As UN meets, world struggles for soul of new development goals

Wednesday, 25 September 2013 15:05 GMT

A man puts the final touches on an image of Guanabara Bay made of recycled trash, part of an installation by Brazilian plastic artist Vik Muniz, during the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development summit in Rio de Janeiro, June 22, 2012. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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World leaders face a Herculean task in the next two years to distill a global push for social, economic and environmental progress into a short list of targets

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - How do you distill a global push for social, economic and environmental progress into a short, simple list of targets? That is the Herculean task facing world leaders in the next two years, as the 2015 expiry date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) approaches.

With the United Nations General Assembly gathering on Wednesday for a special event on achieving the eight MDGs, the discussions in New York are also chewing over what comes next.

Consultations with citizens around the world – online, on paper and in conversation – reveal that people want good governance, better job opportunities and more equality, as well as traditional development outcomes like decent education and healthcare. But these things are harder to quantify and deliver.

"It's the whole world and it's everything," said Diarmid O'Sullivan, a UK-based campaigner working on governance issues. "If you end up with a document that has just got a long list of abstract nouns in the preamble and not much else, then it's not going to be that much use ... Where is the middle ground between something that's so prescriptive it's unworkable for political reasons and something so vague it's meaningless?"

An open working group (OWG) involving some 70 countries has been tasked with devising a set of "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs) backed by a strategic development vision, which it plans to present to U.N. member states for negotiation in a year's time. Until next February, it will continue gathering evidence and views on issues ranging from employment and transport to conflict prevention and women's empowerment.

Csaba Kőrösi, Hungary's ambassador to the United Nations and co-chair of the OWG, said it had already received suggestions for more than 140 goals, but these would have to be slimmed down.

"Needless to say, not everything can be turned into a goal ... The goals must be quantifiable, measurable, universal and speak to everybody," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York.

Jan Vandemoortele, a former senior U.N. staff member who played a pivotal role in devising the MDGs, warned against focusing too heavily on goals, as is the case now, with aid agencies and others scrambling to get one dedicated to their own pet issue.

"My fear is that if we do that, we will have a very long list, everybody will agree it is a bit too long, and next morning nobody will pay attention to it," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Belgium.

Vandemoortele suggested there should first be international agreement on a broader vision, after which the job of coming up with the post-2015 goals would be entrusted to a panel of globally-respected people from different walks of life, chosen by the U.N. secretary-general.

With the MDGs, a small group of U.N. staff selected 18 targets from the Millennium Declaration adopted at a U.N. summit and grouped them into eight goals, adding 48 indicators for the purpose of global monitoring.


For Vandemoortele, one key debate missing from the post-2015 discussions so far is whether a new set of global goals is even appropriate, given growing pressure for them to be much broader and apply to both rich and poor countries, unlike the MDGs which were limited to developing nations.

The development expert highlighted the difficulty of comparing the quality of governance from one country to another.

"We have to be careful that we are not opening up a subjective interpretation of the goals and the targets, because then it's back to the political arguing and ideology," he said. "We should have something that is rigorous, solid and objective."

O'Sullivan, who works with a group of research and advocacy organisations that back a goal on good governance, said governance should be central to the post-2015 development framework because it's what people want and including it would make development more effective and less susceptible to corruption.

"The way that large institutions work, they way they handle money, the way they handle information, and they way they relate to wider society have to be at the heart of that notion of (sustainable) development," he said.

One approach to the problem of measuring complex concepts like governance – which is gaining acceptance – is to set overall global goals but to allow countries to devise their own national targets and ways of meeting them. O'Sullivan noted that some emerging economies are already moving to make their governments more transparent and accountable, and the SDGs could build on such efforts by including access to information on development spending, for example.   


Other countries do not believe the new goals should promote a model for more sustainable production and consumption, as has been mooted, or incorporate targets that relate to climate change, fearing it could limit their potential for economic growth.

Kőrösi said the concept of "sustainable development" – which has been around since the 1980s – is still misunderstood by some who see it as "a synonym for environmental protection". Rather what it means is that "we have to make sure that all the components that have an impact on our development – social, political, environmental, economic – should be put under one common umbrella", he said.

The ambassador argued against a proposal that has been floated to extend the MDGs and keep them going alongside a new set of SDGs.

"If we have two agendas, it is absolutely illogical ... It would just be a waste of time, and a waste of resources," he said. "Instead we have to make sure that whatever might be left over from the MDGs – because we are not going to fulfill all of them 100 percent – will have to be strongly built into the SDGs."

Confusion seems likely to persist, however, as long as parallel processes for crafting the post-2015 development agenda remain. For now, the work on the SDGs continues alongside a separate track led by U.N. agencies. A high-level panel appointed by the U.N. chief also produced a report containing "illustrative goals" earlier this year.

Vandemoortele called for stronger leadership to keep the quest for a post-2015 development vision on track. He doubted that much clarity would emerge from this week's events in New York, although an outcome document is expected to sketch out the process for coming up with the new goals.

"Maybe this week will serve as a wake-up call to all that it is messy, and we have to take some leadership here, and someone has to take it forward in a clear way," he said.

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