although most of the hard work of implementing the SDGs will be done outside the UN, the UN can use its convening power and global communications machine to build the profile of the SDGs, and to pull together private, governmental and civil society actors around new initiatives. Building on the SDGs and Financing for Development agreements, there are some obvious areas for the UN to convene partners where global gaps exist – around technology, around hunger and nutrition, around investment in infrastructure, and around building peaceful and inclusive societies.

Accountability for progress. During the SDGs negotiations, countries put to bed proposals to create a global mutual accountability mechanism for achieving the SDGs, opting instead to argue for domestic accountability between governments and people. The UN is preparing technical advice on indicators and the UN Statistical Commission will agree a final set of indicators for the SDGs in 2016. But this won’t be enough. The world needs a way of knowing if things are improving or not, based on impartial and reliable data. Without this, the SDGs are less likely to be meaningful to all people. After all, how can journalists or politicians comment on the SDGs if they don’t know what the impact is? Mutual accountability and peer review is needed to inspire lesson sharing and better partnerships. The UN should continue to find ways to build mechanisms for peer review and accountability. Perhaps the UN’s Economic and Social Council could be reformed in this direction. It is supposed to be the, “central platform for reflection, debate, and innovative thinking on sustainable development.” It just isn’t right now.

Heading in these three directions will require culture change across the UN. In recent decades, the UN development system has been incentivized by its fundraising efforts to become ever more involved in project delivery. It now needs to set its sights higher on convening the world to make progress. The jury is out on the SDGs, and the UN. Mobilization by civil society and by young people everywhere can ramp up the pressure on the UN to succeed.

Sarah Hearn is Associate Director and Senior Fellow at CIC. She oversees CIC's Global Development program | Twitter: @SarahEHearn

This article was orginally published by Mun:Planet on Monday November 20, 2015

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Nov 30, 2015
Sarah Hearn