From stocktaking to negotiation

Development Policy14 Mar 2014Saskia Hollander

The final phase of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals

Now that the eighth and final stocktaking session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has taken place, the more ‘friendly’ phase of the post-2015 process seems to have come to an end. The OWG member states’ overall emphasis on the need for consensus and pragmatism mask an inevitable clash between the North and the South on the scope of the SDGs, their universality and, above all, their means of implementation. Which elements of the development narrative need to be translated into specific goals and targets? To what extent is their applicability differentiated according to national contexts? And who has to pay?

The purpose of the eight inventory sessions of the OWG, held from March 2013 to February 2014, was to exchange views on how to integrate the agendas of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability, and on how to formulate a possible set of SDGs (see box below). During the next five sessions to be held in the coming months, the OWG member states will negotiate and amend the OWG’s co-chairs’ interim focus areas report (launched on 21 February 2014), and agree on a final document that serves as input for UN General Assembly (UNGA) negotiations starting in September this year. The nature of this outcome document is by no means set in stone. While the North opts for a clear negotiable list of goals and targets, the G77 is reluctant to already commit itself to goals and targets at this stage and stresses that the issue of finance needs to be solved first.

Yet, consensus and pragmatism were the main keywords arising out the past year’s stocktaking in the OWG. Member states agree that the post-2015 agenda (due to be adopted by the UNGA in September 2015) should keep the legacy of the MDGs alive, and include a limited number of measurable goals and targets that can count on the support and commitment of all different stakeholders. 1 Echoed throughout the eight OWG sessions was the notion to, ‘do those things on which we agree, and not the things on which we don’t.’ The OWG acknowledges that the MDGs were too focused on absolute poverty reduction, and thereby largely ignored the impact of inequalities and environmental degradation on development. In accordance with the outcome document of Rio+20 and the report of the UN High Level Panel, there is broad consensus on an SDG model that encompasses all three dimensions (economic, social and environmental) of sustainable development.

However, while all of this could be applauded with joy, overall consensus mainly exists in terms of the broader vision. Clearly, a distinction needs to be made between agreement on those issues that need to be part of the overall post-2015 narrative, and agreement on those issues that actually need to be translated into specific goals and targets. On the latter, the list of agreements does not appear to be that exhaustive.

The OWG and the post-2015 process

The Broker attended the eighth session of the Open Working Group (OWG), which took place on 3-7 February at the UN headquarters in New York. In this article, The Broker highlights some possible bottlenecks to be negotiated during the next critical phase of the OWG process.

The OWG forms part of the post-2015 process of formulating a new set of development goals to succeed the current UN development agenda (see infographic for overview of the post-2015 process). This current agenda consists of a framework of eight goals (the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)) officially established following the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. In 2010 it was decided during a High Level Plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that the international community should formulate a new development agenda beyond 2015.

The process of formulating this agenda started with the creation of several UN advisory groups to advise UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the content and nature of the new agenda. Of special importance was the appointment of a High Level Panel (HLP) in July 2012, consisting of 27 leaders from government, civil society and the private sector. The HLP launched its report on 30 May 2013.

To guarantee the intergovernmental character of the post-2015 process, the OWG was established on 22 January 2013, as a direct outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 (the Rio+ 20 summit). The primary mandate of the OWG is to prepare a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) by integrating the two agendas of poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

The OWG consists of 69 member states, which are represented in 30 troikas (each troika consisting of two or three member states). The OWG is co-chaired by Csaba Körösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary, and Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya.

Until now, eight stocktaking sessions have taken place. Each week-long session has dealt with several pre-defined topics. Next to country delegates, the sessions are attended by a large number of NGOs, academics and representatives from the private sector, who are able to express their voices via the UN Major Groups. Each day of an OWG session starts with an informal consultation between these Major Groups and the OWG’s co-chairs. Thereafter, the formal programme of the OWG continues, which consists of a morning and afternoon session. After several keynote presentations (by academics, NGOs and UN institutions), the member states are able to read their official statements (either in the troika or independently) concerning the topics discussed that day. Furthermore, during each day, several side events are organized, during which country delegates and other OWG participants further elaborate on specific issues. All documents related to the process and the content of the OWG are published online.

After eight sessions, the OWG will now prepare its final report proposing SDGs for consideration during five additional sessions (there will be one session every month until July). This report serves as input for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who will launch his synthesis report based on input from all advisory bodies and consultations before the start of the 69th UNGA in September 2014. Thereafter, a year of international negotiations will take place and a new agenda will be formally adopted in September 2015.

A rights-based approach

The difference between an overall SDG narrative and its practical translation becomes strikingly obvious when it concerns member states’ calls (from both the North and the South) for a rights-based approach. Part of the narrative is the recognition that the MDGs have largely neglected rights, despite the fact that the Millennium Declaration – from which the goals were derived – reaffirmed the commitment to guarantee human rights. 2 Overall, member states agree that the post-2015 agenda should expand the MDGs’ too narrow focus on absolute poverty reduction by ensuring that it will uphold the 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, 3 and truly, in the words of the UN High Level Panel, “leave no one behind” 4

Yet, these calls appear to be mainly limited to tackling social inequalities, such as gender inequality. With some exceptions, countries largely agree on both integrating gender equality as a standalone goal and mainstreaming it throughout the various goals and targets. By contrast, the OWG is much more vague on how to address economic inequalities, which remains rather limited to pursuing equality in economic opportunities, in terms of access to basic social services like healthcare and education. Despite calls from academia and NGOs, 5 most member states show little appetite to incorporate global goals and targets on equalizing economic outcomes. As income, employment and social security issues touch upon national sovereignty (and are thus electorally risky), member states largely agree that these should be left to national policymaking. 6

The rule of law

Moreover, the ‘right to development’ principle clearly leaves room for different interpretations. For many OECD countries, upholding the right to development implies an integration of goals and targets on good governance, the rule of law and peace and security. 7 For them, the absence of the rule of law and prevalence of violence and insecurity undermine people’s development opportunities and should thus be part of the post-2015 framework. By contrast, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), as well as many least-developed countries (LDCs), perceive the translation of these issues into SDGs as being beyond the scope of the OWG’s mandate that was prescribed in the Rio+20 Declaration, and see it as interfering with national legislation. Characteristic for this argumentation is the statement of the troika of China, Indonesia and Kazakhstan during the eighth OWG, in which it was stated that, “rule of law at the national level is in essence a matter of internal affairs. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model for rule of law and it is hardly goal-able and properly measured.” 8

Reforming global governance

In addition, both middle-income countries (MICs) and LDCs use the ‘right to development’ principle above all to address inequalities between countries. They call for reform of the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, to make sure that they are accountable, reflect the changed global power relations and guarantee a fair provision of global public goods. Thus, for the G77 countries, the ‘right to development’ foremost implies removal of the obstacles that hinder development efforts of some countries for the benefit of others. They argue that the SDGs should allow for increased participation of middle- and low-income countries in global economic decision-making. As characteristically stated by Bangladesh, “We should not underestimate the international aspect of inequalities that hinders sound and shared prosperity for all nations. We need to put in place a more equitable global system in relation to trade, investment, technology transfer and global governance.’ 9

However, how exactly the G77 wants this to be translated into specific goals and targets remains unclear. And a clear difference becomes visible between the MICs and, mainly African, LDCs. Although the troika of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka made a case for “reforming the rules for international trade, finance, business accounting and intellectual property to ensure consistency with the achievement of sustainable development goals” 10 during the eighth OWG session, these calls remain limited to general statements. Especially Brazil, India and China seem reluctant to commit themselves to specific global goals and targets on these issues, and seem more willing to leave these issues to other multilateral fora. By contrast, especially African LDCs call more explicitly for reducing trade-distorting measures, such as agricultural subsidies, and for improving developing countries’ access to the global market. They are also very clear on the point that a structural transformation of the global economy should have a place within the SDG framework.

The issue of universality

Despite the strict definition of the concept of universality, it is already clear that the SDGs will not apply to each country in the same way. As was stressed in the Rio+20 Declaration, the SDGs “should be […] universally applicable to all countries, while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.” However, as evidenced by discussions on tackling economic inequalities, countries seem to embrace the universality concept only to the extent that it does not interfere with their domestic policies. 11 Moreover, when it comes to the issues of environmental sustainability and climate change, the G77 and the OECD countries have different notions as to whom the goals and targets specifically apply. The G77 emphasizes that sustainability measures are above all applicable to the North, and should not interfere with MICs’ and LDCs’ right to development. On their part, the OECD countries use the concept to point to a shared responsibility to implement the SDGs. A new global partnership between rich and middle-income countries needs to be built, in which all stakeholders, based on diverging national capabilities, deliver the necessary means of implementation.

Who has to pay?

Who has to pay is perhaps the most difficult hurdle yet to overcome. The North – affected by the global economic crisis and austerity measures – increasingly looks to MICs and the private sector. They are seeking supplementary financial resources to traditional official development assistance (ODA) in the form of private investments and South-South cooperation. They claim that the role of ODA has declined, and that development is mainly engendered by other financial flows coming from private investment, trade and remittances. By referring to the principle of universality, high-income countries therefore stress that emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, and India, also have to pay their shares.

On their part, MICs (including the BRICS, but also emerging economies like Mexico, Colombia and Turkey) and LDCs perceive these calls for additional resources as an excuse by developed countries to withdraw from previous ODA commitments. As put clearly by the troika of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, “even though ODA levels have regrettably declined, this does not diminish their relevance and South-South cooperation is only a supplement and not a substitute to North-South cooperation. The commitment of financing for development cannot be transferred to South-South cooperation.” 12 In endorsing such calls, the G77 refers to the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR). This principle especially applies to the financial resources for climate change measures. In its view, it is the historic responsibility of the North to pay for climate change measures, as they have been the original polluters. Accordingly, the new framework “should not place additional restrictions or burdens on developing countries.” 13

To settle disagreements over finance, the OWG is complemented by an intergovernmental committee of experts on sustainable development financing to “propose options on an effective sustainable development financing strategy.” 14 The expert committee is expected to come with a report before the General Assembly in September 2014. Moreover, the High Level Panel called for an international conference in order to discuss how to integrate development and environmental financing streams. The main question now is when this conference is going to be held. While the OECD countries have urged to follow the road of the MDGs (i.e. the Monterrey summit on financing the MDGs was held two years after their adoption), it seems now likely that a conference on finance will be held during the first half of 2015. This road change is mostly due to pressure from the G77, which argues that any proposal for goals and targets must be accompanied with specifying the (financial) means of implementation.

A North-South divide?

The big question is whether the new global powers in the G77 (the BRICS, but also other emerging economies such as Colombia, Mexico and Turkey) will use the post-2015 arena to play out their North-South rhetoric. Surely, by emphasizing South-South cooperation (based on trade and investment rather than ‘aid’), they are able to place themselves outside the conventional development model. 15 Accordingly, the post-2015 process for them provides a forum to strengthen their international ‘soft power’. 16 At the same time, countries like India, China and Brazil have presented themselves as willing cooperators in the process (i.e. when agreement is reached on the issue of finance, they are willing to talk about goals and targets), and realistic observers stress that these countries have a clear interest in not using the post-2015 arena to exploit North-South divisions. Interests within the G77 differ and when the group must move beyond the narrative by specifying goals and targets, the G77 is probably no longer capable of upholding their North-South rhetoric. Also, it is not unthinkable that the somewhat indulgent role of India and Brazil in the post-2015 process so far, can be traced back to their aspiration to acquire a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. The idea is that the post-2015 process then serves as a forum where they can show their willingness to cooperate and build consensus, while leaving the big issues (climate change and trade relations) to other multilateral fora, such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In the coming months, The Broker will closely follow how these issues play out in the further post-2015 process and provide regular updates on the steps that need to be taken.


1. See progress report of the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals, 14 February 2014.
2. Langford, M., A. Sumner, and A.E. Yamin (2013) The Millennium Development Goals and Human Rights. Cambridge University Press.
3. UN General Assembly (1986) Declaration on the Right to Development, 4 December 1986.
4. UN High Level Panel (2013) ‘A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development’, The report of the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, 30 May 2013.
5. See for example Doyle, M.W. and J. Stiglitz (2013) ‘Eliminating Extreme Inequality: A Sustainable Development Goal, 2015–2030’.
6. Ocampo, J.A. (2013) The Post-2015 Development Agenda, Future United Nations Development System. Briefing paper 11, October 2013.
7. See for example OWG (2014) ‘Statement on behalf of the European Union and its Member States’ on ‘Conflict prevention, post-conflict peacebuilding and promotion of durable peace, rule of law and governance,’ Eighth OWG session, 3-7 February 2014. New York.
8. OWG (2014) ‘Statement by Dr. Endah Murniningtyas Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Environment of the National Development Planning Agency Republic of Indonesia on behalf of China, Indonesia and Kazakstan’, Eighth OWG session, 3-7 February 2014. New York.
9. OWG (2014) ‘Statement by Mr. Md. Mustafizur Rahman, Deputy Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN’ on the ‘Promoting equality, including social equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment’, Eighth OWG session, 6 February, 2014, New York.
10. OWG (2014) ‘Statement by Ambassador Masood Khan, Permanent Representative of Pakistan’, on ‘Promoting equality, including social equity, gender equality and women’s empowerment’, Eighth OWG session, 3-7 February 2014, New York.
11. Evans, A. and D. Steven (2013) ‘What Happens Now? Taking the Post-2015 Agenda to the Next Stage’, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, October 2013.
12. OWG (2014) ‘Remarks by Ambassador Dr. Palitha Kohona, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations on behalf of India-Pakistan-Sri Lanka Troika’, Sixth OWG session, 10 December 2013.
13. OWG (2014) ‘Statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China’, First OWG session, 14 March, New York.
14. UN General Assembly (2012) ‘The Future We Want – Rio+20’, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 27 July 2012.
15. Konijn, P. (2013) ‘India: De Andere Speler in Afrika?’ Internationale Spectator, November 2013.
16. DIE (2013) ‘Post-2015: How Emerging Economies Shape the Relevance of a New Agenda’, Briefing paper, 14/2013.
17. Evans, A. (2013) ‘Delivering the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Options for a New Global Partnership’, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, November 2013.