While the UN High Level Panel on post-2015 is in full swing, the intergovernmental process, primarily the Open Working Group (OWG) on sustainable development goals (SDGs), has yet to come into existence. Agreed at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (‘Rio+20’) last June, the OWG was meant to be launched at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2012 but to no avail.
Rio+20 follow up in 2nd committee of the UNGA
Since then, Rio+20 follow-up discussions took place in the 2nd committee of the UNGA, only slightly hindered by the non-existence of the OWG and Hurricane Sandy. The resulting omnibus resolution tabled by Egypt recognizes “that eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development” and urges for a “speedy implementation” of the Rio+20 outcomes but makes little in the way of decisive recommendations.
Setting up the Open Working Group on SDGs
The delay for the OWG is disagreement among member states on how many seats should be allocated per region – a hot topic given the popularity of the OWG. More than 90 states are interested in holding one of the 30 seats. After rumours of a ‘Committee of the Whole’, it seems that there is finally an agreement to stick with the original plan of 30 seats, possibly with regional chairs and rolling membership for the remaining seats. Colombia, as the originator of the SDG proposal at Rio+20, seems a likely contender, as does Brazil, who oversaw the OWG set-up. Many other countries, including France, Japan, Bangladesh and the UK, have been named as potential participants, but it might be best to wait for the announcement requested by the newly appointed President of the General Assembly, Vuk Jeremić, expected on 17 December.
According to Jeremić, the OWG will get down to business at the beginning of next year. After an initial orientation phase, the OWG should start consulting with stakeholders, ideally with a well-resourced, transparent, inclusive and two-way communication mechanism in place from the start (I feel I am allowed some wishful thinking at this time of the year). The Group is expected to submit regular reports to the UNGA, with final recommendations at some point between September 2013 and June 2014 (‘phase 2’). The OWG will be supported by the same team of technical experts that supports the post-2015 High Level Panel.
What might happen next?
The upcoming MDG review summit in September 2013 would provide a good handover moment from the HLP to the OWG and for following-up on UN and Member State input during the Summit. If everything goes according to the UN Secretary-General’s plan, then this will also be the moment when one integrated UN process continues the work on the post-2015 (sustainable) development agenda.
After the OWG has submitted their final report, which I predict won’t happen much before June 2014, the intergovernmental process will take over. One recommendation for ‘phase 3’ is to start out with a technical process and keep the fun and games of fully-fledged negotiations until the very, very end.
While the UN ploughs on, other multi-lateral processes are also picking up the post-2015 agenda, with the OECD DAC High Level Meeting in early December in London and the G20 in St Petersburg in September 2013 focusing on it.
Possible country directions
UN processes beyond the HLP remain quite nebulous, especially when it comes to civil society engagement. But country contributions to the HLP give at least some indication where countries sit. Inequality, for example, is a popular post-2015 topic for the Asian countries, while some Latin Americans prefer to keep it within state sovereignty. The UK is very fond of accountability, transparency and other ‘good governance’ topics that form David Cameron’s ‘golden thread’ for development. The UK also shares a passion for metrics and data with several other developed countries. Meanwhile, Japan is very active, with not only a member on the HLP but also convening the Japanese contact group which meets in December in Istanbul for the fifth and final time, as well as having hosted the UN thematic consultation meeting on growth and employment last May 2012.
Another topic that will remain high on the agenda is the global partnership for development, which MDG 8 failed to deliver. The new partnership will need to include additional actors, particularly the private sector, and additional income streams such as domestic revenue where taxes are not currently being spent where they should be, and maybe some innovative finance models. At the same time, donor countries will be pushed to meet their pledge of 0.7% for ODA.
Which path will lead to the post-2015 framework?
Nevertheless, the quest for a ‘global overarching cross-thematic framework to succeed the Millennium Development Goals’ – as Beyond 2015 (www.beyond2015.org) puts it – continues. It is not at all certain that the different UN processes will funnel into one stream. Although both the HLP and the OWG have committed to an integrated process leading to one set of goals, this resolve is starting to crumble a bit at the edges. The UNGA resolution on Rio+20 follow-up already speaks about ‘synergy, coherence and mutual support’ rather than full integration. Brazil openly talks about its preference for two processes with two sets of goals at the end.
For governments, as well as many other institutions, the problem lies often with the fact that different ministries, departments and divisions lead on the post-MDG (poverty/development) or SDG (environment/sustainability) agenda respectively. If it’s not possible to decide who should lead, there’s always the option of following the UK’s example and installing a cross-ministry office for joint work on post-2015.
Policy-makers, academics and civil society are also starting to voice concerns that it might be difficult to bring the two agendas together into one holistic approach, such as the coherent framework proposed by the UN Task Team. But we knew it would be hard; if there was a simple solution, we would already be doing it. Still, there is no point in trying to end poverty without ensuring environmental sustainability. After all, that is what sustainable development is at its core. And there is definitely still enough time and to come up with a solution that reflects the need to ensure a stable environment and resilience against natural shocks in order to effectively address poverty.