This article is part of a new series, Sustainability Watch, which follows the progress made in the post-2015 and the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDG) processes, and identifies the intentional or unintentional repercussions they may have for global justice and the rule of law, as well as for global governance and peace.
Following the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20 in June 2012, a process is under way at the United Nations to define the global development agenda, including a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for the period after 2015. This builds on and may formally succeed the framework that resulted from the 2000 Millennium Summit, which included a set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that should be implemented by 2015.
Whether the SDG and MDG processes will actually merge, or will continue in parallel in some way after 2015, remains to be decided. What is clear is that the “post-2015” discussions on SDGs proceed on the basis of a broader understanding of development that includes all three dimensions of sustainability, namely economic, social and environmental. This is a more holistic approach to development, which hails from the 1987 Brundtland Report and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Beyond the mainly social goals of the MDGs that included fighting poverty and disease, and ensuring a minimum level of universal education including for girls, proposals for the new framework add in more environmental targets and clear references to good governance and the rule of law, gender equity, and even a connection to peace and stability. This is actually closer to the comprehensive approach of the Millennium Declaration, which contained sections on all this. The richness of the Declaration was however compromised in the process of coming up with a set of clearly defined, action oriented and “sellable” goals, which led to the eight MDGs.
An initial attempt to come up with specific SDGs for the post-2015 period was made by the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. In its May 2013 report entitled “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development” the Panel provides 12 “illustrative” goals, among which are “Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality” (Goal 2), “Ensure good governance and stable institutions”(Goal 10), “Ensure stable and peaceful societies”(Goal 11) and “Create a global enabling environment and catalyse long-term finance”(Goal 12). The emphasis on gender equality, good governance, stability and peace, as well as well as a global enabling environment as the basis for sustainability is welcome, but can also be tricky or one-sided. Together with the other eight illustrative goals, which concern poverty, education, health, food and nutrition, water and sanitation, energy, jobs, and natural resource management, this seems to be an enhanced version of the MDGs, addressed like them primarily to the developing countries and emerging economies. The developed countries are mainly expected to provide their promised 0.7 per cent of GDP as Official Development Assistance, and voluntary contribute additional cash.
If this were to be eventually adopted as is by the intergovernmental process at the UN, it would definitely constitute a positive step. It would be a rather small step, though, at a time when a major transformation is needed. The world is very close to, or in some cases already beyond, overstepping social and planetary boundaries that guarantee stability and sustainability. We urgently need to tackle the fundamental causes of today’s unsustainability, that is a model of intense production and consumption that disregards the carrying capacity of the planet and the repercussions for the fabric of society. As the middle classes around the world swell with hundreds of millions that join them from emerging economies, this unsustainable production and consumption model is being adopted beyond the confines of the industrialized “North”, in big parts of the former “South”. In addition to straining further limited natural resources, at a time of increasing climate change impacts, it also often creates patterns of extreme economic inequality, unemployment and exclusion. These cannot go uncontested, especially by the youth, as we see by recent unrest in countries in North Africa but also Southern Europe, Brazil and beyond.
There is still time to conceptualize and infuse into the post-2015 framework elements of global justice that provide for a minimum of good life and prosperity for all. They should clearly include the necessary adjustments that have to be made by all, especially those more affluent, to comply with social and planetary boundaries. Rather than perpetuating charitable handouts, such global justice elements should include the transformation of the global economy, trade and finance in a way that they allow those still suffering from poverty and disease to join into the better life and prosperity that nature and human ingenuity, when used wisely, can ensure for all. As the High-level Panel report stresses, no one should be left behind, and that should be appropriately operationalized.
In light of the above, continuing on the beaten track of excruciating North-South negotiations for relatively small development assistance transfers misses the point of the drastic transformations needed to be made all around for a sustainable world. It is about time that we stop just talking and start acting about the one world we are in, defining universal responsibilities that are the only way to guarantee each other’s universal rights, and engaging all stakeholders, state and non-state ones, in their respective roles and with accountability.