Milestone or deadlock?

Development Policy20 Jun 2014Frank van Kesteren, Saskia Hollander

The common statement of the G77 and China on the implementation of the SDGs

Now that the work of the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is coming to an end, the question of finance casts a dark shadow over the final round of negotiations. Last week, the Group of 77 (G77) and China presented their common statement on how to implement and finance the SDGs, to serve as input for this week’s OWG session. Perceived by some as an important milestone and a robust symbol of a common Southern voice, others see the statement as heralding the risk of deadlock between the North and the South.

The statement of the G77 and China entails an extensive proposal for required means of implementation for fifteen of the focus areas outlined in the OWG’s co-chairs’ working document of OWG11.1 In doing so, the G77 and China have made a strong call to concretize who exactly is responsible for implementing each SDG, how this should be done and, above all, who has to pay. The proposed means of the G77 and China vary from financial flows (ODA and additional funding mechanisms), ways to increase policy coherence (for example in terms of trade policy), technology transfer from the North to the South, and capacity building mechanisms for the least developed countries (LDCs). Moreover, they call for a transformed global partnership, by extensively reforming the international financial institutions and increasing the participation and power of the South in global political and financial decision-making.

Turning the tables

These calls by the G77 and China certainly are not new. The Group has consistently argued that the issue of finance should be solved before the new agenda is adopted in September 2015. Yet, the timing and tone their common statement should not be taken lightly, as it could potentially disturb the final phase of the OWG. Although the proposed goals document for OWG-122 entailed proposals for the means of implementation under each of the 16 proposed goals, the decision by the G77 and China to present a complete new document can be seen as a strong statement. Not surprisingly the proposals presented in the statement differ considerably in their scope and extent from the zero draft. Regarding the goal of ‘promoting equality among nations’ for example, the G77 and China propose to “reform the governance of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in order to increase the effective participation of developing countries in these institutions including by establishing inclusive governance structures, quotas and voting rights”.3 This is clearly more political than the technocratic targets of global cooperation on migration policies and strengthening capacities for data collection and statistical analysis for sustainable development proposed in the zero draft.4

With only one more OWG session to come in July, it is unlikely that the final report – due to be presented before the 69th UN General Assembly in September this year – can overcome the gaps between the current zero draft proposals and the position of the G77 and China. However, the G77 and China have clearly made their mark on the OWG process. At the start means of implementation did not feature in the working document at all and all questions regarding finance were passed on to the Expert Committee on Sustainable Development Financing. Now it is an elementary part of the debate within the OWG. While the North has long insisted on first agreeing on a set of SDGs before discussing their financial and technical implications, the tables are now likely to have turned.

Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

The guiding norm of the proposals of the G77 and China is the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), as formulated in the Rio+20 final report. CBDR holds that, while member states have a shared responsibility in assuring a sustainable future of our planet, they have different shares in this responsibility based on their ‘respective capacities’. In the statement, the G77 and China consistently differentiate between the developed and developing countries, calling for separate treatment for the latter. In fact, it could well be read as an explicit call on the developed countries to take their primary responsibility, not only in terms of money, but also of reducing inequality between nations. Besides calling on developed countries to fulfill their ODA commitments and set money aside for the LDCs, the G77 and China also call for the elimination of trade distorting subsidies in developed countries,5 the introduction of ‘carve outs’ for developing countries in the adoption of policies aimed at the development of environmentally sound energy technologies,6 and the promotion of sustainable consumption patterns in the developed countries.7 In addition, under many of the goals, the G77 and China call for a transfer of technology from the North to the South and promotion of and investment in research in developing countries.

The devil is in the interpretation

Again, these calls are not new. Throughout the OWG sessions and beyond, the G77 has consistently stressed that the universal applicability of the new development agenda should not place additional burdens on developing countries and, moreover, not conflict with their ‘right to development’. CBDR allows member states to differentiate responsibilities and capacities based on individual framings and interests. It reflects fundamentally different perceptions of the role of North and South. Yet, the trick of implementing CBDR lies in the ambiguous demarcation line between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. Whether this line holds for countries like Brazil and India, and even Mexico, in times when their economic power exceeds those of many countries in the North is questionable.

Implementing this ostensibly appealing principle becomes a question of ‘ability to pay or responsibility to pay’. The South emphasizes the historic responsibility of the North to pay for the environmental damage that the latter has largely caused, and the South’s right to develop irrespective of additional financial burdens. Moreover, it points to the North’s ‘negative duty’8 of not refraining from action due to the global institutional order it created, its exploitation of natural resources in developing countries and the footprint it has left behind as a result of colonialism. For their part, the countries of the North fear that the emerging economies of South will become ‘free riders’ within the system and call on the emerging economies (i.e. the BRICS and middle-income countries like Mexico and Turkey) to take on their share of global responsibility.

Tug of war

Such finger-pointing could well hinder the formulation of the SDGs, and breaking the deadlock becomes a question of who can shout longest and hardest. The increased bargaining power of the G77 has been widely recognized on the UN floor. During last weekend’s Summit of Heads of State and Government of the G77 and China in Bolivia, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon once again stated that the Group plays ‘a key role in ensuring a successful outcome to the efforts of the United Nations to formulate and effectively implement the post-2015 development agenda’. Yet, we have previously expressed doubts whether the G77 will be capable of sustaining its alleged unity when internal disagreements and conflicting interests – for example between emerging powers like Brazil and India and the LDCs – are played out during the upcoming international negotiations in the General Assembly. Yet, with their common statement the Group has certainly set the dice rolling and has provided itself with an effective strategic tool to politicize the issue of responsibility in the final phase of the OWG.


  1. Interestingly, focus area 16 ‘Peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law and capable institutions’ is not included in the statement of the G77 and China.
  2. The proposed goals and targets have been introduced as a working document for OWG-12.
  3. Focus area 9, target 5 in the common statement of the G77 and China on means of implementation.
  4. Targets 17.34 to 17.35 in the zero draft of the OWG.
  5. Focus area 2, target 1 and 2 in the common statement of the G77 and China on means of implementation.
  6. Focus area 7, target 7 in the common statement of the G77 and China on means of implementation.
  7. Focus area 11, target 4 and 5 in the common statement of the G77 and China on means of implementation.
  8. The term ‘negative duty’ was introduced by Thomas Pogge in World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms, 2002, Cambridge: Polity Press.