Calm before the storm? – The launch of the outcome document of the Open Working Group on SDGs

Development Policy,Inclusive Economy01 Aug 2014Frank van Kesteren, Saskia Hollander

The long wait is over. During the 13th and final session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on sustainable development goals (SDGs), held from 14 to 19 July, the 69 member countries agreed on a set of 17 SDGs and 169 associated targets. These should by no means be read as business as usual: they are more far-reaching than the MDGs both in content (they capture all three dimensions of sustainable development) and scope (they apply to both developing and developed countries). However, the proposed SDGs are by no means a clear-cut victory for the global South either, as they do not challenge the existing global power imbalances.

The Broker has reported earlier on the prominent role played by the G77 in the negotiations within the Open Working Group. 1 With the presentation of the outcome document, adopted by the OWG on 19 July, it is now time to draw up the balance. The outcome document is one of the many documents on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s pile of advisory papers on what should be succeed the MDGs, but it is probably the one that carries the most political weight. Not only is it the outcome of an intergovernmental process mandated at Rio+20, but the process leading up to it was also highly politicized. Even in the stocktaking phase, negotiations between the 69 member countries of the OWG were often tough, and interests clashed on economic, geo-political and moral issues. In this sense, the document, a clear product of trade-offs and consensus-seeking, contrasts sharply with the report by Ban Ki-moon’s High Level Panel, published in May last year, of which the implications were more open-ended and the tone more ambitious.

The proposed SDGs bear no resemblance at all to the MDGs. They mark the fact that, this time around, the global South also had a front-row place at the negotiation table. The goals on infrastructure and inequality, for example, were clearly pushed onto the agenda by the G77, which was able to present itself as unified player during the 13 OWG sessions. In addition, the fact that each goal entails means of implementation (MoI) targets (referenced by letters, such as 1.a and 1.b) could be considered as a clear win for the G77, which has pushed for this to be included for a long time. Reading between the lines, however, the ‘wins’ for the South are not that significant. Moreover, the goals are hardly likely to bring about structural change, as they do not challenge existing power relations, either within or between countries. Those targets that do call for a change in power relations (for example when it comes to the reform of the international financial institutions) are so loosely defined that it is difficult to derive responsibilities from them.

Dodging the bullet

In the run-up to the outcome document it has been emphasized that the goals should be universally applicable. However, the document maintains a double standard when it comes to the applicability of the goals and targets. For those issues that clearly fall within the scope of national responsibility (most commonly the successors of MDG targets, for example on health and education), universal (or ‘getting-to-zero’) targets are set for those that have already been met (or closely met) by the developed countries. However, on issues that question the position or role of developed countries, the formulated targets are non-universal and could well leave them largely unaffected. Moreover, the document also fails to clearly outline responsibilities for issues that are a shared global responsibility (i.e. global public goods).

An example of a goal on global public goods is that of sustainable consumption and production (SCP). Although the G77’s common position on MoI makes a plea to “foster North-North cooperation to promote sustainable lifestyles in developed countries” (target 11.5), the outcome document makes no such an explicit reference to the role of developed countries. Remarkably, in the OWG-12 working document, there were targets on reducing food waste in developed countries, but these have not made the final cut either. Other examples of the developed countries not being affected are targets on improved access of developing countries in relation to a number of issues. Although the outcome document frequently mentions access in terms of services like food and health care), technology, knowledge and markets are not included. This is remarkable, as the G77 common position and the OWG-12 working document did include targets on increasing market access and access to science for developing countries.

Sustainable consumption and production and access to technology, knowledge and markets are both issues that question the role of developed countries. This confirms the idea that agreement has mostly been reached on technocratic targets (i.e. targets that are power-neutral, measurable and which rely mostly on capital transfers to developing countries) whereas targets that imply power shifts (cf. market access) or challenge the influence of developed countries on global issues (cf. sustainable consumption) have been avoided in the last round of negotiations. Developed countries have thus dodged the bullet of having to reconsider their responsibilities.

Inequality left untackled

The document does not engender a systemic change in power relations among nations. While the stand-alone goal on inequality in the outcome document can be seen as a victory for the G77, the proposed targets are not as groundbreaking by far as those proposed by the G77 in their common statement and are so loosely defined that responsibilities can hardly be derived from them. For example, targets 10.5 (‘improve regulation and monitoring of global financial markets and institutions and strengthen implementation of such regulations’) and 10.6 (‘ensure enhanced representation and voice of developing countries in decision making in global international economic and financial institutions in order to deliver more effective, credible, accountable and legitimate institutions’) do not specify a time-frame, are formulated in an encouraging rather than binding way, and in practice it might be difficult to set out who is responsible for fulfilling them. Other G77 proposals, such as international organizations having to adopt reduction of international inequality as an objective of their institution and to take measures to address this problem (target 9.11); and the proposal to ensure that developing countries are part of the global chain (target 9.14) are not included in the OWG outcome document.

The OWG document also falls short in terms of reducing within-country inequality. For example, the target to ‘achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the national average’ still allows for a disproportionate growth in income and wealth of the richest 10 percent, and thus for a rise in inequality. Using the Palma index (i.e. relating the income of the bottom 40 percent to the top 10 percent) could have been a stronger tool for enforcing equality. Reducing inequality is impossible without challenging the interests of those in power (be they individuals or states), and this is surely not what the 17 goals of the OWG will achieve.

Finance dispute unresolved

Although the G77 submitted MoI targets for each of the proposed goals, it is clear from the content of these targets that it had to accept a significant reduction in its original demands. For example, in terms of technology transfer and developing countries’ access to science and technology, the targets proposed in the outcome document are less far-reaching than those proposed by the G77 and the language is less compelling. Moreover, the G77 call to include the full flexibilities to the TRIPS Agreement on intellectual property rights to allow developing countries to adapt to TRIPS according to their national capabilities (target 7.3 in their common position) did not make it into the final document. This call was done to give developing countries more time and flexibility to gain the technical and legal experience to adapt to the TRIPS. The G77’s proposal to ‘cancel external debt of heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs) to reduce debt distress’ (target 1.8) was watered down in the OWG outcome document, which refers to ‘debt sustainability’, ‘debt relief’ and ‘debt restructuring’ (target 17.4 OWG outcome document). Furthermore, the G77’s call to increase the share of international public funding to agriculture (target 2.10 common position G77) has not been honoured.

These, and many other, financial issues are certain to rise to the surface during the conference on sustainable development financing, to be held in July 2015. By then, the intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing will also have presented its report, which is likely to take some of the sharp edges off the discussions. Yet, the vague and unenforceable language of the OWG document offers little prospect that the future development agenda will be groundbreaking when it comes to development financing.

Bargaining on human rights

At the same time, the document does not represent an overall victory for the governments of the North either. Although they attached great importance to it, the document lacks an overall rights-based approach, as this encountered widespread controversy, mainly among some countries in the G77. Despite frequent reference to terms like discrimination and inclusion, the document leaves little room for citizens to claim their rights. Instead it uses language relating to ‘access’, which is far less enforceable. For example, the reference to sexual and reproductive health rights has been deliberately kept out of the document, as it encountered too much opposition from predominantly Catholic and Islamic member countries. 2 There was also controversy around citizens’ and political rights issues and, mainly due to opposition from countries like Russia and China, the targets on these issues are loosely defined, leaving room for national differentiation. 3

While countries in the North have mentioned the absence of a rights-based approach as one the major shortcomings of the outcome document, opponents of mainstreaming human rights throughout the 17 goals already consider the current inclusion of sensitive issues as a step too far, making renegotiation of these issues an unlikely prospect.

What will happen next?

The cards have not, however, been dealt yet. Prior to the 69th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September this year, Ban Ki-moon is expected to present his advisory report, based on a compilation of all official inputs presented so far. He is expected to largely endorse the set of goals proposed by the OWG. However, this by no means implies that the future development agenda is set in stone. In fact, it would not be overly cynical to suggest that the OWG was only a prelude to tougher negotiations in the UNGA. The main question is whether the 17 SDGs will be largely kept intact, or whether they will be subjected to a new round of bargaining. The latter option could imply starting from scratch. With the breaking up of the troikas, there will be fewer incentives to reach consensus, and there is a risk that from now on regional or either national interests will largely prevail. In addition, with even more countries to express their voice, a repetition of the negotiations might imply different power plays with vitally different outcomes. In autumn, the UN delegations have planned to hold a meeting to discuss the ‘modus operandi’ for next year’s negotiations in the GA. If it is decided to reopen the negotiations, there is a significant risk that the OWG’s efforts will be nullified.


  2. Instead, target 3.7 reads: ‘by 2030 ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programs’.
  3. Take for example target 16.10 on public access to information and fundamental freedoms, for which no time-frame is included and which adds that this target should be met ‘in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’.