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Finishing the Unfinished Business with Sustainable Development Goals

By Fabíola Ortiz

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) - The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all about “finishing the unfinished business” of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), says Amina Mohammed, special adviser to the UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon on post-2015 development planning. 

The international community adopted a set of 17 new development goals with its 169 targets by 2030 during the Sustainable Development Summit at the United Nations headquarters September 25-27 in New York. Instead of eight MDGs that expire this year, the post-2015 agenda has gathered a higher number of objectives. [P19]  JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF

It required three-and-a-half years to get the scope of what would be the challenges the world should prioritize in the next 15 years.

Mohammed assures that this time it won’t be putting a ‘band-aid’ on the world’s problems. “We are going to talk about the root causes not the symptoms. The MDGs were a success, we wouldn’t be talking about a successor set of goals if they hadn’t worked to a degree, but the MDGs remain unfinished business,” she said talking to a small group of journalists.

There is a difference from what MDGs represented in the early years of 2000 “when a few men prescribed for the world what we should be doing in the following 15 years”.

Much has changed since then. “What we have now is universal goals. The agenda is for everybody. It is about a world that we all understand that it is inextricably linked. The SDGs are a response to the shared vision of how we are going to make sure by 2030 that we do eradicate poverty and how we deal with a number of complex issues”, Mohammed stressed.

For Kitty van der Heijden from the World Resources Institute (WRI), it may not sound as a revolution but the new set of goals has in its essence an innovative content. “It has the potential to transform our economies, our lives and our ecosystems. The 17 goals do something that MDGs have never done, that is, leaving no one behind. It is a step beyond,” she told IDN in an exclusive interview.

Sustainable development means a balance between three pillars of the economic, environmental and social. According to Heijden, in the past decades global economies grew significantly (world’s GDP more than tripled since 1990), the world achieved some equity by halving extreme poverty, but there are still big challenges in terms of gender equity and sexual reproductive health.

“We have grown our economies but have not been able to distribute economic and social wealth equitably across the world. In this regard, we have seen very bad news, rates of biodiversity loss, soil degradation, climate change, ocean acidification, fresh water scarcity, all these are in an accelerating negative trend,” declared Heijden.

According to the UN special adviser on Post-2015, MDGs did not look at the “root causes” of what was excluding people from the economy and why there was poverty. It failed to address a much wider and integrated perspective.

“On health, we did manage to deal with diseases such as HIV and Tuberculosis. But they were dealt in a silent manner; we didn’t look into the health systems. With the neglect of health systems we saw the outbreak of Ebola that really set us back years because our systems were too weak,” commented Mohammed.

That is the ‘band-aid’ the world should avoid and do not repeat, she stressed.  “We tried to address problems up the face, but we didn’t go to the root causes. Now we should go beyond the quick fix.”

However civil society groups view the new development agenda with some scepticism, especially in regard to implementation.

“We’ve made huge progress on the MDGs, but if we don’t get the environmental component we face the huge risk of eroding all the gains we’ve made. Ultimately, this agenda needs to be judged not on the words that are written but on the actions that are implemented,” said Deon Nell, Acting Executive Director for Conservation at WWF, thinking ahead.

The world is reaching an irreversible tipping point in which there are many reasons to be “quite negative”, Nell told a small group of journalists. Humanity is consuming a huge amount of resources at about 1.5 planets each year, 60 per cent of the vital life ecosystems are declining and 2015 was considered the warmest year on record, Neil added.

On the other hand, civil society organisations have taken note of some signs of change. “This new agenda is literally a grassroots business plan for transforming the planet. There’s a lot to be done, but it is certainly a starter of transforming the world. We have more ownership to this process, it might not be perfect but it was developed from the ground up”, Nell highlighted.

Nevertheless, in the opinion of Eni Lestari, an Indonesian rights activist, the SDGs show contradictions and are failing in address migrants’ needs.

“Millions of women and men are pushed away from their land into poverty to make way for development, agribusiness, oil plantation, mines and real estates. Millions of us are forced into becoming a cheap explored labour force and many may also become refugees. Millions of us are displaced by climate change and disasters becoming the underclass of globalization having denied our basic rights of citizens”, criticized Lestari who chairs the International Migrants Alliance (IMA).

Although some development goals tackle general inequalities, there have been no funding commitments to make real changes, Lestari told a small group of journalists reporting from the UN. “There is nothing in the agenda that commits governments to change the system that causes poverty.”

In her opinion, if the private sector and corporations are to finance the SDGs, there is a risk that they may not properly address the root causes.

There is still a gap between how much it is going to cost to realize the SDGs and the willingness of the international donors. “That gap is huge and it runs into the trillions of dollars every year”, stated Paul O’Brien, the vice president for Policy and Campaigns at of Oxfam America.

For him, given incentives for domestic expenditures particularly in developing countries, there would be enough money available to finance SDGs.

“We have time and money to achieve all the goals,” assured O’Brien. The question is if there is enough political will. “I don’t think that everybody is going to rush back to their own countries and start investing in their goals”.

According to Amina Mohammed, the UN special adviser, the answer lies in making global partnerships. “The trillions exist in this world, they are locked up in private equity funds and different sources of investments. And we have to find the keys to unlock them, we do have the resources to do the SDGs.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 September 2015]

Photo: Amina Mohammed, special adviser to the UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon on post-2015 development planning | Credit: Fabiola Ortiz

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