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Opinion

Three Ps for SDGs

Written by Andrew Scott, Research Fellow in the Climate Change, Environment and Forests programme at the Overseas Development Institute.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will eventually succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, are being shaped by three Ps – principle, process and procedure.

The Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs was charged by the Rio+20 Conference to formulate a set of goals that incorporate all three dimensions of sustainable development – the economic, the social and the environmental – in a balanced way. Rio+20 also called for the SDGs to be action-oriented, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.

The principles for the SDGs were by and large set down by Rio+20. The High Level Panel set out its views on principles or values last year, and the views of the OWG are reflected in the Co-Chairs’ session summaries. Universality, equity, CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities), integration and a transformative agenda appear to be the agreed fundamentals (though with various degrees of conviction by different countries). But now, as the OWG begins its final three sessions, it is the other P’s that will have greater influence.

The procedure of the OWG is now following conventional UN practice, each session considering successive draft documents, prepared on behalf of the Co-Chairs by UN officials. The working document for the 11th session, which begins on 5 May, contains 16 focus areas – proto-goals – and 138 suggested targets. Though fewer than in the previous working document (19 focus areas and over 240 target ideas), this is considerably more than the MDGs’ 8 goals and 20 targets, and may or may not meet the request from Rio+20 for a ‘limited number’. But it is work in progress, and the Open Working Group has two more sessions after this one to arrive at a set of goals and targets that is appropriate for an agenda that is broader than the MDGs and, at the same time, provide clear directions for the post-2015 development agenda.

The OWG could reduce the number of goals/ focus areas by clustering development challenges into a single goal, by reformulating goals, or by omitting some of the suggested goals after prioritising further. The last may be the least likely because each element of the working document has its supporters in the OWG, having already been proposed by one or more members. Clustering would risk making the post-2015 development agenda less clear than it could be, while reformulating goals to address wider development challenges, although it lends itself to the iterative procedure, the risk is abstraction to greater levels of vagueness and lower ambition. Though further prioritisation to reach a limited number of goals would provide clear direction for the post-2015 agenda, clustering and reformulating are the more likely approaches to arriving at a limited number of goals.

Several of the target suggestions in the current working document duplicate each other, while others appear to comprise several targets in one. Many are imprecisely worded, making the target itself uncertain. Few targets yet pass Paula Caballero’s M&M test – would the Minister and your mother understand it. So there is plenty scope for the OWG to reduce the number of targets. This can be done by identifying linkages across goals, eliminating duplication, and identifying where there are synergies, as well as by identifying those which are really addressing barriers to poverty eradication and sustainable development. The procedure, however, is focused on revisions to the text.

The third P is the process that the OWG’s report will contribute to. In parallel to the OWG, proposals are being formulated on financing for development and climate change negotiations continue under the UNFCCC. These three tracks are inter-related, and what is debated in one will influence the debate in the others. The inter-relationships may also influence the progress of each track and when agreement in each might be reached. Member states are aware of the connections and could prefer to postpone reaching conclusions until the last moment, keeping exploiting the inter-relationships to keep options open for as long as possible. This means that the OWG’s proposals will be a milestone in the process and not the final word, leaving negotiations in 2015 to further refine the framework of goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda.

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January 1st, 2016

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