RESURJ analysis of March session of SDGs intergovernmental negotiations

The third session of United National intergovernmental negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals took place from March 23-27 at the United Nations Headquarter in New York and addressed the “Goals, Targets and Indicators.” This is one of several negotiations member states will engage in as the discussions transition from the stocktaking nature of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development to the Post-2015 negotiations which aims to use the Proposed goals and targets as its base for. 

At the conclusion of Open Working Group 13 in July 2014, the climate felt marked by genuine ambition, as if the majority of government’s demonstrated commitment to building on the outcomes and lessons learned form the MDGs, towards developing a more visionary, effective and integrated agenda. However, as states resume intergovernmental negotiations on the sustainable development goals, the same North-South divide, which has historically stymied UN processes, clearly persist as reflected in the discussion of the future of the SDGs and its targets. Similar differences were also echoed during the discussion on the political declaration back in February of this year.

The March session was aimed at addressing the “Goals, Targets and Indicators” for the new Sustainable Development Agenda and it was the first time since the goals and targets were agreed upon by the Open Working Group, that member states were speaking specifically to the ambitiousness of the goals and targets and their relevance for development of indicators at the global, regional and national levels. While some understood this session to be a step forward, the March session proved tense with the United Kingdom, Australia, Norway, the United States and Israel, pushing hard for re-opening the targets under the auspice of ensuring technical viability of certain targets.  This also brought confusion to the negotiation room as it wasn’t quite clear whether the goal of the session was to look beyond goals and targets to the indicators or whether the goals and targets themselves were back on the negotiation table.

Indicators for Sustainable Development

The session opened with a presentation of a preliminary list of indicators from the Chair of the UN Statistical Commission (UNSC), which stressed that the UNSC fully respects the intergovernmental nature of the outcome, and would seek to not interfere with the political process, but to offer technical support. However, given the inherently political nature of the indicators this is easier said than done, a fact verbally acknowledged by almost all member states.

Furthermore, the Chair of the UNSC, John Pollinger, described his report as a “starting point” for developing indicators, and that he and the larger committee were not seeking formal endorsement of it. In this sense, the report was helpful to member states and civil society in getting a sense of the UNSC’s approach to global indicators, as well as their blindsides. The UNSC sought agreement on their mandate and proposed work plan, which extends through to formal presentation of a preliminary set of indicators. At the concluding meeting of the session there seemed to be an overall understanding amongst member state that the UNSC will work on furthering the development of global level indicators as a technical exercise until its next session in March of 2016. The message was also clear that the indicators will not be negotiated by member states but they will have a role in providing political guidance to the UNSC throughout this process. This view was highly emphasized by the G-77 and China as well the group of Small Island Developing States including by the request to have a regular and clear channel of communications between Member State and the UNSC. 

The key messages arising from the discussions around indicators included:

–       The UNSC mandate is to develop global level indicators; national indicators cannot be decided at the global level

–       National indicators should be lead by National Statistical Offices with support from global agencies

–       Global Indicators should be developed for all targets and must measure the aim of the target

–       Global indicator framework should be limited, balance policy relevance, build on MDGs and take into account indicator frameworks that have already been developed while many member states also emphasized that existing indicators should be refined and new ones developed

–       All targets should be accorded the same level of importance in formulating indicators

–       The process to establish two new expert group (The Inter-Agency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goals) and the High-Level Group) to develop indicators should be transparent; must have balanced regional representation and expertise

–       Development of indicators should underscore that capacity-building and technical support remains critical to many developing countries

–       Relative quantitative and quantitative indicators need to be gender and age sensitive and disaggregated

–       Development of indicators should not be rushed

–       Indicators on means of implementation should not be omitted at the global level

What was clear from the discussions on indicators is that CSOs and member states have put forward numerous strong proposals to guide the development of an indicators framework, in addition to early drafts of possible indicators themselves; however, there was a lack of agreement on how proposals for indicators at multiple levels would fit- particularly when looking at the complex relationship between global-level indicators and regional/national/local specificities.

Technical Proofing of Targets 

The greatest point of contention during the March session hinged on the question of reopening the OWG report, and if so, to what degree, and how to preserve its integrity. The “delicate political balance” the report captured, was the catchphrase of the March session.

This centred on the point of the Co-Chairs’ proposals for “technical proofing” or tweaking of the goals and targets. The Co-Chairs sought agreement on re-opening the document for 3 types of ‘tweaking’ 1) adding numbers where “x%” appears, 2) aligning all target dates to 2030 (which poses problems for biodiversity in particular, which had been at 2020) and 3) ensuring no target fell below existing international standards or agreements. In total this would affect 19 of 169 targets, which did not seem to impact politically contested targets – a chief concern around this proofing exercise.

However, the issue of making targets specific and measurable, and aligning them with existing agreements, brought about a range of interpretations of the depth and scope of this task, and how it should be carried out, and where (regional, national or global level).

The division was very clear: While governments from the global North insisted in re-visiting the viability of the goals and targets contained in the Open Working Group (OWG) Report which was adopted the General Assembly Resolution 68/309 in September of 2014 as the basis for the current negotiations; governments from the global South, lead by the Group of 77 and China, strongly objected reopening the debate on goals and targets. They urged other member states and the co-chairs of the process, Ambassador David Donoghue (Ireland) and Macharia Kamau (Kenya), to move the discussion forward to address means of implementation, global partnership for development, monitoring and review of this agenda – critical areas for the actual realization of the SDGs.

By the end of the session on March 27th, it was clear to many countries that while some of the targets are not perfect and could potentially benefit from technical proofing, the danger of re-opening the 19 targets proposed by the Co-Chairs is too great given the desire of some developed countries to review many other targets. The Co-chairs proposed to revise the document with the 19 targets with based on strict criteria, notably removing x%.

Looking forward to September, there is real work to be done in devising a concrete plan of action to implement the ambitious post-2015 sustainable development agenda, which includes the much anticipated and critical April 20 – 24 session on Means of Implementation and Global Partnership for Sustainable Development and the parallel process for financing for development – which culminate at the Third Conference on Financing for Development in July in Addis Ababa. The divide between North-South is strongly felt here where many developed countries are looking at the Financing for Development as the be-all and end-all for the means of implementation of the Post-2015 agenda; while countries from the South, are looking at financing as just one piece of the big MOI pie which also include capacity building and technology transfer.

Intimately linked to this dynamic is the concern raised by the G77 that financing is being used by the North as leverage for disproportionate control over the agenda and narrowing the South’s voice in the process and policy space in the eventual implementation of the SDGs. At present, financing (as usual) seems to stand as a threat to cohesion in the process, and to the efforts of CSOs to ensure that the Post-2015 development agenda is grounded in human rights. In meetings with both Northern and Southern governments, instrumentalization and pressure to bow to the private sector were present in government representatives stressing that economic arguments for realizing the rights of women, girls and adolescents were equally as important to them as the recognized moral imperative.

For those of us who have observed the process from the beginning, the division between North and South, connoted a feeling of stalling the process from actually agreeing on how these goals and targets will translate into concrete actions on the ground that will lead to not only lifting people of out of poverty and but keeping them out of poverty, address inequalities between and among countries, realize women’s human rights and achieve gender equality. Governments have spent almost two years stocktaking and crafting this agenda, it is now time to propel stronger political will to make this agenda a reality for all.