UN Group Sharpens List of Possible Sustainable Development Goals

1 May 2014

The blueprint for a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) moved closer into focus on 17 April as the co-chairs of the UN group drafting a proposal released a revised list of focus areas for delegates to consider at their next meeting on 5-9 May.

The new document includes 16 focus areas and 140 targets. Endnotes indicate which UN members support each target, together with potential indicators. An earlier version in February had outlined 19 focus areas, with over 300 targets for consideration. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 February 2014)

Notable changes include the merging of “promoting equality” with the first, largely consensual, focus area “poverty eradication.” “Infrastructure” and “employment and decent work for all” have also been grouped together with “economic growth.”

Although it may be too early to tell the significance of these combinations, given the working nature of the document, the scrubbing out of these separate headline targets does not imply their retreat from the document.

Inequality, employment, and infrastructure issues are each addressed within the targets under their new focus areas, as well as featuring in other sections. For example, the target “full and productive employment for all” appears in the poverty eradication headline. The move is also in line with the internationally agreed-upon objective that the SDGs would address the world’s multifaceted development challenges in a synergistic manner.

Last week’s release also included a separate document compiling the goals and targets put forward by countries at the group’s latest meeting in early April. In a letter addressed to all UN member states, the co-chairs said “it is our hope that the two documents will serve as a solid basis for advancing our work.”

Building on Rio

The move to marry development with social and environmental concerns was a notable outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) held in June 2012. The eventual SDGs will replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set to expire next year.

For its part, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals – as the UN group is formally known – has been meeting for the past 14 months in a bid to outline a draft proposal to forward to the General Assembly this coming autumn. To facilitate the talks, member states chose to use a constituency-based system of representation for the working group, comprised of 30 delegations from five UN regional groups.

Since March of this year, discussions have intensified as delegates seek to identify and build consensus around issues deemed worthy of inclusion, among a myriad of options. At the April session, Colombia – who along with Guatemala initiated the proposal to develop SDGs – repeated earlier entreaties for delegates to narrow down the list of topics to create a concise, integrated agenda.

Delegates are also facing the challenge of how to address fresh development issues that have emerged since the MDGs were formulated almost fifteen years ago, such as climate change, cities, and ecosystems, as well as governance and inequality.

“For us to remain credible, we cannot turn our backs on these issues,” said Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s Permanent Representative and the working group’s co-chair.

Means of implementation

Among the more controversial issues in the group’s April session was the means to achieve each goal, with members divided over whether to include relevant measures under each focus area, as a separate category, or both.

The latest document makes a bid for the latter option, with the phrase “appropriate means of implementation” penned under each section. The concept also features in the fifteenth focus area, alongside the aspiration to strengthen global partnership for development, which recalls the function of MDG8.

Development measures listed under this section include trade, technology transfer and technological capabilities, financing and debt sustainability, capacity building, and strengthened global partnership for sustainable development.

The trade section identifies three targets. The first would be to promote an open, rules-based multilateral trading and financial system, including complying with the agricultural mandate of the WTO’s Doha Round negotiations. Suggested indicators in relation to the WTO’s farm trade talks include “eliminating all forms of agricultural export subsidies,” and “substantially reducing domestic support and substantially improving market access for developing countries.”

As a result of last December’s ministerial meet, WTO members have been given until the end of this year to develop a work programme for concluding the Doha Round. Issues surrounding agriculture have proved particularly contentious in the multilateral trade negotiations, along with non-agricultural market access and services. Members generally agree that these three issues must be addressed in any work programme. Early consultations to date suggest that the level of ambition on agriculture will likely determine that of the Round as a whole. (See Bridges Weekly, 10 April 2014)

The second trade target identified by the working document is the provision of greater duty-free and quota-free (DFQF) market access for the world’s poorest countries in the context of WTO framework, referring to another one of the decisions taken at the December ministerial. The decision urged developed countries to continue efforts towards granting DFQF access for at least 97 percent of products originating from least developed countries (LDCs), with developing countries in the position to do so also augmenting such market access.

Discussions around this topic at the global trade arbiter had struggled to make progress since a 2005 ministerial decision to implement DFQF market access for goods from LDCs. Members have wrestled with various hurdles in trying to achieve a concrete outcome, with divisions also opening up among poor countries over the possibility of “preference erosion.” (See Bridges Weekly, 28 November 2013)

Improving market access for agricultural and industrial exports of developing countries, especially for the poorest countries, is posited as the third trade target, together with at least doubling the percentage of LDC exports as a share of the global total by 2020. Suggested indicators for the former include tariffs and non-tariff barriers on industrial products of importance to developing countries.

Separately, the need to address other harmful subsidies relating to fossil fuels and fisheries are also referred to in the document, under the energy and ocean conservation focus areas respectively.

Next steps

The pressure to stitch together a coherent proposal will ramp up over the coming months, with just 15 days now left on the working group’s calendar.

During the closing moments of the April meet, Co-Chair Kamau indicated that the group’s next sessions would continue as an iterative process, rather than a negotiating one, with a modified focus areas document being produced at each stage. He suggested that more concrete draft goals and targets would be inked by the June gathering and confirmed that the final document would be adopted by consensus.

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the Tenth Session of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals,” ENB, IISD Reporting Services, 7 April 2014.

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