Post-2015: SDGs or Post-MDGs?

Development Policy06 Feb 2013Karlijn Muiderman

Running up to the end of the MDG term

With only two years to go, the debates on the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are intensifying. Two candidates are running up to the end of the MDG term in 2015: the Post-2015 development agenda (derived from the MDGs) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the UN aspires to integrate both agendas, sustainability targets form the basis of incompatible negotiations between the broader agenda and the SDGs.

The Post-2015 development agenda and the SDGs are frequently discussed in one breath. But since the consultations and negotiations with member states started, the ‘S’ for sustainability in the SDGs seems to be driving the two agendas and their advocates apart. Shaping the Post-2015 agenda as an extension of the MDGs builds on pragmatic beliefs. Followers of this agenda argue that getting industry-driven countries like the BRICSAM countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico) on board will only be possible if the new targets do not restrict economic growth with sustainability measures, as the UN is aiming for with the SDGs.

The UN’s sustainable development agenda

The Sustainable Development Goals are a direct result of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012. At Rio, the member states decided to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will build on the Millennium Development Goals, and converge with the Post-2015 development agenda. A UN System Task Team was assigned to outline the Post 2015 development agenda. The Task Team aspires to a development agenda that targets inclusive and holistic growth: a realistic development agenda can accordingly no longer neglect the link between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of development.1 It states that long-term development requires integrated policy making, which approaches social equity, economic growth and environmental protection together.

Sustainable development has been the mandate for the UN system since the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago. Rio+20, named after the first conference, was an effort to set new goals to achieve sustainable development. The conference focused on two themes: (a) a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication emphasizing a holistic, equitable and far-sighted approach to decision-making at all levels, and (b) the institutional framework for sustainable development creating new international institutions, including the Commission on Sustainable Development. According to critics, however, Rio+20 did not result in the necessary targets to hold countries accountable for pollution and environmental degradation. A lack of commitment might undermine the implementation of the UN’s ambitious SDG vision. The risk is a repeat of the flaws experienced during the MDG process, which this new agenda aims to overcome.

Post-2015: Lessons learnt from the MDG process

The MDGs were largely developed in a political vacuum drawn from a series of high-profile international conferences during the 1990s.2 This meant many goals already had a large degree of political support, although they were inevitably altered somewhat by the grinder of the political process. As a result, the MDGs were executed around a set of largely pre-existing and narrowly defined targets.

The MDG agenda missed important areas for development investment such as improving financial regulation, social inclusion and reducing international inequality. Furthermore, critics argued that the goals were too far apart to achieve synergy, and lacked ownership at national and international level. This resulted in competition over targets, as the strong focus on specific thresholds created problems of equity by benefitting some areas over others.

This time around, the Post-2015 agenda is not being developed in a vacuum. Several international consultation processes are occurring in parallel.

An UN Task Team has explored the options for integrating the SDG agenda and the Post-2015 process and identified key areas for the latter. In its first report, ‘The Future We Want’ published in June 2012, the Task Team prioritized a new agenda format based on the strengths of the MDG framework but reorganized along four key dimensions of a more holistic approach: (1) inclusive social development; (2) inclusive economic development; (3) environmental sustainability; and (4) peace and security.3

Simultaneously, in July 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a 27-member High Level Panel to advise him on the Post-2015 development agenda. The panel’s report was launched on 1 February 2013. In May 2012, the UN opened the consultations to the member states, civil society and the private sector. Originating in the Rio conference, this multi-actor approach, embracing 56 countries,4 aims to come up with a shared vision, ’The Future we Want’. A High Level Political Forum on sustainable development was set up to lead the consultations and formulate an institutional format. Additionally, the Open Workgroup on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will start consultations with 30 countries early February.5

Including civil society

Extending the people-centred and participatory process, UNDP has started an online consultation process, ‘The World We Want 2015’, to bring in civil society voices. Eleven theme-based sub-consultations have been set up to propose a structural framework for sustainable development, each led by a different UN entities and stakeholders: 1) Inequalities, 2) Governance, 3) Growth and Employment, 4) Health, 5) Education, 6) Environmental Sustainability, 7) Food Security and Nutrition, 8) Conflict and Fragility, 9) Population Dynamics, 10) Energy, and 11) Water.

UNICEF), the United Nations Development Policy and Analysis Division (UNDESA) and UN Water, together with the Netherlands and Switzerland as co-sponsoring member states, are taking the lead in the Water sub-consultation. The theme of this year’s annual World Water Day is ‘Water Cooperation’, which aims to set forth an integrated and multi-stakeholder approach. Civil society movements are key in the consultations including for example the Global Call to Action against Poverty, and Beyond 2015, a partnership of civil society organizations which have worked together to produce a joint statement. They seek a civil society consensus on a single set of Post-2015 goals, no matter whether it will be called post-MDG, SDG or something completely different with a legitimate Post-2015 framework.

More voices are being heard and agendas pushed forward, all of which will need to be integrated into one agenda by 2015. This complex web of parallel political and societal consultations are still ongoing processes. The SDGs and the Post-2015 agenda seem to diverge, but it is too early to make any predictions on the outcomes at this stage. The Broker will follow these consultations closely. The main challenge is to give shape to an integrated global approach. To feed into this challenging process, The Broker will bring together the knowledge and opinions of different stakeholders, analysing them in this dossier on Post-2015 Water goals and in other future dossiers on crosscutting themes.


  1. ECE, ESCAP, UNDESA, UNEP, UNFCCC (2012). UN System Task Team on the Post 2015 UN Development Agenda: Building on the MDGs to bring sustainable development to thepost-2015 development agenda, May 2012. Accessible here.
  2. Green, D. Hale, S. & Lockwood, M. (2012). How can a Post-2015 Agreement Drive Real Change? The political economy of global commitments, Oxfam: November 2012. Accessible here.
  3. The UN Task Team on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2012). Realizing the Future We Want for All: Report to the Secretary General, New York: June 2012. Accessible here.
  4. Vives, G. (2012). UN Releases Details of its Process to Create a Post-2015 Development Framework’, Beyond 2015. Accessible here.
  5. UN General Assembly (2013). Agenda Item 20: Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals. Accessible here.