Agenda 2030: A new path for all?

Barbara Unmüßig
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"To tell you right away: I do not share the euphoria"

In September 2015, leaders from 193 countries gathered in New York to adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In this speech, Barbara Unmüßig analyzes, why these goals are not yet a paradigm shift.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,

I am delighted to have the opportunity to present my thoughts and also my critique around the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. The Agenda has been adopted by the Heads of States and Governments of all UN Member States in September 2015 and includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These SDGs seek to address economic, social and environmental issues in a sustainable manner.

My impression is that many are euphoric about the new Agenda and regard the SDGs as a milestone or even a paradigm shift. Those optimists go even so far and say, the SDGs even will create a course correction in global development politics.

To tell you right away: I do not share the euphoria and I will, of course, give you reasons for that.

Nonetheless, I know that the SDG process has achieved a great deal:

1. The SDGs are way better than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We are finally back where the 1992 Earth Summit has already been: bringing issues of justice, poverty reduction and environment as well as social sustainability together.

2. The SDGs are negotiated multilaterally. I highly value that these multilateral negotiations have achieved a set of goals in such a complicated world of governance, a world full of clashes of interest. The same can be said about the climate convention in Paris.

Nonetheless, the Agenda says nothing about the implementation in terms of the quality of policies, in terms of the measures, instruments and time frame. An intended course correction will depend on policies (rights based approaches, which need to be socially just and participatory) and what kind of technologies (socially and environmentally sound).

3. The SDGs in contrast to the MDGs were based on consultation, organized by the UN and some governments. But who was asked and who not in these consultations is highly disputed amongst civil society organizations of all kind. Who owns the process now or who is legitimized to speak on whose behalf, will continue to be a highly contested area.

4. It is very positive that the SDGs are universally valid, they apply to every country. Again, SDGs differ from the MDGs which were meant to be implemented only by developing countries. SDGs are going to become the litmus test for the political will of developed countries.

The German Bertelsmann Foundation published a study which examines and highlights how far OECD countries are prepared and ready to hold up their end of the new global deal on the SDGs. The study reveals that currently OECD countries vary greatly in their capacity to meet the Agenda’s ambitions.

The main challenges for the OECD countries in terms of the SDGs are: are they able to foster inclusive economic models? That means overcoming the growing gap between poor and rich people as well as sustainable consumption and production patterns such as reducing their high ecological footprint in terms of all kinds of use of resources and emissions (CO2, waste, etc.).

It is up to parliaments and civil society to establish relevant processes, strong indicators and time frames to hold our government in OECD countries accountable. The Bertelsmann Study can be one of the references and is a good start.

So far my positive view.

Why do I remain skeptical and why do I not share the euphoria?

I doubt the impact of the SDGs on global economic and financial policies very much. At their best, they remedy the ongoing “Business As Usual”-Agenda. What we still experience is a dominant fossil agenda, a development model which is driven by investments that are not proofed to be socially and sustainably sound. The SDGs are not guiding the economic decision making. Ask economic leaders if they know the SDGs at all. I have tried it on several occasions. Be it the G7 or the G20 – the old and newly build International Development Banks such as the New Development Bank BRICS or the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – they do not follow the SDGs as a framework. Instead they continue to invest in the exploration of minerals, coal, gas and oil, in mobility policies which are based on individual and private cars instead of public transportation or in an agro-industrial agriculture.

The SDGs were negotiated in a three years process. Many fought and lobbied hard for an agenda that would reflect the core principles of Human Rights, equality, justice, democratic participation and non-discrimination. And definitely one can declare partial success.

But don’t let us neglect what is deeply missing: From my perspective the SDGs are not ambitious enough. Structural and fundamental reforms and changes are not in sight. A missed opportunity for example is that there is no roadmap for phasing out socially and ecologically damaging subsidies, even though we know that this would have a real and positive impact on sustainable and social inclusive development.

Unfortunately, the Agenda 2030 does not refer strongly enough to already existing binding but barely implemented international law and social and environmental agreements. A good example is the right to food and nutrition. Of course the Goal 2 refers to ending hunger, however the right is not explicitly mentioned in any target neither the environmental dimension is integrated sufficiently into the targets. It would have been a great sign if the SDGs would have taken the already existing conventions and international agreements into account (e.g. the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of Food Security, Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, AICHI Biodiversity targets of the Convention of Biological Diversity).

More, the SDG process has missed to put topics on the agenda which have not been regulated by international agreements and conventions. One is the massive litter pollution, especially the pollution of the ocean with plastic. Production and consumption of plastic needs urgently a limit. This is a real missed opportunity.

SDGs are still lacking in coherence. Isolated and sectoral political management of political fields has long since reached its limit. Coherent and trans-disciplinary policies are needed more than ever. National Action Plans therefore need to make all branches of government responsible for implementing the SDGs and not only the development department. Issues such as climate change, migration and food security are directly linked and policies need to focus on their interdependency.

The implementation of the National Action Plans definitely needs to be observed and needs an alert civil society which takes their watchdog function and their role as public opposition seriously. In many countries, however, the emancipatory role, the role as a countervailing power or as a watchdog of policies of government and international organizations is dramatically shrinking due to so called NGO laws. Discrimination and criminalization of civil society organizations’ activities increases over the last years. We can observe that increasingly a plethora of legal, administrative and repressive measures undertaken by governments primarily target social movements and NGOs that stand up to large-scale projects (such as exploring coal, oil or gas reserves), and also to land grabbing or other infrastructure projects.

China, Russia, India, Ethiopia, Turkey or Cambodia are not alone in exerting pressure on environmentalists as members of civil society. Wherever strategic natural resources – coal, oil, gas, water, forests, land, and biodiversity – are exploited, those in power resort to strategies in order to safeguard their power and preserve their business interests. Human rights are universal and mandatory. Governments therefore need to guarantee and protect basic rights such as the right of assembly, freedom of speech and opinion etc.

Yes, the SDGs have the potential to become an improved reference frame for global development and might also be a reference for environment politics.

Crucial and a premise will be that

  • the structural causes of poverty and inequality, the causes of environment and resource degradation has to be always part of the agenda. If not, particular the economic and political reasons will be forgotten, although there are some positive approaches within the SDGs (SDG 10 = reduce inequality within and between countries or target 5.2. to ensure legal rights for women to landownership);
  • the goals need to be implemented by the governments entirely. There is the danger that states will only realize their “favorite goals” and such goals, which are easy to achieve or implement.

The civil society needs to demand firm criteria and indicators, which could allow a credible implementation of the SDGs. But for that political freedom is necessary. We can remind the states and governments of the world that they have signed the SDGs. For example, when the G20 meet, in Germany 2017, when the German government will be host of the G20 or when governments are reviewing or negotiating old and new soil and environmental safeguards at least for public banks.

All in all I am quite sure – despite all universality – the implementation of the SDGs will be delegated to the development politics and will be a new reason to mobilize international funding for its realization. The great transition which we urgently need, will not be done through the SDGs. I hope they are an important but not the crucial element. And as I said: They are multilaterally, though voluntarily, but they are tied into the UN system. It’s better than having them not.

This speech was held by Barbara Unmüßig on 14 January 2016 at the conference "Agenda 2030: What Role for Human Rights?"