Counting from the Zero Draft Up: Is there still room to build an integrated development agenda

By Layla Saad and Marcio Pontual

On June 2nd, 2014, following the 11th session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals, the co-chairs released a Zero-draft of the goals and targets that will guide this new phase of SDG fine-tuning. That means that in its 12th session (16-20 June, 2014), the group members will negotiate based on a text that attempts to synthesize what was discussed during the preceding stocktaking phase. The task ahead is not small, by any means. In the next two final sessions, delegates will have ten (10) formal working days to agree what will be included in the report that will be submitted by the OWG to the General Assembly for appropriate action.

The Zero drafts list of Focus Areas (or suggested Goals) is vast and covers a range of intentions, from wallflower targets to some bold propositions. As indicated by IISD (2014) “Under the first 16 SDGs, there are 166 targets. Goal 17 has 46 MOI [A/N: Means of Implementation] targets.” By comparison, the MDGs sported 8 goals and 21 targets. A welcome reincorporation of the Goal to “reduce inequality within and among countries” has brought the latest Goal count up to 17 from 16 (down from the original 19 areas that were proposed).

A quick glimpse at the list reveals an emphasis on the social dimensions of a new framework, outweighing the environmental and economic dimensions which seem to lack clarity and precision. Seven are easily associated to social dimensions whereas environment and economics can be matched to three each. Other Goals combine social/economic or economic/environment dimensions however even in these the social aspect prevails.  In theory this emphasis is welcome since after all, development frameworks are about people. But is this focus coming at the cost of a more deeply transformational agenda that recognizes the inter-linkages between social justice and an economic order that creates exclusion and mismanages natural resources in favour of the few?

While to-date the OWG has done quite a remarkable job in integrating several thematic areas called upon by diverse sectors including human rights, inequality, rule of law and peace amongst others, the list of Goals seem to lack the integrated approach that was so emphasized in the Rio+20 Conference and its resulting Outcome Document The Future We Want.

Paragraph 246 of the Rio+20 Outcome Document exemplifies this stating that “the goals should address and incorporate in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and their inter-linkages”. Interestingly, whether intentional or not, this lack of integration potentially reduces points of friction between delegates as they go into intergovernmental negotiations since they do not stir deep rooted vested interests on the economic and environmental front.

As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Sustainable Development is generic enough for no one to outright oppose it as an idea. However, in the panning out of the details, disagreement may well start to ooze out from the negotiating rooms.

The sticky points are likely to pertain to goals and targets that imply shifts in power dynamics -particularly economic – as well as those that attempt to detail responsibility as is found in the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). Therefore, it is far easier for example for delegates to approve socially oriented ideas such as goal #1 than economic (goal #8) or environmental (goal #15).

With a tight deadline ahead, it is understandable that negotiators are trying to cut corners and pick topics and language that will facilitate consensus. Altogether, two OWG sessions remain as well as a few General Assembly sessions leading up to September 2015 in order to put all the nails in the MDG coffin and transfer the development agenda to the SDG crib.

The release of this Zero Draft is a sign that the SDG and Post 2015 development agenda is moving forward. However, getting all Member States to agree on a universal development agenda that will last until 2030 is a daunting task. Neither the negotiation process or subsequent road to implementation will be simple, but we appear to be on the right – albeit bumpy – path.

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