The Sustainable Development Goals: an invitation to radical change?

21 may 2015

For some time now, Dóchas has been involved in discussions with governments and NGOs about a new set of global "Sustainable Development Goals".

These new Goals will set the parameters for international decision-making in the next 15 years, and will require each UN member state to develop a national plan of action to show how each country seeks to "develop" in a way that addresses both the long term needs of its population and of the planet.

In other words, the Irish Government will, in addition to the demands of leading the international negotiations about the Goals themselves, need to come up with its own vision of "sustainable development" here in Ireland.

So what is being negotiated?

The new "Sustainable Development Goals" will be part of a bigger package being decided this year. That package will be made up of 1) a declaration; 2) a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets; 3) a set of agreements on their "means of implementation" and a global partnership for development (setting out how this new agreement will be financed); and 4) a framework for follow-up and review of implementation.

Intergovernmental negotiations are convening seven times between January and July 2015, with the goal of agreeing on all four components by 31 July, for adoption during a Special Summit scheduled to take place from 25-27 September, at UN Headquarters in New York.

Before that, the question of how to fund the new Goals will be the topic of a special Summit on Financing for Development, in Addis Ababa in July. That summit will look not just at whether rich countries have lived up to their commitments on overseas aid and other promises made at previous such summits (in Monterrey and Doha), but also at issues relating to public finance; domestic and international private finance; trade, technology and innovation; and sovereign debt.

And finally, about two months after the post-2015 development agenda is to be adopted, international diplomats will gather in Paris to update the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Why does this matter to Ireland?

"Sustainable Development” is not something only relevant to “developing” countries: No country is fully "developed" and every nation needs to find a balance between its current needs and the interests of future generations.

It is this realisation that forms the heart of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the negotiations about how countries should go about achieving them.

"The SDGs will have to compete for the attention of policy-makers and stakeholders whose daily work is awash with global and national priorities, commitments and initiatives." So unless the SDG targets and national action plans are brought into existing national legislation, policies and reporting mechanisms in each UN member state, progress is likely to be limited. And unless citizens are encouraged to demand the information they need to monitor progress, 'business as usual' politics is going to continue. And that is perhaps the greatest achievement of the SDGs already: Unlike previous global agreements, the SDGs have the potential for bottom-up accountability.

And this means that NGOs and civil society groups need to change tack. Rather than emphasising their role as implementors and service providers under this new policy framework, they should change their work to focus on promoting citizen accountability.

In the past decade, there has been much talk about Rights Based Approaches to Development. Once the SDGs are agreed NGOs have the perfect tool for such approaches: supporting citizens, wherever they live, to understand their local rights and budgets. Tools like "participatory budgeting" should become the focus of, rather than an add-on to, NGO work everywhere.

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