UN Sustainable Development Goals: Many, messy, momentous?

This interview/article was originally published by Deutsche Welle on September 24, 2015

It is one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders in years - and yet there was no doubt about who was the star of the show. Pope Francis , fresh from bringing US Speaker of the House John Boehner to tears in his address to Congress, stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and his message was no less momentous.

"Any harm done to the environment," the pope said, "is harm done to humanity." This was one of many points that chimed with the central idea of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the leaders had gathered to enshrine - that the continued development of the human race and the protection of the environment must go hand in hand.

Tony Pipa, who led negotiations of the SDGs and the "2030 Agenda" they comprise for the United States, told DW it was crucial to keep both poverty and the environment in mind.

"It's not good enough to make progress on ending extreme poverty if we're doing it at the expense of environmental sustainability," he said.

It is one of several shifts in emphasis from the Millennium Development Goals, which the SDGs will replace. But the greatest of all is the sheer profusion of objectives that the international community has decided to set for itself.Replacing the eight Millennium Development Goals are 17 SDGs and no fewer than 169 subordinate targets. While the Millennium Goals focused on familiar development challenges such as poverty, hunger, infectious diseases and gender equality, the SDG's take those goals into account as part of a broader sweep that includes building "resilient infrastructure" to "promoting peaceful and inclusive societies."

While just one Millennium Goal was related to the environment, four of the SDGs do so directly and many others have environmental aspects.

There is a simple reason why there are so many SDGs: all 193 member states had a hand in their selection.

"It's the result of years of work," Pipa told DW. "President (Ellen Johnson) Sirleaf from Liberia just called it the most consultative process in history - certainly it's been a very open, inclusive, transparent process."

Too many cooks?

Critics have said that process has gone too far, producing a laundry list that - while laudable - may serve to distract from the highest priorities of poverty and hunger and enable governments to pick and choose the goals they find easy to pursue.

Development expert Sarah Hearn of New York University's Center on International Cooperation acknowledged that concern.

"I think that's a huge risk," she told DW. "The fact that the framework is voluntary now means that we could just unravel into lots of individual piecemeal bits of action that don't add up to anything.

"Technically, the UN could have produced a much stronger document," Hearn added. "But the problem with that is that all countries wouldn't have owned it."

However messy the outcome, Hearn said, this sense of ownership is an important leap from the Millennium Goals, which were seen as a Western decree aimed at the developing world.

"This is an emancipating moment" for developing countries, Hearn said, crediting them with securing some of the more controversial goals.

"Countries like China and Russia did not want rule of law and justice and anti-corruption in this agenda but it's there - because various developing countries fought for it to be there."

Migration crisis

Hearn said that for all its breadth, the 2030 Agenda actually sidesteps one of the greatest problems facing the international community: a refugee crisis more intense than at any time since the World War II.

The refugee crisis was the centerpiece of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech to the Sustainable Development Summit - reflecting the urgency of the issue in Germany and Merkel's decision to make it a signature personal issue.

But rather than lamenting the issue's absence from the 2030 Agenda, she argued that the SDGs would help prevent the refugee crises of the future.

"We have to tackle the reasons why people flee and are driven from their homes," she said. "Our 2030 Agenda provides exactly the right framework."

It was seen in part as a message to the public at home - where some are concerned that Merkel's government has been quick to accept refugees but slow to confront the long-term consequences.

Hearn agreed with Merkel that the 2030 Agenda has the potential to help in the long run. But she said she is not as ready to accentuate the positive.

"It is a deficit in the framework that there was no reference to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis around the world," she said. With tens of millions of people displaced from home for prolonged periods, "The humanitarian system is breaking."

"We are extending a lifeline to people who are becoming dependent on the humanitarian system - they can't work, they don't have livelihoods, they don't have education," she added. "It's totally irrational."

Reforming the humanitarian system will be the subject of another big UN meeting next May, when the first World Humanitarian Summit will be held in Istanbul - a fitting location given Turkey's position on the front line of the Syrian refugee crisis.

By then, the 2030 Agenda will be in its implementation phase - something all agree will be crucial. Tony Pipa said he is hopeful, "I think this is an incredibly optimistic moment… The important thing is to make sure that as we pivot to implementation, that we build on that - that we do it concretely and practically and seriously."

The coming months will be key, as the indicators that will measure progress are thrashed out.

Hearn said she is concerned about this part of the process: "I think the UN isn't there - it has a lot of work to do," she told DW. And looking ahead, she said opportunities for member states to backslide will abound, such as rich countries on sustainable consumption and poor countries on access to justice.

Hearn would prefer to see the whole 2030 Agenda monitored independently.

"I was disappointed - many countries pushed back on the idea of a body that would hold governments to account for making progress. I think that would have driven a lot of energy and momentum into the goals," she said.

As Pope Francis himself said in his UN speech, "Solemn commitments… are not enough… We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges."

Vertical Tabs

Sep 26, 2015
Richard Walker, Sarah Hearn