Can the SDGs achieve what the MDGs could not?

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are discussed in the "The Future We Want" Outcome Document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) or Rio+20 that was held in Rio de Janeiro that year. During the Rio+20 consultative processes, SDGs were introduced in a proposal made by Guatemala, Colombia and Peru with some themes being food security, energy access, renewable energy, oceans, sustainable human settlements and water.

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) completing its cycle in 2015, SDGs have been in the spotlight of international deliberations. SDGs, according to the Outcome Document, should be aspirational, universally applicable and take into account capacities and priorities of countries. These goals should also be respect on past global summit outcomes including Agenda 21 and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation.

Governments have recognised that the MDGs have been a useful tool that has guided government to achieve specifics within the framework of international development. Processes around SDGs could borrow lessons from successes and failures of the MDGs and provide direction for national-priority setting and resource-mobilization. Being an integral part of the UN post-2015 development agenda, they should encompass the three pillars of sustainable development - social, economic, environmental.

MDG processes and questions for SDGs

MDGs include eight internationally agreed development goals. These goals are related to poverty alleviation, hunger, education, child mortality, maternal health, gender equality, environment sustainability and international cooperation. The MDGs, with 21 targets and 60 indicators, came into existence in international policy after the UN Millennium Summit of 2000 that was held in New York. However the processes associated with the formulation of MDGs started in the historic 1990s or the post-Washington Consensus era.

Scholars argue that the determination of MDGs was underlined by global ambivalence and was an outcome of an unorganized and evolving discourse where certain ideas and actors played a key role. MDGs came into being at a time when the idea of "human development" was gaining prominence. During the same time, an increased engagement of the civil society with multilateral processes was also prevalent. While member states like USA and its OECD allies played a key role in defining the purpose as well as ambition of the MDGs, the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretariat, the UNDP, UNICEF and NGOs think-tanks influenced the specifications of the MDGs.

As is evident from Goals 1-6, MDGs have been framed from a basic needs perspective with goals that meet minimum human development needs. The MDGs 2012 Progress Chart for South Asia indicates that sufficient progress still has to be made in targets related to poverty, hunger, employment, sanitation, education, child mortality and maternal health. Ambitious poverty-related targets such as reducing economic and social inequality within and between countries has been absent in the MDGs process. Similarly goals linked to environment sustainability and international cooperation were also weak.

Key questions for the post-2015 development agenda would then include - Would a new MDG era, post-2015, mean a stronger meta-goal for addressing poverty? Would SDGs set ambitious goals linked to environment sustainability and global partnerships?

No single meta-goal

From the nature of MDGs, one clear meta-goal emerges which is that of addressing basic human needs based on the idea of human development. In case of SDGs, no clear meta-goal emerges as insofar the process has been discussed on the basis of principles of past multi-lateral processes. Taking the Rio Declaration forward, more ambitious targets in the SDGs for poverty eradication based on principles of equity would be a giant step forward.

The multi-focal nature of current multilateral systems and process such as the Conference of Parties (COPs) and thematic Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) sessions could form some basis for the goals particularly around global environmental issues which were not specified in the MDG 7 and MDG 8.

Regarding the universal nature of SDGs, it would be relevant to examine how goals relating to climate change especially the Bali Action Plan on Climate Change would be considered. On local environment, goals related to natural resource use efficiency would be relevant. Environmental goals, global and local, with clear co-benefits such as human health, livelihoods and energy security would also serve to enhance international cooperation. Such goals may be translated into domestic actions based on national needs and respective capabilities.

Tags: Millennium Development Goals, Rio+20, sustainable development goals, Shailly Kedia, sdgs, Rio de Janeiro, MDGs Indu Chinta