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Second Committee Holds Substantive Discussion on SDGs

16 October 2012: The UN General Assembly's (UNGA) Second Committee convened a special event on “Conceptualizing a Set of Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) at UN Headquarters in New York, US, on 16 October 2012. The event served as an initial opportunity for participants to discuss the SDGs, in light of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) outcome decision to develop a proposal for SDGs to be considered during the UNGA's 68th session.

Three questions were provided to initiate the discussion: how can the SDGs build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and integrate sustainable development into the post-2015 development framework; how can the SDGs integrate the three pillars of sustainable development; and how to develop universally applicable goals that at the same time take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development.

George W. Talbot, Guyana, Chair of the Second Committee, said the discussion should address substantive issues even while States continue their efforts to allocate the 30 seats on the Open Working Group on SDGs (OWG), which he said he hoped would be resolved as soon as possible. The panel's moderator, Andrew Revkin, Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, said the eventual Goals must accommodate two worlds, the one within the UN and the real world.

The first panelist, Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN, said the SDGs will be developed in a different political and economic context than the MDGs, and they also will be more complex to devise, because: they must include the three pillars of sustainable development and their integration; and they will be universal in nature, not limited to developing countries. He suggested that a climate change goal on global temperature rise, and a biodiversity goal on prevention of loss, could be integrated into the SDGs, among others.

Khalil proposed that different sets of goals could be developed for developing and developed countries, in order to make the agenda universal while accounting for differences. He emphasized costing and identifying means of implementation, applying the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR), and a robust monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) mechanism as key steps in accounting for different national capacities. He also outlined options for partnerships, including for developed countries to “adopt” a number of goals to support in developing countries, or to adopt a group of developing countries in which to support a specific goal.

Khalil called for the various processes to “converge in a complementary and coherent post-2015 agenda.” Finally, he suggested that States should begin the substantive work on SDGs, rather than waiting for agreement on the OWG's procedural aspects.

The second panelist, Manish Bapna, World Resources Institute, highlighted five propositions about the next generation of global development goals. He said the goals should: be forward-looking and tackle inequality; link the three dimensions of sustainable development into each relevant goal, and include explicit goals on global problems such as climate change and energy; be few in number, focused and simple; be universal by engaging, inter alia, developed countries, private sector and the public at large; and be informed by an open and inclusive process involving the poor.

Kate Raworth, Oxfam GB, presented the framework of an Oxfam discussion paper, “Creating a safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut?” She cautioned against putting too much pressure on the nine planetary boundaries identified by scientists – land use change, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, aerosol loading, chemical pollution, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus use, fresh water use, and climate change – noting that these should be seen as a humanist rather than environmental agenda because they affect human lives. She also highlighted social boundaries, including water, education, resilience, jobs, energy, social equity, gender equality, health, food, water, and called for bringing planetary and social boundaries together.

Charles Kenny, Center for Global Development (CGDEV), outlined strengths of the MDGs, including being time-bound and simple. On their weaknesses, he said that by focusing on a fairly narrow set of subjects, the MDGs missed important areas such as the environment and education. He suggested thinking about who should be the target of the goals, and highlighted the difficulty of making good forecasts on where we want to be. Noting that the Millennium Declaration was ignored because it referred to language already used before, he proposed using new language when developing the goals, such as declaring a right to official identity, security, migration, global commons on equal access and equal stewardship.

Shamshad Akhtar, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, said: macro-economic stability is a prerequisite for goals' achievement; governments need to “get out of the silos mentality” to ensure integration; and CBDR will facilitate buy-in from all countries. She also noted that much work remains on the Rio+20 outcomes on the institutional framework for sustainable development, including agreement on modalities for a High-level Political Forum (HLPF) within the UNGA's 67th session. She said the UN Task Team coordinated by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is setting up a special committee to support work on the 30-member intergovernmental body on financing for sustainable development.

Responding to the panelists, Brazil called for keeping an open mind about the SDGs and whether one or two sets of goals will emerge. Benin noted that goals may not be met in some countries, such as least developing countries (LDCs), because of pre-existing conditions. While the UN is a good place to dream, commitments entered into in a “dream-like state” must also be examined against reality, she said.

Morocco highlighted international security, and recommended a preventive and inclusive approach. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) suggested a goal on reduced work time. Nigeria said universal goals would not be achievable, and suggested devising different goals for countries with different development indices. The Children and Youth Major Group stressed CBDR as well as intergenerational equity, and called for financing to be shared between governments and with civil society groups.

The Women Major Group said gender equality, women's rights and empowerment are both cross-cutting and stand-alone issues, and that gender mainstreaming “into a polluted stream” is not enough. She called for transformative changes that end discrimination and violence, and improve access to and control of resources and services. Mexico said the SDGs process first must reach agreement on the UN's broader aspirations. He highlighted financing, evaluating the MDGs, and institutional aspects of sustainable development.

The EU encouraged universal targets and indicators, an inclusive process, and a limited number of actionable goals. Argentina said the High-level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP) and the UN Task Team are initiatives by the UN Secretary-General that will serve as inputs to the OWG discussions. She called for considering two complementary processes or series of objectives in the post-2015 agenda, not only the SDGs.

Tanzania said discussions on the SDGs must be based on poverty eradication and the MDGs. The US highlighted the need for policy convergence between the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and for high-quality data for setting the right goals and indicators.

Gabon stressed the need to consider countries' specificities when developing the SDGs, noting that poverty and targets mean different things for African countries and European countries, for example. Australia called for one set of goals, said the MDGs are unfinished business, and wondered how the HLP and OWG processes will converge. Botswana called for a focus on the MDGs and their remaining gaps as a “perfect foundation” for the broader agenda.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) said each SDG should have a well-defined objective at its center, containing all three dimensions of sustainable development, and emphasized baselines. She also said effective mobilization of resources will be critical to the SDGs' success. The Sustainable World Initiative suggested creating a multi-stakeholder advisory group for the OWG.

The panelists offered concluding comments on: potential goals on consumption and production patterns and on eradicating extreme poverty; the universal importance of jobs; the role of data in setting goals; the need for one set of global development goals, in order to communicate with people around the world about the UN's work; the tension between being transformative and pragmatic; and a possible set of goals for the “top billion” and other ways to make the goals sustainable.

Closing the session, the Second Committee Rapporteur noted that the deadline for the government questionnaire on the SDGs has been extended to 5 November 2012. [IISD RS Sources] [Website of Special Event] [DPI Summary] [DESA Division for Sustainable Development (DSD) Summary]