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Time to Process the New UN Global Goals

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By Fraser Reilly-King

Published: September 28, 2015

This week world leaders will meet in New York to adopt Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda includes a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire this year. Most people might think that this “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” is the major outcome of the past few years. It is. But I would argue that the process is also a major outcome in and of itself. Why?

Good process matters. It can build ownership, garner input and lived experience, including from those most affected, and build on policy and practice.

The United Nations (UN) is conscious of this. In 2012 it initiated a series of more than one hundred national and thematic consultations on the post-2015 agenda. These reached an estimated million people, creating space for interested stakeholders to contribute ideas and proposals.

The My World Survey solicited responses from 7.7 million people on a range of topics. Expert groups were convened on the broad agenda, on financing, and on data, among other things. And the inter-governmental negotiations on both the goals and final agenda opened up new space to a broader range of civil society organizations (CSOs) and other stakeholders.

All of these processes and actors have also framed the ambition of this agenda in important ways, changing the way we talk about development. The High Level Panel of Eminent Persons talked about zero targets (don’t just halve extreme poverty, end it!), about leaving no one behind, and about the need for a data revolution. The UN System Task Team – of 60 UN agencies and international organizations – in Realizing the future we want for all, suggested the need for a more holistic successor framework focused on inclusive social and economic development, environmental sustainability, and peace and security. Governments agreed this would be a universal agenda, applicable to all countries. Civil society pushed for a focus on human rights, equality and equity, inclusion and participation, peace, safety and security, and accountability. Everyone agreed that this needed to be a transformative agenda.

The SDGs also brought together two different, but related streams of work: the 1992 Earth Summit and the 2012 follow-up Conference on Sustainable Development, along with the process to find a successor framework to the MDGs. In the 1990s, Rio triggered a stream of work at the UN focused on environment and development, which ran parallel to the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs and their focus on social and economic development. 2015 presented a real opportunity to merge the two streams and integrate the three pillars of sustainability (society, economics and the environment) into a single framework and a universal set of goals – a remarkable shift towards a truly sustainable agenda.

And so begun the consensus-building process. Through 2013 and 2014, and following up on the outcome of the 2012 Rio Conference, an inter-governmental Open Working Group (OWG) defined a new set 17 negotiated sustainable development goals (SDGs) with 169 targets. Many of them update and reorient the MDGs, building on the experience and lessons of the previous decade; they draw on the inputs and consultations – the key issues that any transformative agenda needs to address; they build a more holistic framework with bridges between the issues, integrating sustainability across the board. Framed around the five Ps of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership, the SDGs constitute an integral part of the inter-governmental negotiated outcome document that will be adopted this week at the Summit, “Transforming Our World.” The latter includes a visionary declaration, details on the means of implementation (the “how”) and a Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (the “who”), and a participatory process for follow-up and review.

Was the process perfect? No. Does the new Transforming Our World agenda include everything we want? No. It is a document of consensus, but perhaps not consent; it falls short in numerous areas where we would have preferred more progress. But it does mark a potentially transformative, far-reaching shift in our way of thinking and how we can approach development in a more integrated and systematic way.

But now we need to shift all of our energy to the implementation of this agenda, and to the follow-up and review of the SDGs. (The Leap Manifesto is a good Canadian articulation of this.)

Why? Because what will really mark the success of this agenda is not the policy and language we have, but the practice and actions that we take. Its success will be marked by the ability and willingness of governments, including any future Canadian government and all of us to match the level of ambition and latent potential of this new agenda with the degree of implementation that it deserves.

Show your commitment Canada. We can #DoBetter2015!

Fraser Reilly-King is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. A longer version of this article first appeared in “Keeping Score – UN Sustainable Development Goals

This is Part 4 in the SDGs Unpacked series. Read Part 1 here.

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