Friday, June 8, 2012

Sustainable Development Goals for the New Generation

By Olimar Maisonet-Guzman and Ben Vanpeperstraete, May 2, 2012

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a contentious proposal among Member States that are currently negotiating the outcome document for Rio+20. Member States and the international community are looking for the successors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will expire in 2015. The current framework helped the international community to rally behind a common understanding of poverty eradication, and it provided targets and indicators to guide policy decisions. However, the MDGs overemphasised economic poverty and gave limited attention to the structural causes of poverty or to sustainable development.

In the meantime, the historical and development context, in which MDGs were anchored, has changed. For example, the world has seen the rise of the middle-income countries, making poverty and inequality more complex issues. Additionally, climate change, water, and biodiversity loss further complicate the interdependencies between poverty eradication and environmental protection. SDGs are emerging as a prospect for the post-2015 framework, and as better indicators for measuring sustainable development.

The Debate

The debate on the post-2015 framework can be summarized in three ideas:

- Keeping the current MDGs but extending their deadline to 2020 or 2025;
- Proposing an upgraded version of the MDGs with global goals, but providing more
room for nationally appropriate indicators;
- Proposing a global agreement that combines poverty eradication targets for
‘developing countries’ and sustainable consumption targets for the ‘developed

The latter proposal presents a more bold and visionary policy position that reflects the needs of young people and future generations. Additionally, these goals will represent the shifting sustainable development paradigm.

Sustainable Development Goals

SDGs should have sufficient ambition to meet environmental and social challenges. The new SDGs framework should tackle the underlying drivers of social injustice and environmental degradation. Furthermore, it should consider the links between poverty, gender inequality, climate change, biological diversity, and human rights’ protection.

With less than three weeks of negotiations left, it would be hard to capitalise on the valuable lessons of the MDGs to develop a common understanding of poverty eradication that can be translated into an action-oriented framework. Thus, what we could do at Rio+20 is provide strong guidance on the process to develop the post-2015 framework, crucial content, and guidance on structure.


Rio+20 should promote an inclusive process. Namely, SDGs must be deliberated through an open, transparent, and accountable process. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development identifies that access to information and decision-making is the foundation of good environmental governance. A series of national consultations of people impacted by poverty should be run through 2013 and the results must be carefully considered in the formation of the SDGs. The final deliberation of the goals must be completed by 2015, making the SDGs an operational framework starting on 2015 until 2030.

This framework must promote compatibility with the MDGs. The MDGs remain a valid set of objectives in their own right. The UN General Assembly office, under the guidance of the UN Secretary General, is considering the post-MDG framework. The Secretary General has stated that the adoption of the SDGs must be streamlined with the follow-up of the MGS. In a recent report, the Secretary General acknowledged Rio+20 as an important international event that could contribute to the post-2015 framework. Hence, the SDG goals should not create an additional process to the elaboration to the post-2015 framework for development.

The process should provide opportunities to harness synergies between the experienced negotiators in environmental sustainability and those who are active in development.


We believe that negotiators have considerable expertise to provide additional guidance on the content of SDGs. Documents such as Agenda 21, the Forest Principles, the Rio Conventions, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, and the draft decision on Sustainable Production and Consumption, offer valuable language on how to operationalise the interlinked nature of SDGs and to capitalise on synergies across sectors.

The specific trade-offs between environmental sustainability and economic development must be addressed by negotiators at Rio+20. Consequently, it is important to provide additional guidance on international cooperation on specific sectors such as: energy, climate, oceans, food, and water. While the MDGs have too much a focus on the economic dimension of development, we should not get carried away by focussing exclusive on environmental targets. We must guarantee that all dimensions of sustainable development are considered, and both Green Economy and Institutional Framework elements are covered. Moreover, we must include references to human rights, gender equality, and social justice.

For example, goals could include targets for resource efficiency, production processes, and the phase-out of fossil fuel subsides. In terms of institutional frameworks there is a need to include targets for national social protection floors and for the establishment of specific sustainable development institutions. Clear references to existing human rights’ treaties must also be visible in the proposals.


The agreement on SDGs should be universal. SGDs should be accompanied by guidance and direction for all countries, developed or developing ones. Consequently, it is a process that should be co-chaired by developed and developing nations. The common but differentiated responsibilities will be considered a guiding principle. Nevertheless, SDGs provide with an opportunity to focus action by considering the respective capabilities of states in delivering progress on the goals. Given that equity should run like a common theme through the SDGs, the framework must target inequality between and within countries, and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised peoples.

A strong accountability framework and related institutional arrangements should be developed to guarantee the implementation and compliance of the sustainable development proposals that will stem out of Rio+20. A UN General Assembly Council on Sustainable Development seems like a premier venue to make timely assessment and provide political and technical assistance to countries on their strategies to achieve SDGs.

Finally, such framework should also include an Intergovernmental Panel on Sustainable Development to offer new strides in inter- and multidisciplinary scientific consensus. We consider the proposal of an Ombudsman for Future Generations as a crucial component for the promotion of sustainable development. The Ombudsman will be able to translate these identified challenges into politically salient issues and guide further debates with a view on the long-term stakes.

The debate on SDGs is one that will last beyond Rio+20, because of the need to establish a post-2015 framework that reflects the realities of sustainable development and streamlines existing MDGs’ strategies.

Although we do not expect Rio+20 to bring answer to all sustainability challenges, we expect it to be the stepping stone for stronger institutional frameworks and an economy that truly reflects the interests of ours and future generations.


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