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The General Assembly Blesses a New Set of Universal Development Goals


A schoolgirl in northern Nigeria
A schoolgirl in northern Nigeria. The new set of development goals, to endure through 2030, refer to education in many respects, such as providing universal access to primary school, especially in developing countries. JOE PENNEY

For some time, it seemed that United Nations debates over a new set of 15-year global development goals would last nearly as long as the goals themselves. But nearly three years of formal, informal and “informal informal” negotiations finally came to a close on Aug. 2, with agreement by General Assembly consensus on this hugely ambitious international development plan.

Laid out in a 29-page document, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the agreement commits all 193 UN member states to work collectively toward the achievement of 17 new Sustainable Development Goals and 169 associated targets, from 2016 until their 2030 deadline.

“We have a big, bold agenda before us,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, hailing the agreement. “Now we must work to make it real in people’s lives.”

The document’s approval by acclamation last Sunday evening in a packed UN conference hall prompted prolonged cheers and a standing ovation, with much of the applause directed personally — and appropriately — at the relentlessly genial and pragmatic “co-facilitators” of the post-2015 negotiations, Macharia Kamau, the UN ambassador from Kenya, and David Donoghue, Ireland’s ambassador to the UN. Their alternating applications of personal charm, geopolitical trade-offs, editing finesse and sleep-deprivation techniques prevailed, with delegates succumbing to their pleas for consensus just 48 hours after the original July 31 deadline.

But it remains unclear how much resonance their diplomatic achievement will matter beyond the UN and its acolytes in foreign ministries, development agencies and nongovernmental advocacy groups. Wire services filed dutiful dispatches about the agreement on Aug. 2, but few major media outlets spotlighted the news. Even the UN’s own news site gave it short shrift, burying the post-2015 story beneath more immediate and compelling crises in Burundi and Syria.

Ban’s accolades at a UN press conference the next day, Aug. 3, generated a bit more attention, yet hardly on the scale one might expect for a solemn new global pact to end poverty, ensure peace and prevent environmental disaster, all within the next 15 years.

To be fair, few in the wider world will pay much heed to the SDGs, as they are called, until they are ratified by world leaders at a UN summit meeting from Sept 25-27. Though their adoption is a foregone conclusion, formal debates at the three-day gathering next month should draw wider attention to the new goals.

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Yet those discussions will also expose anew the continuing tensions and dissensions among member states that were temporarily obscured by Sunday’s consensus. Most of those conflicts are ultimately about money: where are the resources to help all countries meet all the new goals? And what about the additional costly climate-change commitments being proposed by the UN in Paris in December? How will those costs be allocated fairly? Will those most responsible for global warming contribute enough financial aid to those who are least responsible yet most harmed by climate change? (Such was the subtext of the long, arcane debate about inclusion of the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities” in the declaration text, a battle that developing countries lost in the final negotiating weekend but intend to fight again in New York in September and in Paris in December.)

The September debates should make news. So should Pope Francis, who addresses the General Assembly on the first morning of the summit meeting, Sept. 25, and is expected to voice strong support for the overarching goals of poverty eradication and environmental preservation — and to call on the wealthy to pay their fare share.

“His visit is very nicely timed,” Donoghue acknowledged with a smile on Aug. 3.

But papal exhortations are unlikely to pry loose the hundreds of billions in new aid commitments that developing nations say they need to achieve these goals. Nor did the UN’s Financing for Development summit meeting in July in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which many participants had hoped would provide an international blueprint for underwriting the SDGs. That did not happen.

The End of Aid?

Even articulating a direct reference to the Addis conference in the final 2030 agenda text proved controversial, with member states divided over whether the financial summit event was a parallel, an integral or a completely separate UN development policy process; and more fundamentally, whether its conclusions would assist or impede new financial commitments to the new goals.

Skepticism about the 2030 agenda goes beyond financing to more basic doubts about its staggering scope and complexity. Successors to the eight Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, which expire in December, the 17 SDGs cover a far wider range of objectives — including commitments to women’s rights, ecosystems protections and better governance — and are intended to apply to all countries, not just the poorer nations targeted by the previous goals.

Perhaps most daunting, the 169 specific action-oriented targets embedded in the 17 SDGs contrast markedly in number to the 18 targets of the MDGs, and the new targets will require monitoring by about 300 still-unassigned statistical indicators over the next 15 years, five times as many that were needed for the MDGs. Those indicators will not be officially selected by member states until March 2016.

But while the SDGs may be far more numerous and ambitious than the MDGs and objectively harder to achieve, they may have greater initial legitimacy among member states and their citizens than the first set of goals.

The new goals were drafted, redrafted and rewritten in a surprisingly open if protracted negotiating process culminating in weeklong General Assembly debates every month this year, from January to July. The sessions were open not just to media but to hundreds of civil-society observers, many of who were invited speakers in the negotiations. And the UN invited online comments and critiques on the proposed SDGs from millions of people around the world and held scores of regional meetings on the new global development agenda.

One of the most striking differences between the SDGs and the MDGs — and that may matter most in impact — is the prominence assigned to women’s empowerment in the new goals, reflecting the prominent roles of women in the diplomatic missions to the UN, at UN agencies and in influential observer groups throughout the post-2015 negotiations.

But the SDGs are unquestionably complex and will be very, very expensive.

“The MDGs were produced by a group of experts behind closed doors, not by 193 member states,” Wu Hongbo, the UN’s under secretary-general for economic and social affairs, told reporters this week.

Those experts included some of the UN’s best public policy and marketing minds, and they were strategically picking and choosing among previously agreed objectives for public health, education and antipoverty progress in developing countries. The MDGs were intended to accelerate that progress in measurable ways to enhance the political case for foreign aid.

UN press briefing on sustainable development goals agreement
At a UN press briefing on Aug. 3, announcing the news of the final sustainable development goals agreement, from left: Wu Hongbo, Macharia Kamau, David Donoghue and Amina Mohammed MARK GARTEN

In Northern Europe, which provides the bulk of international development assistance, that strategy worked. The MDGs helped strengthen grass-roots support for foreign aid in many donor countries, and appropriations rose as a result. Development trend lines also succeeded in most areas, from poverty reduction to school attendance, vindicating the MDGs’ approach.

Conventional wisdom among development economists, however, now says that the MDGs and the aid increases they catalyzed had little causal effect on achieving their targets in poverty eradication, disease prevention and rising gender-balanced school enrollment, among other areas. Most credit, the numbers show, goes not to development aid but to the export-propelled economic dynamism of China, India, Brazil and other rising powers of the South. They lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty and bankrolled a vast expansion of public services.

Now, with the SDGs replacing the MDGs, the post-2015 agenda may be remembered as the end of the age of aid, at least as a central development paradigm. No longer is foreign assistance portrayed as the driver of progress in eliminating poverty, hunger and preventable disease.

Indeed, one early victim of the Addis Ababa financing conference could be the venerable “ought-point-seven” commitment to international development assistance, to which most donor countries have pledged fealty in principle since the 1970s. The promise by wealthy nations to direct at least 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to foreign aid was formally reaffirmed a decade ago, at the Group of Eight and World Development Summit meetings in 2005.

Yet the countries that have kept that promise remain the same Northern European few: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The average aid contribution by developed donor nations has stayed flat in recent years, at about 0.3 percent of GDP, including not just net new assistance but also write-offs of old loans to developing countries.

While the joint declaration adopted at the Addis conference ritually reiterated the 0.7 percent commitment, development aid was hardly emphasized in the statement or at the conference itself. Nor do the new SDGs emphasize foreign aid as the MDGs did.

Why? Nobody expects traditional foreign aid to rise much further. Even if it did, the cost of achieving the new goals seems too high. Many months ago, the World Bank introduced the mantra “trillions, not billions” into the post-2015 discussions. True to the bank’s style, that annual cost estimate for achieving the SDGs may have been financially realistic, but it was politically tone deaf. With a price tag that dauntingly huge, foreign aid seems almost irrelevant.

In Addis, the financing-for-development conversation focused mainly on tried-and-true domestic sources, chiefly private investment and taxes, to bankroll the SDGs. Major new financial development resources can now be found within the developing world, from the new China-led BRICS bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to regional development banks, traditional donor countries pointed out.

Everyone at the conference agreed that combating corruption and tax evasion through concerted international action could free up many billions of dollars — even trillions — for productive investment in developing nations. But there was sharp disagreement, and ultimately no consensus or plan of action on how exactly to achieve this.

The United States, Europe and other donor countries blocked the one concrete proposal on the floor in Addis Ababa for a new General Assembly standing committee on global tax policies, preferring to discuss corporate tax reform and evasion issues within the high-income preserves of the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development. Developing countries and civil society advocates aiming for a global crackdown on business tax havens condemned the failure to give the UN that oversight job.

Yet there was never a realistic chance that the US, the UK, Japan or Germany, among others, would allow the developing-nation majority of UN member states to devise and impose new global taxation rules on their many locally headquartered multinationals. Instead, the wealthy nations meeting in Addis said, yes, by all means, tax the rich — including the untaxed rich in the developing nations of the South that are seeking financial aid from the taxpaying rich of the North.

Even in the high-minded new 2030 agenda declaration, there was a hard Northern edge in some of its economic prescriptions. It was hard not to see the hand of Germany in this flat statement, for example, inserted late in the final negotiating weekend: “Maintaining sustainable debt levels is the responsibility of the borrowing countries.”

That contradicts the principle that has guided debt restructuring since the debt crises of Asia in the 1990s and Latin America in the 1980s, that sovereign debt sustainability is the responsibility of borrowers and lenders alike. (In a concession to developing countries, appended to this dictum in the final text was a begrudging caveat: “however, we acknowledge that lenders also have a responsibility to lend in a way that does not undermine a country’s debt sustainability.”)

Yet that undercurrent of realism about finite external development support may not be a bad thing for the 2030 agenda. Reforms in international taxation and mixed-capital financing for greener infrastructure and public services should offer better long-term returns than aid. All countries will have to rely primarily on their own resources and policies to achieve these new goals — or at least strive to achieve them.

And will they in fact try, even though these daunting new commitments are not binding but “voluntary” and “aspirational,” as the declaration repeatedly emphasizes?

Kamau of Kenya and Donoghue of Ireland certainly think so. “The element of peer pressure will be important,” Donoghue told the press on Aug. 3. “Don’t underestimate the power and impact of these goals and targets on governments around the world.”


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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