No.29 - May 2015

by Richard O’Brien and Stephen Browne

SDGs: Fit for the Future?


The world is confronting escalating climate change, wars, migration, financial mismanagement, cyber-crime, and poverty – all requiring global cooperation through the UN now and in the future. But as the debate continues on its new development agenda, will the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide adequate solutions to these challenges? To judge from the Open Working Group’s (OWG) report, the answer is negative. Means other than the SDGs – under UN or other auspices - will be needed to address some of the most outstanding development obstacles.

The 17 proposed SDGs emerged from the OWG’s deliberations in New York and are now being debated prior to the UN’s September 2015 summit. The thorough drafting process greatly expanded the scope of the original eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The SDGs – and the 169 accompanying explanatory paragraphs – emerged by compiling the interests of a wide range of UN organizational stakeholders in addition to those of 193 member states. The 2012 Rio+20 conference pressed firmly for the environmental dimension to be added to the traditional economic and social sectors, ignoring the more comprehensive 25-year-old human development paradigm. Through a supply-driven process, the three-fold sectoral imprint is clear to see in the OWG report.

But what if the process had started with a demand-driven approach, which would have reviewed the main challenges to human well-being facing the world today, requiring global solutions, and evoking a set of responses centered on UN actions? Would the result have been the same? Are the SDGs the right goals for these major global challenges, today and tomorrow?

The Challenge of Change
There are six major global challenges that are likely to shape our future:
1. climate change and environmental degradation;
2. security challenges from terrorism, crime, and the breakdown of national governance;
3. growing migration and mobility;
4. new realities of financial governance;
5. consequences of technological revolutions; and
6. reduction of poverty and inequality and the promotion of inclusion.

This list does not include universal education and health care, but these six challenges will be key to a successful SDG campaign in two important ways: they will reshape the landscape in unprecedented ways; and they will affect all countries, irrespective of their levels of development. If the SDGs do not anticipate sufficiently the magnitude of change ahead, they will not prove “fit for the future.” 

For example, while the proposed SDGs are fitter for the future in giving greater attention to environment and energy considerations than the MDGs did, they gloss over complex interactions and trade-offs. In addition, while the document singles out the least developed countries, landlocked, small island and African states for special attention, there is nothing about states that are conflict-prone or currently at war. The omission may reflect the difficulty of defining such states, but a straightforward acknowledgement could have been expected. Looking at the state of the world today and during the forthcoming SDG era, peacebuilding will be a growing responsibility for the UN development system. At its deliberations in February 2014, the OWG discussed conflict prevention and peacebuilding, but they are absent from the SDGs. The SDGs are not going to confront the need for greater security. It is time to draw a much more explicit distinction between weak states and other countries in setting targets and allocating resources.

Also glaring is the omission of any references to forced migration provoked by conflict, economic hardship and environmental stress—all factors in the dramatic escalation of sea-borne migrants across the Mediterranean. The scale of spontaneous international migration and displacement now exhausts the resources of humanitarian organizations and is unlikely to abate. The flows of goods, services, and money are the topic for many international institutions – it is surely time to be much more explicit and focused in managing the movement of people.

Read the full version of this briefing paper for more details about how the proposed SDGs currently fall short of addressing the above six global challenges.

The task of defining the SDGs and means of implementation is unfinished. The targets will need to be further defined statistically. The process of drawing up national SDG strategies has scarcely begun and the monitoring mechanisms are undecided. However, the frame of reference for the SDGs has been provided by the OWG and the UN Secretary-General, whose proposal to cluster goals has endorsed them as a basis for ongoing negotiation.

Thus, if the die has not formally been cast, it is unlikely that the framework of the UN’s development agenda will be very different from the existing draft. Yet the “supply-driven” process generated by the OWG has provided an insufficient roadmap. Why?

First, the parameters for the OWG deliberations were too narrow, based on a threefold sectoral definition of development rather than a people-centered UN human development approach.

Second, the deliberations should have begun with a more comprehensive review of the major challenges and crises confronting the world in order to ensure that the SDGs fully appreciate future challenges not just current priorities.

Third, the commendably inclusive process fell back on the limitations of intergovernmental deliberations that, in the interests of achieving consensus, exclude critical issues from consideration.

Fourth, the OWG report is a reflection of the unfortunate tendency in the UN to disassociate “development” from its other main pillars of international peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action.

Means other than the SDGs – under UN or other auspices - will be needed to address some of the most outstanding development obstacles.

Download the full briefing paper 'SDGs: Fit for the Future?' in pdf here.

Richard O’Brien is an international economist and futurist who spent 20 years in international banking, with Rothschilds and as Chief Economist of American Express Bank, and Editor of The AMEX Bank Review. He has worked as consultant to the World Bank for The World Development Report. As co-founder of Outsights, he led the development of the UK government’s online database of future drivers of change and developed scenarios for the “world’s very poorest.” He has served on many boards and is the author of Global Financial Integration: the End of Geography (1992) among other books on international finance and economics.
Stephen Browne is Co-director of the Future of the UN Development System (FUNDS) and Senior Fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, and former Deputy Executive Director of the International Trade Centre, Geneva. He is the author of several books on development and the UN, including United Nations Industrial Development Organization (2012), The United Nations Development Programme and System (2011), and co-editor with Thomas G. Weiss of Post-2015 UN Development: Making Change Happen? (2014).


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08:56:35 23.11.2015 | Andre
Wow! Great to find a
Wow! Great to find a post knkcoing my socks off!