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'Chess' / Mahmoudreza Shirinsokhan (flickr)

An unfinished symphony

The road towards the post-2015 global development agenda

Saskia Hollander, Pearl Heinemans | September 27, 2013

In the last week of September, world leaders gathered in New York for the general debate marking the opening of the 68th UN General Assembly (GA). This was an important moment for the post-2015 process, as several events were organized on the global development agenda. The most vital of these was the UN Special Event towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which sets out the course for the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), mandated to come up with a set of goals next year. Heads of state, ministers and various organizations were present to discuss the future agenda. The discussions showed that, with only two years to go, the UN is divided between middle and low income countries (MICs and LICs), which emphasize poverty reduction and economic development within an agenda based on differentiated responsibilities, and OECD countries, which prioritize a universal agenda integrating these elements with environmental sustainability.

The 68th session’s post-2015 events, which were organized alongside the general debate and other high-level meetings, represent the intense but challenging efforts made to materialize the successor to the MDGs. In his speech at the Special Event, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon argued for a comprehensive future development agenda that goes beyond the MDGs. Based on his recommendation report, A Life of Dignity for All, launched in August, he emphasized the need for a universal agenda that finds expression ‘in a single set of goals’, along the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability). The Special Event was concluded with the agreement of an outcome document in which renewed commitment to achieving the MDGs and adopting a new set of goals was enshrined.

It is not at all certain that the Secretary-General’s ambitious proposals will be adopted in September 2015 when, as agreed during the Special Event, the GA will determine the eventual agenda. Because of the wide range of actors involved, who all hold different perspectives on global development, the content and applicability of the future development agenda is certainly not set in stone. And a fragmented UN landscape does not help much either.

Following the Secretary-General’s recommendation, OECD countries advocate a single set of universal goals in which sustainable development goals (SDGs) and MDGs are integrated as a common global responsibility. Emerging economies like China, Brazil and South Africa, however, are pushing for a differentiation between ‘people’ and ‘planet’, and stress that a focus on the latter must not come at the expense of the first. For example, during Wednesday’s Special MDG Event, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the post-2015 agenda should ‘follow a people-oriented approach, and prioritize poverty reduction’, while he did not once refer to sustainability. Moreover, these countries oppose universal goals, as their development levels are not up to par with those of the developed countries. This disparity, they argue, will not be evened out by proposing universal goals. This point was emphasized by President of South Africa Jacob Zuma, who seized the general debate as an opportunity to share his views on the post-2015 agenda and to openly criticize the Northern tendency to ‘renegotiate the rules of the game’ and the ‘attempt to delegate some historical responsibilities to the new emerging economies’.

Understanding these differences and the underlying opposing positions and interests regarding the form and implementation of the new agenda is vital in trying to predict which road will be chosen. The changes in the global arena in recent decades have brought us to a crossroads where we have to make tough choices between a variety of issues, in particular the applicability and financing of the agenda. 

A multipolar arena

One reason for the difficulties that lie ahead is the involvement of new actors in the process of formulating the future development agenda. One of the main criticisms of the MDGs was that they were mainly developed by governments, and were consequently predominantly donor-led and focused on themes formulated by the OECD. To address this, a wide variety of stakeholders are involved in formulating the post-2015 agenda. Beside the OECD countries, MICs, least-developed countries (LDCs), civil society and the private sector are demanding a say in the process. All these actors aim to play a part in the post-2015 discussion and are pushing for their own interests, ideals and values to be addressed in the new development framework. As many OECD countries are no longer committed to fulfilling their ODA (official development assistance) pledges due to the economic crisis and the associated austerity measures, their credibility within the post-2015 discussion is under challenge. Moreover, as emerging economies like China, Brazil, Turkey and India, once recipients of development assistance, are now providing aid themselves and with an approach that differs from ‘traditional’ North-South cooperation, they now also play an important role within the post-2015 discussion.

At the same time, the emergence of MICs, which all aspire to play a more prominent role in the multipolar world, has broadened the scope of the future global development debate. Geopolitical and economic circumstances have always determined the South’s development opportunities, with ODA serving only as a palliative, but these two domains can no longer be artificially separated. The post-2015 agenda can therefore no longer be solely ODA-oriented, as it is more likley to be decided by geopolitical and economic interests. Perspectives will inevitably clash between and within the OECD countries, MICs and LICs and coalitions will have to be formed in order to push for certain ideas and interests.

A tenuous process

The multipolar nature of the arena has also affected the post-2015 process. Two tracks are feeding into the General Assembly: the first led – after input from the HLP, other UN-coordinated advisory groups and various public consultations – to the Secretary-General’s recommendation report, while the second is that of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals, which is intergovernmental and which will not finish its work until 2014. The OWG was set up after the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development to propose a set of SDGs to be incorporated in the post-MDG framework. In practice this has led to the negotiations taking a vague course, as both tracks could be re-inventing the same wheel or – which is more plausible, if they do not coordinate their efforts properly – heading down two different roads. In practice, however, though not officially, the OWG – in which 30 seats are shared between 69 countries – mainly serves as an arena where countries can settle their disagreements before they enter the final negotiations in the General Assembly. 

In effect, the post-2015 process is at risk of falling between two stools: between being an inclusive and participatory process allowing room for different approaches and themes, or an intergovernmental process where these different choices are negotiated in a highly competitive and political context. Eventually, it is national governments that will determine the agenda. This has been strongly emphasized by China and the G77 – a block of MICs and LICs formed to enhance their negotiating power at the UN – for example during their interventions in the OWG. As these countries were not involved in formulating the MDGs, their main concern now is that their economic interests are guaranteed. That casts doubt on the legitimacy and use of the input of non-state actors in, for example, the Secretary-General’s track.

With the post-2015 agenda now entering this highly politicized domain, it is even more unclear which way the pendulum will eventually swing. Although it was decided at Rio+20 and confirmed by the large bulk of advisory reports that both tracks need to be integrated, it is not certain exactly whether and how this should be achieved. As also emphasized in a debate on The Broker, many differences have emerged regarding how to shape and implement the future development agenda.

Common but differentiated responsibilities

With the shift in the global power balance and the global economic meltdown as a backdrop, sensitive issues like the applicability and financing of the agenda  – together with a wide range of other issues – have to be resolved before 2015. As far as the applicability of the post-2015 agenda is concerned, the G77 and China consistently stress the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, as negotiated at the Rio+20 conference, and claim that the new agenda should ‘contribute to the fulfillment of the right of development for developing countries’. 

During the first session of the OWG, the Chinese ambassador Wang Min emphasized that ‘the new goals should be universal, which apply to all countries and provide them with references and suggestions for sustainable development. At the same time, the goals should respect differences in national conditions and development stages to ensure the right to development and policy space for all countries’. This call to ‘respect the national conditions of each country’ was again underscored by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during Wednesday’s MDG event. Clearly, emerging economies fear that universal climate change measures will affect their levels of GDP growth, while they were not the initial polluters due to their late development. As OWG ambassador from India, Manjeev Singh Puri, stated, ‘It is unreasonable to craft sustainable development goals without paying due regard to the responsibility of those who rushed towards development without much regard for the needs of the global environment’.

As a result, China and Brazil have already opted for three different implementation approaches: one targeted at the traditional donor-countries, a poverty agenda targeted at LCDs, and a third that acknowledges emerging economies’ right to development and where economic growth is decoupled from environmental degradation.

Additional means of financing the SDGs

Financing the post-2015 agenda is another contentious issue. In this time of global economic crisis, many OECD countries have increasingly cut their budgets for development assistance. Clearly, in a context of severe austerity measures, the OECD countries are aware that legitimizing the allocation of additional money to development to finance the post-2015 agenda is a sensitive electoral issue, especially since public opinion generally does not associate development cooperation with sustainability. Subsequently, many OECD countries are now turning to additional financial resources, such as investments in clean technology and the green economy, to finance the post-2015 agenda. At the same time, both LDCs and the G77 have urged traditional donor countries to uphold the 0.7% ODA target, something that South African President Zuma once more underscored during this week’s general debate.

To overcome this dilemma, it was decided at the Rio+20 conference to establish an expert committee under the auspices of the GA to investigate innovative means of financing the sustainable development agenda. This Expert Committee on Sustainable Development Financing, which held its first general session in August, will need to solve some difficult issues. In particular, there is still disagreement on issues like global trade, taxation, investment funds, curbing illicit financial flows, and migration. Developing countries emphasize that these issues need to be tackled to counter rising global inequalities. However, transforming the global economic and financial system is a sensitive issue for developed countries, which have benefited from the status quo.

Tough choices

In the coming period, tough choices therefore still need to be made about the content and applicability of the future development framework and how it is to be financed before the agenda can take shape. Which issues will be included in the framework and which will not? Will poverty reduction and sustainable development be addressed truly and equally? Will the SDGs be universally applicable, or – as emphasized by developing countries and emerging economies – will they be targeted according to the principle of differentiated responsibilities? And if so, what would this imply for the financing and implementation of the agenda?

The Secretary-General’s ambitions might well be diluted in the upcoming international negotiations in the OWG and GA, due to conflicting perspectives and sensitivities. Essentially, the process seems to be heading for a stalemate in which the opposing tracks and perspectives could turn out to be irreconcilable. Keeping this in mind is important in trying to forecast which way the pendulum will eventually swing.

Photo credit main picture: 'Chess' / Mahmoudreza Shirinsokhan (flickr)