Last weekend a historic United Nations Summit adopted “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” thus lifting the curtain on a new agenda for development that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed as a global agenda for the 2000 to 2015 period. The Summit convened simultaneously in New York around 170 Heads of State from around the world. This was in addition to the Pope, whose inspirational speech at the UN visibly filled out the vacuum left by today’s lack of statespersons with a global vision. The adopted document contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their 169 targets that were agreed in arduous negotiations over a process spanning over more than three years.
Advocates who have railed against the fraught relationship between human rights commitments and the MDGs will find a lot to welcome in the new goals, several of which are quite progressive. As put by the civil society organizations of the Human Rights Caucus following the negotiations that led to the final outcome, “there are strong aspirational references to human rights and non-discrimination in the outcome document, both in the preamble and in the text itself. The concept of universality is included as well as an effort to leave no one behind. We very much welcome that the 2030 agenda applies to all countries.” Likewise, they stated that “many targets (e.g. on water, health and education) are to some extent aligned with human rights provisions, although explicit human rights language was regrettably avoided.”
The new goals are universal in nature – just like human rights – and include novelties such as targets on equality among and within countries, sustainable production and consumption, climate and industrialization.
There is also a vocation to interlinked and integrated approaches to all SDGs, very akin to the interdependence and indivisibility predicated of human rights and, therefore, superior to the problematic silo-ization and fragmentation that MDGs encouraged in development interventions. But that has yet to be tested in practice. As the UN actively encourages a scattered set of decentralized “partnerships” to address different goals, or even targets (see further below), there is a risk of equating a chaotic juxtaposition of actions at the same time with an “integrated” approach to all goals.
Although the large number and complexity of the SDGs received some criticisms as an obstacle to communications, from a human rights perspective, this might not be such bad news. For the other side of the coin of the perceived obstacle is that the SDGs make for a less technocratic and reductionist approach to development than the MDGs were. As MDGs turned less into a communications tool and more into an actual agenda for development, this led to counterproductive effects, as reported by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Alicia Yamin in summing up findings from a multi-author research project.
However, the ambition of the SDGs, including the aspirational human rights language, will have to face its contradictions with the limited ambition displayed by the international community when it comes to financing their achievement and being accountable for it. This lack of ambition was most evident at the recent Third Financing for Development Conference whose outcome, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, saw, in the balance, a regression over previous commitments made by world leaders on the matter in 2002 and 2008.
The welcome notion of universality bears, itself, some risks for human rights. If interpreted as meaning equal burdens and equal responsibilities by all countries it could mean that the poorest and most vulnerable communities end up suffering further deprivation of their rights.
The Means of Implementation –some grouped together in Goal 17 and others scattered throughout the different SDGs – are definitely a more complete set than their counterpart, MDG 8. Critical items like the systemic issues that refer to the reform of the international financial system, combatting illicit financial flows and enlarging policy space for economic alternatives countries need to implement, are now part and parcel of them.
But this will only be positive provided a number of conditions. First, that in approaching the new agenda, progress on Means of Implementation is assessed at the same level with progress towards the “end” goals and targets – e.g. goals and targets that are not “means of implementation.”
Also, the “Transforming Our World” agreement calls for the Addis Ababa Action Agenda to “help contextualize” the means of implementation. Such “help” in “contextualization” should not be taken as license to constrain or denaturalize the true meaning of the carefully agreed language on the Means of Implementation within the SDGs.
Third, the work on indicators should not be allowed to undermine the substance of the goals, either. That includes a fair measuring of both the “end” goal in question (education, health, water) as well as the means that go into their achievement. Some indications of early work on that front give cause for concern and an open and transparent process as well as vigilant involvement by civil society will be necessary.
Within the expected financing of the SDGs, the role of business deserves a separate reflection. There is a strong focus on partnerships with private sector as actors that can deliver the new agenda. Private sector in this context tends to mean mostly large corporations, rather than the small, medium and micro enterprises that create most jobs around the world and grow the food most of the world population eats. The “Transforming Our World” clarifies that “private sector” is meant to encompass the full diversity of private sector actors (paragraph 67). The reality is that rarely were small and medium enterprises or cooperative representatives, especially from developing countries, present in negotiations and consultations, so the private sector presence is largely dominated by the largest transnationals.
Civil society advocated not a denial of the role that the private sector has to play in delivering the goals, but guarantees that the private sector’s contribution will be under conditions placed by States, cannot replace the responsibilities of States, or consider companies as decision-makers alongside them. This is in conformity with international human rights law which prescribes that States cannot abdicate the obligation of cooperation and assistance for the achievement of human rights.
During post-2015 negotiations and the Third FFD Conference the notion of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development as one led by governments suffered the strongest attack yet. Business companies and developed countries – that stand to win from a dilution of their expected contribution – were the promoters of this attack under the dubious motto that “the world has changed.”
Although, thanks to strong advocacy by civil society, the state-led nature of the Global Partnership survived in the final language, there is no reason to think that attempts to dismantle it will fade away. In fact, on the eve of the Summit, reports uncovered that the expression “global goals” had been licensed to a group of private corporations who, in their promotion efforts, had taken the liberty to reformulate, behind the curtain and with substantive consequences, several of the goals agreed after so delicate and open negotiations at the UN.
At the moment, proposed indicators for the targets on partnerships (Targets 17.16 and 17.17) seem to simply call for more of them, without any further qualification. This is in stark contrast with human rights standards as civil society consistent call throughout the process of negotiations highlighted. Civil society and demanded in repeated interventions that there be clear criteria, applied ex ante, to determine whether a specific private sector actor is fit for a partnership in pursuit of the SDGs, examining whether the private actor has a history or current status of serious allegations of abusing human rights or the environment, conflicts of interest, financial reporting and involvement in corruption, among other things.
The new sustainable development agenda ups the opportunities but also the risks for the resourcing of human rights. Perhaps never more pertinent the words delivered by Pope Francis to Leaders gathered at the Summit: “It must never be forgotten that . . . economic activity is only effective when it is understood as a prudential activity, guided by a perennial concept of justice and constantly conscious of the fact that, above and beyond our plans and programmes, we are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.”
For SDGs (as well as the MDGs that preceded them) are treated as this “forward-looking,” positive agenda we all aspire to. That is fine and perhaps the best that we can expect in an official document. But, will the new goals be treated as justice? As a debt owed to humanity that needs to be settled? Therein lies the ultimate rights test and the clock is, again, ticking.