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Policy space needed for rights-based development: Saving the new generation of development goals from a new corporations-driven task list

In July 2012 after the Rio+20 Conference was held, the UN Secretary General with the support of the UN agencies launched a process to discuss the Post-2015 development agenda. He commissioned to very specific stakeholders four reports that have just been delivered and will serve as an input to his report to the September 2013 General Assembly Special Event on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The four stakeholders that prepared and submitted reports to the UN Secretary-General are the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (Post-2015 HLP), the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the UN Global Compact (UNGC), and the UN Development Group (UNDG).

Now that these reports have been submitted, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG on SDGs) of the General Assembly is the main ongoing discussion on the upcoming development regime. The OWG is the structure mandated by the Rio+20 conference to develop a set of SDGs for consideration by the General Assembly at its 68ths session (September 2013 – September 2014). The SDGs are expected to be based on the three dimensions of sustainable development: Economic development, social development, and environmental protection, building upon the Millennium Development Goals and converging with the post 2015 development agenda.

The OWG began its activities in January 2013 with the election of two co-chairs (the permanent representatives of Hungary and Kenya), who are in charge of leading the discussions that involve a set of thirty government delegations that represent a total of 69 governments. What is interesting about the OWG methodology is that it includes the participation of the nine Major Groups existing since the Rio 92 conference. Major Groups participate in each OWG session both during the morning hearings with the co-chairs as well as during the panel discussions and intervention periods by governments. This format facilitates Civil Society Organizations’ (CSOs) and social movements’ monitoring of the process and provides a few, albeit limited, windows of participation.

Although the UN Secretary General-led Post 2015 Development agenda process and the OWG on SDG intergovernmental process were formally designed to be independent from each other, and are often presented as such, one is bound to expect that they will strongly influence each other. Particularly, it is expectable that the High Level Panel Report will have a strong influence on the OWG discussions. In fact, the Report was often cited, mostly positively, during the 4th session of the OWG on Social Protection, Decent Work and Employment. The emphasis on the role of the private sector as a source of development finance, which is an argument clearly shared with the high level report, was often brought up by different delegations and stakeholders without addressing fundamental issues such as accountability to citizens instead of shareholders.

The influence that the High Level Panel Report is likely to have on the OWG is problematic to say the least. Numerous social movements and CSOs have strongly reacted to the Report’s regression from Universal Human Rights to a language of Basic Rights, as well as its legitimization of double standards in labor rights by including “good jobs” as a desirable possibility for countries in the Global South in contrast with the standard of decent work expected for the Global North.

DAWN as part of the Women Major Group addressed most of these critical issues at the 4th session of the OWG. It also brought fundamental demands for gender and social justice to the table. We addressed the essential need to redistribute paid and unpaid work amongst all persons as well as among households and the state, the elimination of the gender wage gap and the redistribution of land, credit and other resources, facilitating both access and control by women. We also emphasized the need to universalize social protection systems that are rights-based and invest in the care economy.

Nonetheless, DAWN and the Women Major Group also considered that it was necessary to go one step further and address the elephant in the room: the need for a macroeconomic environment that allows governments to create transformative policy and invest in domestic development within the frame of universal human rights. This issue was brought up by proposing government delegations to contemplate the following goal into the SDG framework: To foster a macroeconomic environment that preserves national policy space for governments to fulfill their human rights obligations and effectively advance the three pillars of sustainable development.

It is clear that any achievable sustainable development agenda requires a critical discussion about the macroeconomic environment in which governments maneuver. Otherwise any new development agenda will be short of transformative, becoming a corporate-driven list of tasks for more impoverished countries to fulfill.

The discussion on macroeconomic policy, however, has been scarcely touched upon. Most expectations in this regard are focused on the 5th session of the OWG that will be held between November 25th and November 27th 2013, in New York. This session will be centered on two major issues: Sustained and inclusive economic growth and macroeconomic policy questions as well as energy. 

Strong and articulated presence of CSOs and social movements is needed at this stage, with clear and strong policy recommendations to all stakeholders. This requires the operative inclusion of a goal to implement equitable trade as well as investment, economic and financial rules that preserve national policy space. CSOs’ proposals should also address the controversial issue of means of implementation taking the development agenda away from the current overemphasis on public-private partnerships, prioritizing instead public financing.

Masaya Llavaneras Blanco is a Research Associate at Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era –DAWN.

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