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altPost-2015: Arriving or Departing?

(Some of the tables in this document may be hard to read. I have posted a pdf of the document here)

When the Open Working Group on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals finally agreed its final report on Saturday, 19 July, it probably felt like an arrival. For many outside the room, however, it feels more like a point of departure, the beginning of the negotiation that will culminate in September 2015, with a General Assembly Resolution to cement into place a post-2015 framework.

My view is that progress has been made, but that there are too many goals, a ragbag of targets, and work still to do on ‘means of implementation’ and climate change. It is true that the best may be the enemy of the good. However, there is surely scope to rationalise, simplify and strengthen in the year remaining to the process.

It is easy to see why the OWG might think of its report as the final word on the subject. There has been an extraordinary process of dialogue and debate, supported by wide public consultation and a plethora of think-tank and NGONon-governmental organisation initiatives. No-one can complain that they have not been heard. There has also been an intensive effort to craft structure and language that takes all interests into account. Surely, the result cannot be bettered? The OWG has fulfilled its mandate of being universal in coverage and combining development and environment goals. It has produced innovative thinking on new topics, like inequality. It has finessed the awkward issue of climate change, which has its own negotiating forum. It has produced a document with a substantive preamble. It has offered up seventeen goals and nearly 170 targets or proto-targets. Can there possibly be more to do?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question appears to be ‘yes’, for four reasons. First, there is work still to do on some of the goals and targets, which are either imprecise or unrealistically ambitious. Second, the sheer number of goals and targets is intimidating and probably unmanageable. Third, there are big unanswered questions about feasibility, related to the ongoing debate about ‘means of implementation’. And finally, the whole package needs a communications make-over, to simplify the language and make it more appealing.

But there’s a year to go, so that’s all right. There is time to make improvements. The next steps are that

  • The General Assembly will receive the report in September, have an initial discussion and agree next steps.
  • The Secretary General will write a report.
  • Negotiations will begin from January.
  • There will be the Sendai meeting on disaster risk reduction in March 2015.
  • The Finance for Development meeting will take place in Addis Ababa in July 2015.
  • All will come together at the 2015 General Assembly.
  • And at the Paris climate talks in November/December 2015.

The Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing is also due to report somewhere along the way.

What improvements should be made? There are many clues in the earlier debates about the report of the High Level Panel, on which I commented here, and about the Secretary General’s Report, which informed the Special Event in New York in  September 2013, on which I commented here. Why, it’s such a pleasure re-reading one’s own earlier pieces! I haven’t even mentioned this one, mapping the territory in 2012, this one, commenting on the EU’s position in February 2013, or this one, reporting discussion on post-2015 at the European Development Days in November 2013. And if you are really keen, try my ‘mildly sceptical but resolutely pragmatic’ piece on the international development targets, from 1998, or Heaven or Hubris, from 2003. Let me pick up three issues.

Goal inflation

First, the definition of goals. Table 1 below tabulates the goals proposed by the High-Level Panel, by the Secretary General and by the Open Working Group. We can immediately see that we have gone in just over a year from 12 goals to 15 and now 17 – and from 79 words to 94 to 224! Is that progress?

Table 1




I was interested to know about the degree of overlap between the three statements of goals, and I began by drawing connecting lines (Table 2). That was too complicated, so instead I re-tabulated the goals, placing the OWG on the left, so that their provenance can be traced more easily (Table 3). Sharp observers will note that I have had to re-order the goals a little.

Table 2


Table 3


There is a high degree of consistency between the three versions. Of the 17 targets in the OWG report, 8 appear in all three versions with wording only slightly adapted. These are:

  • Poverty
  • Hunger
  • Health
  • Education
  • Gender
  • Growth
  • Good governance
  • A global enabling environment

Of the remaining nine goals, three represent an expansion of the commitment to the environment, two (water and energy) appear in the HLP report but not the SG report, three (inequality, urbanisation and climate change) appear in the SG report but not the HLP. The final goal, on infrastructure and industrialisation, I’ve lumped in with growth.

There are two orphan goals which appear in the SG report but which have not made it into the OWG goals. These are migration and demography.

Now, I’ve plodded through all this because I want to make the point, not for the first time (see especially my review of the HLP), that the authors of all these documents seem to me to have struggled with the difference between ends and means, or intrinsic and instrumental goods. For example, I can perfectly well accept that the elimination of poverty, hunger, ill-health, and ignorance are intrinsic components of human development, and that full and fair citizenship for all, as well as a sustainable environment, should be at the same level. However, it seems to me that growth, industrialisation, energy, infrastructure, cities, trade regimes and finance are means to the overall goals, not ends in their own right.

It follows that the OWG has made the post-2015 framework far too complicated and difficult. Major simplification should be possible, and this would make communication far easier. In the previous paragraph I have the goals down to six. Sorted. And if anyone wants to add, they should explain why the item is an intrinsic good in its own right, rather than a contributing factor.

A ragbag of targets

Having dealt with the goals, the second task is to examine the targets. I am not going to comment in detail on 170 targets, but there are six general points.

First, just to note that if the goals were simplified, then there would be implications for the targets. Some goal items would move down the list to become targets. But if the goals need to be simplified, so do the targets. Say there were a maximum of 20 or 30, rather than the current 170.

Second, the level of ambition is high, which is good. Thinking about zero poverty has informed the drafting of poverty and other human development targets. There are ambitious targets on topics like social protection, health epidemic diseases, secondary and tertiary education, water, sanitation, and gender equality. It is also good that the governance and rights targets have remained in the document.

On the other hand, and third, some of the targets look unrealistic. Do the authors really think it will be possible, by 2020, ‘to restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes’? Or, by 2020, ‘end overfishing’? Or, by 2030, ‘achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men’? And how about the very high targets for growth (sustained 7% p.a. for LDCs) and inequality (sustained income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average). Some of this is very demanding from an economic perspective, and some of it makes what must be unrealistic demands on institutional capacity, nationally and globally.

Fourth, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the targets cover a ragbag of issues at different levels of generality and importance. Does the world really need a target on sustainable tourism, for example, or a long paragraph (4.7) which specifies what should be in a sustainable development curriculum? Perhaps it does not matter if everyone’s pet issue is mentioned. But in that case, I have several pet issues of my own. For example, can we have a target on corporate social responsibility?

Fifth, notwithstanding all the above, there is an important clause in the preamble which says that ‘targets are defined as aspirational global targets, with each government setting its own national targets, guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances’. How much wriggle room, I wonder, do countries think that gives them?

Finally, I am concerned by the overall cost and impact of meeting all these 170 targets at once. Are there no priorities, no trade-offs? In particular, but I’ll come back to that, what happens with respect to climate change could act as a great disruptor. It would be really useful, before the goals and targets are finalised, to test their feasibility in a few countries, with different income levels and prospects. Obviously, feasibility depends in part on the global enabling environment and on finance, but that is a topic worth discussion in its own right.

Means of implementation: unfinished business

Let us turn, then, to ‘means of implementation’. This is goal 17, which has 19 targets, but also, among others, targets 1a (on finance for poverty reduction), 2b and 2c (trade restrictions and distortions in agricultural markets), 3c (health financing), 7a (international cooperation on energy), 8a (aid for trade), 10.5 (regulation of global financial markets), 10.6 (representation of developing countries in global governance), 10.7 (migration), 10a (trade), 10b (ODA), 11.c (support to LDC for resilient buildings), 12a (technology transfer), 12c (fossil fuel subsidies), 13a (climate finance), 14c (law of the sea), and 15a and b (financing biodiversity and forests).

Actually, quite a few of the items not under Goal 17 are repeated therein, so cutting repetition is one obvious route to simplification. Still and all, there is a great deal asked of developed countries in this document. If I were such a country, I would want to cut and paste all these targets into a single document, and ask just what I was letting myself in for! The same probably applies to BRICs and other emerging powers.

Putting aside the fact that the pudding is over-egged, the document is right to emphasise the important role played by the global financial, trading and regulatory environment in shaping national development outcomes. I have argued before that these are the Goldilocks issues, where progress can and needs to be made. We could probably add to the list (which is why it is important to take some things away): for example international peace-making and peace-keeping are not mentioned, and there is no mention of financial shock facilities. Is the arms trade mentioned? Is global tax regulation? It would be useful to cross-check the coverage here with the G8Group of Eight and G20 agendas, and with initiatives like the EU’s work on policy coherence.

As with the other goals and targets, some of the language seems over-optimistic. Do we really still hope to have a deal on the Doha trade agenda? Also, some of the language is unspecific. For example, what is meant by regulating financial markets? Probably there are very different views on what that means!

The availability of finance is obviously a key element of the international system. There is a call here for developed countries to meet their commitment to 0.7. Good luck with that. It is notable that there is no call for emerging countries and non-traditional donors to step up their aid efforts. Nor is there any mention of innovative finance, or the role of the private sector. I would probably have mentioned all these topics, and also have added something about predictability to the paragraphs on finance. I would also have tried to be explicit about the relationship between climate and other finance. It is notable that the phrase ‘new and additional has disappeared from para 13a, which covers climate finance.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Poverty and Sustainable Development, of which I was a member, published a report earlier this year on Paying for Zero. It covered most of the above, and concluded with 17 principles, covering: the level of ambition; the role of oda; private sector investment and responsibility; and the links to climate finance. Highlly recommended!

There are also repeated calls in the OWG document for special treatment of least developed countries, which is probably fine in principle, though it is a classification I don’t much like, since the group is heterogeneous and contains many middle income countries who may not need external finance. What is remarkable is that the document fails to acknowledge the different financing needs of different countries, and particularly the likelihood (and, let’s be honest, desirability) of donors focusing aid on the poorest countries and phasing out aid to middle income countries. This is a policy that the EUEuropean Union calls ‘differentiation’.

No doubt, the finance issues will receive much more detailed treatment from the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, and at the Addis Ababa Financing for Development meeting next July.

In general, however, it seems to me that the whole topic of means of implementation needs greater clarity and more discussion. It is a weakness of the current MDG framework that Goal 8 is poorly specified. It would be a pity if this error were to be repeated. Should there be a separate process to improve the text?

Wanted: a more systematic approach to climate change

I turn finally to climate change. It has always been an awkward fact that the climate talks and the post-2015 talks are on separate tracks, with the climate talks coming to a conclusion after the post-2015 process. This is because what happens at the Paris climate talks will have a significant effect on the feasibility of delivering the post-2015 goals and targets. In the worst case, there will be only a weak deal in Paris, the climate will deteriorate further and more money will have to be spent on adaptation and disaster relief. That is likely to leave fewer resources available for health and education. In the best case, the reverse might be true, for example with lower fossil fuel subsidies releasing funds for renewable energy.

The OWG document is careful not to second guess the UNFCCC .However, it contains repeated references to climate change and to the policies needed to deal with it. Thus,

  • Paragraph 8 of the preamble specifically references to the ‘global nature of climate change’ and calls for ‘the widest possible collaboration by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response’. It also cites the UNFCCC has recognising that countries have ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (which is not quite the same, I note, as making that statement a self-standing commitment by the OWG).
  • Goal 7 and its five targets deal with energy and reference the need for sustainability and the need to increase the share of renewables.
  • Goal 8 on growth refers to the need for sustainable consumption and production.
  • Goal 9, on infrastructure and industrialisation, refers to the need for infrastructure to be resilient.
  • Goal 11 deals with the need for cities and human settlements to be resilient, and has a target (11.5) relating to reduced losses from disasters.
  • Goal 12 deal with sustainable consumption and production and has a target on fuels subsidies.
  • Goal 13 is a climate change goal, acknowledging the work of the UNFCCC and proposing targets on national planning, education and finance.

The strategy seems to be to make only general statements on climate change per se, but focus instead on practical measures at sector level, especially energy, water and infrastructure. If that is the strategy, it does not seem to have been applied very systematically. For example, I would have expected to see significant references to resilience in the agriculture section, and to the impact of extreme weather events (including heat stress) in the health section. I would also have wanted to see more on the transformative impact of climate change in the sections on all productive sectors, including those dealing with agriculture, growth and industrialisation.

There is no shortage of work on climate change to suggest it will be a game-changer in the world economy. Our work in CDKN on climate compatible development points not just to mitigation and adaptation at national or local level, but also to major changes in prices and the structure and geographic location of global production. There is a job to be done, I would say, in working through the linkages between post-2015 and climate. This is a task to which CDKN has already made contributions, and will contribute further. There have been or will shortly be workshops in Asia, Africa and Latin America.


It is important to recognise that the best may be the enemy of the good with respect to post-2015. If I can write 3000 words, as I seem to have done, picking holes in the OWG Report, and making new suggestions, then so can many, many others. The point remains, however, that we all want the post-2015 framework to be as strong as possible, and to have the same impact as the original Millennium Declaration and Statement of MDGs. For that reason, my conclusion is that it is right to think of the OWG report as signalling a departure rather than an arrival. The next year looks like being a bumpy but potentially exhilarating ride.




# Ethics and the SDGs?Phil Vernon 2014-09-08 09:19
Very useful comments Simon, thanks. Bouncing off this, I attempt a cod-ethical look at a strategic approach to the SDGs in
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