UN Group Chairs Outline Priorities for Sustainable Development Goals

27 February 2014

The co-chairs of a UN group tasked with drafting a blueprint for sustainable development goals (SDGs) released a list of 19 focus areas on Friday, following a year of discussions. The effort is part of a broader process to develop a post-2015 development agenda that would replace the current Millennium Development Goals, which are soon set to expire.

The plan to develop a set of SDGs - stemming from an initiative originally tabled by Colombia and Guatemala ­- was a key result of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Discussions in this area have since been held under the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals, which was established in January 2013 by the UN General Assembly.

For the working group, UN member states decided to use a constituency-based system of representation, meaning that most of the seats in the group are shared. In order to remain inclusive, the group was instructed to develop modalities to engage stakeholders, civil society, and the scientific community.

An accompanying letter penned by OWG Co-chairs Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya, and Csaba Kőrösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary, indicates that these 19 focus areas represent a summary of input provided by member states and stakeholders during the group's eight thematic discussion sessions.

The duo also suggests that poverty eradication, inequitable international development, and environmental protection "were among the most pressing sustainable development challenges facing humankind this century."

"It is our view that the international community could realise greater impacts of the much sought transformative change if further actions are taken in these focus areas of sustainable development. This is necessary to build prosperous, peaceful and resilient societies that also protect the planet," their letter read.

Not a zero draft

Each of the 19 focus areas in Friday's report highlights the inter-linkages to other issues, in accordance with the internationally agreed-upon objective to create a set of universal development goals that integrate and balance environmental, social, and economic concerns.

The co-chairs' letter emphasises that these focus areas do not constitute a "zero draft" or a first working version, indicating that the topics included were not "exhaustive." Given the international community's intention to have a limited set of goals, experts suggest the 19 areas will presumably need to be whittled down. One option, for instance, would be to assimilate complementary topics.

Friday's release also included a progress report outlining in detail the substance of the thematic discussions. The text reveals that, initially, the group sought to formulate a vision and narrative to frame the selection of proposed goals, but later moved to pin these down directly, including identifying associated targets.

Commenting on the process, Saskia Hollander, a research editor for NGO The Broker, suggests that international divisions remain on targets and associated finance. "While the North opts for a clear and negotiable list of goals and targets, the G-77 is reluctant to already commit itself to goals and targets and stresses that the issue of finance needs to be solved first," she wrote.

Hollander also speculates as to whether the emerging economies will continue with this rhetoric or instead move away from the conventional development model towards alternative finance paradigms - such as South-South cooperation to harness trade and investment.

Trade as an enabler of sustainable development

Among the topics and targets listed for consideration, the focus areas document mentions the broad role of an open rule-based trading system in fostering sustainable growth, and as a means of implementation. More specifically, this includes references to addressing damaging subsidies, although ideas are also put forward around the need for policy space to support industrial development, as well as promoting new industries.

The section on marine resources, oceans, and seas, for example, suggests eliminating all harmful fisheries subsidies, as well as combatting unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The energy area includes the phasing out of "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption," while the food security and nutrition headline puts forward addressing "harmful agricultural subsidies."

The progress report, however, for its part notes that OWG members discussed the fact that trade-related issues - such as agricultural and fisheries subsidies - are also being addressed within the framework of the WTO.

The body will now continue with the second phase of its work in five negotiation sessions scheduled from early March to mid-July, and stakeholders have been solicited for input through various liaison platforms. The stated deliverable will be a report containing SDG proposals, to be presented for debate at the 68th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2014.

ICTSD reporting.

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