Thoughts on the UN SG’s post-2015 synthesis report


The next stepping stone in the post-2015 process is the long-anticipated Synthesis Report from the UN Secretary General due out as an advanced unedited copy on Thursday 4th December. This report will draw on multiple inputs, such as the Open Working Group (OWG) proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, the UN High Level Panel report from 2013 and the report on financing sustainable development also from last year, as well as many more letters, position papers and petitions from across civil society and other stakeholders. Bringing together these diverse strands is obviously a difficult task and getting the right balance between these different pieces will require great diplomatic skill.

What happens to the OWG proposal?

At the end of the final OWG session, India reassured the Kenyan and Hungarian Co-chairs that in the context of deep divides between Member States, the outcome was a good one overall but “complex, with things we deeply dislike and things we deeply like.” Many countries have retained outstanding reservations on specific goals and targets, which indicate challenges for the final phase of negotiations.

Yet increasingly, the majority of countries are calling for the OWG package of 17 goals and 169 targets not to be reopened, for three reasons:

  • it was produced through an open, legitimate and inclusive process;
  • the level of ambition is likely to decrease in further negotiations;
  • there are many important pieces of the post-2015 puzzle still to be dealt with, not least the architecture, implementation and accountability of this new global agenda.

A small number of outliers are pushing for the OWG outcome document to be renegotiated, on the belief that the 17 goals represent an unimplementable and uncommunicable package. But it looks as if these arguments are increasingly failing to hold the day.

This division means a tough job for Ban Ki-Moon, whose report has to respect the boundaries placed by the UN member states whilst simultaneously providing guidance and leadership for the final phase of the post-2015 process.


Some people have been talking about meta-goals or clusters as a way of providing the simple, coherent narrative that some countries say is missing from the current package whilst respecting the proposal which has put forward by the OWG. This could either add another layer of unnecessary complexity to the already convoluted structure of goals, targets and indicators, or it could bring the ‘all and sundry’ package together into a neater bundle.

Cluster table

Different suggestions on how to “cluster” the goals

If the UN SG chooses to use the cluster device, it will be crucial that he respects equally the various elements of the sustainable development agenda. Beyond 2015 recently affirmed its commitment to People, Planet and Participation as essential components of a framework that delivers.

My concern is that, with a smaller constituency of champion countries and civil society advocates, ‘Planet’ is likely to drop off the table. The rhetoric of most heads of state and government shows that few are yet to understand that without the environment, there is nothing for our societies or our economies to be built on. The recent push for growth at all costs at the G20 shows that this is endemic across different multilateral forums.

UNEP's proposal on clustering the SDG goals and targets

UNEP’s proposal on clustering the SDG goals and targets

UNEP recently put out a proposal which brings together the different elements of the current goals and targets but even there, the environmental sustainability part of this new sustainable development agenda seems to be a bit lost.

Managing so many targets

The second challenge faced by those engaging in the post-2015 process is the number and quality of the targets. Serious thinking and work is needed to make them consistent, coherent and measurable. The Kenyan and Irish co-facilitators’ Food for Thought paper suggests that some kind of ‘technical proofing’ exercise will be done. While this is necessary, it shouldn’t mean removing all the process targets for outcome-based tick box exercises.

The ideal outcome

We’re coming to the end of the post-2015 process after what feels like a long haul. We need an injection of inspiration for the final phase of intergovernmental negotiations to make sure that member states and civil society alike remain motivated to produce a meaningful agreement in September 2015. The UN SG is well-placed to do this, able to maintain distance from siloed priorities or too much technical detail to see the bigger picture. Let’s hope that the long-awaited synthesis report does this. My ideal framework? 15 goals which would keeping the comms geeks happy whilst preserving the richness of the substance, with 3 – 5 targets beneath each to make it manageable when it comes to national level implementation. And let’s start the conversation about the other pieces of the post-2015 framework that will make effective.

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