British Prime Minister David Cameron had two clear messages when he spoke at a post-2015 global development goals forum on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last month.
The first was his emphatic view that the General Assembly panel’s proposal for 17 Sustainable Development Goals with 169 associated “targets” was too unwieldy and unmemorable — literally — to succeed in either practical or advocacy terms.
The Millennium Development Goals, after all, consisted of eight goals with 18 targets, he noted. There should be no more than a dozen “SDGs,” Cameron said flatly, with targets trimmed at least commensurately. Many UN members that agree with Britain on little else share that assessment.
Cameron was speaking both for Britain and as a co-chair of the UN secretary-general’s advisory panel on the next set of global goals. He asserted that explicit commitments to transparency, accountability and rule of law are essential to the SDGs and to development progress generally. This stance is backed to varying degrees by most countries to date, despite strenuous objections from the so-called BRICS bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — and many other influential member states.
Cameron acknowledged the continuing efforts to remove specific governance obligations from the draft SDGs, telling the UN and civil society representatives in the audience: “Don’t let them get away with it.”
Yet his two goals for the post-2015 goals may be at odds.
Trimming the draft goals and targets back to more manageable dimensions is both an editorial and a political process, and it is already quietly underway, involving teams of technical advisers to Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general, and UN agencies, as well as within various General Assembly regional and ideological groups.
If any of the 17 goals proposed is likely to end up on the cutting room floor, it is Goal 16 on governance, which barely survived the preliminary drafting process in the 70-nation General Assembly “open working group” on the SDGs. Their proposed Goal 16 calls on all UN members to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
That draft goal also includes 10 separate targets, ranging from reductions in criminal and political violence to anticorruption measures to better public access to official information to a rather sweeping commitment to “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.”
The MDGs were about ends, not means. They were famously silent on human rights and democratic participation — a central failing in the eyes of some critics, but a key to their success as an internationally embraced goal-setting exercise, the goals’ original authors contend.
The SDGs, unlike the MDGs, are intended to apply to all countries, in North and South alike. While the MDGs set timetables for the systematic reduction of extreme poverty and life-threatening hunger, the proposed SDGs call for the complete elimination of both by 2030 — as well as major new global accomplishments in areas not fully covered by MDG targets, including women’s empowerment. The proposed goal on governance is arguably the most ambitious of all and unquestionably the most contentious.
Something will have to give in the final drafting round; the question is what.
It is not only that a list of 17 goals is difficult to remember. Most countries lack the technical capacity to track the hundreds of new national indicators that would be required by the goals and 169 targets. (Indicators would inevitably be quite numerous; the ratio of indicators (48) to targets (18) in the eight MDGs was almost three to one.)
Nor are there readily available financial or technical resources to close that country-level data-gathering gap. Some critics contend that the data demands alone of the proposed SDGs could cost developing nations hundreds of billions of dollars over the goals’ 15-year life span — money they say could be better spent on accelerating rather than micromonitoring development progress.
Yet to supporters, the proposed goals and targets represent a reasonably balanced if overly comprehensive compromise, forged over 18 months and adopted in July 2014. But reopening that overstuffed package now could endanger some of its most valuable — and vulnerable — components, with governance issues at the top of that list.
This is not another North vs. South confrontation, as some have wrongly portrayed it. Nor does it reflect a consistent divide between democracies and authoritarian regimes.
Many developing countries firmly back the inclusion of strong governance language in the SDGs. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also a co-chair of the secretary-general’s panel on the post-2015 agenda, repeatedly stressed the importance of civic engagement and conflict resolution as development priorities. President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana publicly backed Cameron’s call for a strong governance goal in New York in September and pointed proudly to Ghana’s vibrant free press and civil society as critical national development assets. In Latin America, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica and Guatemala have been consistent advocates of an SDG on governance; Asian advocates include Indonesia, South Korea and (interestingly) Thailand.
But many leading nations remain unpersuaded. Opposition was vigorously voiced by Russia, China and Cuba, but the dissenters also included such leading developing-world democracies as India, Bangladesh, Colombia and Brazil. Their objections included concerns that such targets would become new donor-imposed conditions for development aid and that UN monitoring of progress in governance areas would be an exercise in malicious statistical mischief.
The Arab states fought unsuccessfully for a specific condemnation of foreign occupation in any governance goal, a demand it has vowed to raise anew in the General Assembly next year. And many developing countries argued that if national governments were to be required by the SDGs to become more “transparent and accountable,” this should apply equally to such leading global institutions as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the UN itself.
The highly charged debate on the draft target on freedom of information and media in proposed Goal 16 offered a snapshot of the post-2015 negotiating dynamic, reflecting the broader divisions on the appropriate role of governance and civil liberties — if any — in the next goals. In the draft produced by the General Assembly’s working group, Goal 16 states that UN member states should “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
Previous versions of Goal 16 had included specific targets obligating governments to provide “public access to information and government data, including on public finance management, public procurement and on the implementation of national development plans” and “promote freedom of media, association and speech.”
The elimination of specific references to freedom of expression or media, and the addition of the phrase stipulating that access-to-information guarantees were those deemed consistent with national legislation,” was interpreted by many civil society activists as an endorsement of the status quo for UN member countries, most of which could contend that they are already providing “public access to information” — as they choose to define “access” and information.”
Still, the access-to-information language included in the recommended SDGs was stronger than the phrasing in the penultimate draft, with “ensure” replacing “promote” and the addition of “fundamental freedoms” and “international agreements” explicitly evoking the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legally binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That was a better result than most civil society observers had expected.
The General Assembly is waiting for further editorial and political guidance from Ban Ki-moon’s own recommendations on the post-2015 agenda. This synthesis document is expected by December, drawing on numerous proposals and reports as well as inputs from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a new “Data Revolution” advisory group, the five-million-plus contributions to the UN’s online “The World We Want” consultations, the Rio+20 Declaration that formally urged the adoption of new global development goals and myriad other sources.
Most of these sources have urged expanding the SDGs into the realm of civil liberties, civic engagement and the public’s right to know. Whether a broad majority of the General Assembly will take that advice is shaping up as the central global development policy battle of 2015.
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Bill Orme is an author and strategic communications consultant who worked for the United Nations over the past decade as a leader of global advocacy campaigns and efforts to support independent journalism in emerging democracies. Orme is a former director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a correspondent for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Economist. In addition, he was a spokesman and external communications chief for the UN Development Program and an adviser on media projects in Africa for the Gates Foundation and the UN Peacebuilding Office.
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