Negotiating a common future - what we have learned from the SDGs

Négocier un avenir commun : ce que nous ont appris les Objectifs de développement durable
Article Index
From MDG to SDG
Interrelated goals
The three dimensions of sustainable development…

In January 2013, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly formed a thirty member Open Working Group (OWG) that was tasked with preparing a proposal on the establishment of a landmark set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In a departure from the way that earlier membership bodies of the General Assembly were organized, the OWG is based on an innovative, constituency-based system of representation. Essentially, this means that several countries share most of the seats in the OWG. To provide a diversity of perspectives and experience, the OWG was expected to develop modalities to ensure the full involvement of relevant stakeholders and expertise from civil society, the scientific community and the UN system (UN-DESA, 2014).

On 10 September 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted the Report of the OWG on SDGs (UN, 2014). This package is far from perfect, for instance, the current draft is not well suited for mass communication. Nonetheless, agreement was reached in some crucial areas: the outcome document proposed 17 goals and 169 targets that covered a broad range of sustainable development issues, such as energy, economic growth, inequality, cities, sustainable consumption and sustainable production. The most important aspect of the SDGs is that they contain the key components of a major transformation. If anything close to these goals can be implemented by 2030, then nothing short of a huge reorganization will have taken place. The transformation potential of the SDG package is so great that many of the countries involved in the negotiations may not even fully comprehend the possible magnitude, which may be similar to that of the industrial or digital revolutions.

This article focuses on the mechanics of the negotiation process that led to the establishment of the SDGs. A number of lessons on trust building, power relations and civil society involvement can be learnt from the experience and these issues are discussed below.

The challenges of (re)building trust among stakeholders

Relatively weak trust existed among some member states at the beginning of the negotiation process. This was understandable as many countries had in mind previous frustrations, such as fights against colonialism and economic struggles with wealthy and powerful nations. Quite simply, a number of developing countries consider OECD countries to be unreliable because, with a few exceptions, they frequently fail to deliver on their promises.

Some developing countries were also very concerned about the inclusion of non-governmental actors, such as civil society and the major groups. The inclusion of these groups in decision-making processes is an alien concept in some countries and therefore the matter of who should be allowed to participate in discussions was the subject of fierce debate.Superimposed on this mistrust was an ideological struggle: a number of states essentially viewed the discussions as an opportunity to register their opposition to capitalism or to take issue with moral and social values that they found unacceptable.

Politics, power relations and economic sticking points

Some countries involved in the SDG negotiation process believe that there will be different world leaders by 2030 and they envisage themselves as being part of this new leadership. For these countries the main question is whether sustainable development can help bring about this transition. The negotiations were about setting the rules of the game for the sustainable development path ahead, so for these countries it was absolutely crucial to see what kind of rules would be in place for a transition they believe to be inevitable.

While the sustainable development negotiations cannot be separated from the political context, they should not be separated from the real economic context either. Changing the development trajectory basically means reshaping markets and reshaping market rules, and this causes anxiety with a number of players, and also enthusiasm from others.

It became apparent during the negotiations that several countries were seeking to change their role and position in the global value chain. Those who were not part of the chain wanted to join it, while others sought to upgrade their positions. These countries saw the negotiations as an opportunity to expand their economies and GDPs and gain better market access. This made some member states anxious about the economic fallout of goal setting, because an improvement for one country's position in the global value chain means taking the place of another.

Another important factor that arose in the negotiations concerned the reduction of the growth of economic and social inequalities. Although all countries agreed on the need to achieve this goal, some considered it as primarily an internal task, while others viewed it as an external one. This made it a controversial issue since there are many devices to reduce internal inequalities, such as taxation systems, laws, social policies and incentives, all of which can be under the control of national governments, but there are fewer available tools to reduce international inequalities, and it is very difficult to make decisions that change the global flow of goods.

Last but not least in relation to the economic context, the negotiations highlighted the need to rethink the roles of governments and markets. To depart from a development mode that uses much more resources than are globally available requires intervention. Markets alone will not suffice. The transition to a sustainable economy will not take place without regulation, taxation, cooperation, different incentives forR&D and different types of investment that are encouraged, and possibly initiated, by governments.

Innovations in the participatory nature of the OWG process

At the beginning of the negotiations the aim was to get everyone into the same room and to assign speaking slots to all those who wanted to participate, including member states, international organizations, major groups, etc. The problem with this approach was that the time constraints of having so many participants in the same session meant that major groups and civil society had very little time to get their messages across. Therefore, groups were invited to attend special dedicated days to enable these important discussions to take place.

The major groups were asked to organize themselves regarding what points they wanted to make during their time slots, to estimate how long this would take and whether or not they had internal agreement on these points. In addition, a website was set up to give everyone the opportunity to contribute at the same level as member states and to share their suggestions and notions with every stakeholder. Also, so-called 'intersessional meetings' were organized for civil society, with the objective of including those who were not represented by the major groups.

With this kind of negotiation process, only a tiny part of the work was done in the negotiating room. Around 80% of meetings and consultations took place in between sessions, with the majority of discussions being bilateral or involving stakeholders other than member states.

The participatory nature of the OWG was not only innovative, but also proved to be a valuable learning experience for the stakeholders. Initially, many groups came to the table with 'silo' (single issue) proposals. This was not a realistic approach as it was impossible to give a significant amount of attention to so many issues. Instead, the groups learned to link their main concerns with other issues, so they could be considered as part of an integrated picture.

Looking ahead to the future

Even though the General Assembly has adopted the OWG's report with its goals and targets, ensuring that it will become a vital part of future negotiations, this in itself will not generate a movement of capital and knowledge. Only national and local plans and projects can achieve this redirection of funds. Banks and institutions will not finance the SDGs; finances and other implementation means will be targeted at actual, tangible projects. On this aspect, there is still much work to be done. The SDGs are in place, but most countries do not have national plans and there is certainly a lack of projects.

The implementation of pilot projects must begin as soon as possible so that time is not lost at this critical juncture; and for this to happen, support mechanisms are required. However, the national and international institutions that will support the transformation towards sustainable development were not expressly created for this function. Instead they were designed for a range of different purposes, typically for a mono-dimensional goal such as fighting Ebola, malaria or HIV, or making sure that every child goes to primary school. While such institutions are engaged in work of the utmost importance, they are not well equipped for complex three-dimensional goals such as the SDGs.

There are three possible scenarios for the difficult negotiation process ahead. The first is that agreement is reached on a genuinely transformative agenda, on strategic work and on the distribution of roles. This optimum scenario would set out a clear process for the future. A second possible scenario is that a written agreement is reached, but one that is not legally binding. This would be insufficient to bring about a change in the development trajectory and thus would be very costly in the long term. A third scenario is that no agreement is reached, an outcome that is certainly possible. And if no agreement can be found on at least some basic elements, then the biggest risk is that the international moderator system will fall apart, and it will be a different world after that.

From MDG to SDG

The SDGs adopted in September 2015 are not only a follow up to the Millennium Development Goals. They open new fields for coordinating the international community and new transformational priorities for states. This figure shows the 17 SDGs that the open working group proposed to UNGA members.
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Interrelated goals

SDGs were not designed as isolated targets but to be mutually supportive. Taking action in one area will have positive repercussions for other objectives, thus supporting a broader overall global transformation.
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The three dimensions of sustainable development and SDGs

The three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, environmental and social) are present to varying degrees in each SDG. However, promoting a three-dimensional approach is indeed a challenge for most national and international bodies, which have generally been designed to meet a mono-dimensional objective, such as education or the fight against Ebola, malaria or HIV.
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