Monday, 18 January 2016

2015 - The Year 'International Development' Became 'Sustainable Development'

UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September 2015. The new agenda provides a framework for development cooperation over the next 15 years, and it recasts the scope of what we mean by ‘international development.’

Through my work with the conference reporting team of Earth Negotiations Bulletin, I’d been on the sidelines of the final negotiations and adoption of the agenda – through many long days and even longer nights of hallway huddles, gossip, rumours, and plenary adjournments while negotiators attempted to smooth over the last cracks in the wall of agreement.

On a warm Sunday evening at UN Headquarters in August, diplomats finally reached agreement on the final text to be forwarded for adoption. Applause broke out, long and loud. Negotiators wept and embraced. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 169 targets, and framing text that together made up the 2030 Agenda would become a reality when adopted as a package that September.

As I lugged my note-filled laptop back to the hotel to start work on the conference bulletin, I wondered if everything, or nothing, had changed. The answer, as ever, is probably somewhere in between.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the UN as a sideshow. The arcane procedures, the aspirational language, the endless speechifying…all of these make up the years and sometimes decades-long process toward a new multilateral agreement. Yet, it would be a mistake to assume that they mean nothing.

The negotiations take ages, because many concepts, ideas and proposals are hotly contested. Countries have different interests, and the intergovernmental process must somehow bridge these differences. The UN, or something very much like it, is needed because individual countries cannot adequately tackle problems that require joint solutions.

The task of implementing the 2030 Agenda has only just begun. While many have said that “history will judge” the value of this new agenda, some are already producing its first draft. Here are four thoughts on what is changing for practitioners of international development:

  1. International development will integrate environmental concerns to a greater extent than before. It doesn’t mean that practitioners will take their eyes off the goal of poverty eradication – but it does mean that we will take a more consistently holistic approach. The 2030 Agenda recognizes the importance of the environment as the basis for shared prosperity and wellbeing, and each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals has been carefully crafted to knit together the social, economic and environmental dimensions.  For example, SDG 1, to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, includes targets for equal rights to economic resources including land ownership and natural resources, and to build resilience to climate-related extreme events.

    We will probably see approaches similar to ‘One Health,’ which promotes interdisciplinary collaboration in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment, and which is already supported by many agencies including the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control, coming to the fore in the development sphere.
  2. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals applied largely to poor countries, the new Sustainable Development Goals have recast development as a shared enterprise toward addressing common problems. The melding of poverty eradication and environmental sustainability aims in the 2030 Agenda implies new partnership approaches and the erosion of traditional donor-recipient relationships.

    Poor countries are recognized as stewards of planetary resources for all humanity, a point that has been increasingly highlighted in global forums such as the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that took place in Samoa in September 2014. The conference drew attention to SIDS as custodians of ocean biodiversity, for example, through Kiribati’s gazetting of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest marine conservation area in the Pacific.

    The stewardship role of countries that are poor in GDP but rich in natural resources provides a different kind of rationale for development assistance. Just as development aid moved from “needs-based” to “rights-based” approaches in the late 20th century, in years to come we may look back and say the 2030 Agenda marked the point at which “planet-based” approaches began gaining traction.
  3. Development agencies will become contributors to, and beneficiaries of, the current international effort to develop adequate indicators for monitoring progress under the 2030 Agenda. For example, the adoption of SDG 16 on peace, justice and effective institutions, has promoted interest in how we can measure achievements in the messy business of governance.

    The 2030 Agenda has brought with it higher expectations around monitoring of progress, greater demand for data and statistics to serve this purpose, and greater recognition that monitoring is not a purely technical role but has a political dimension to it. ‘Follow-up and review’ was one of the most hotly debated aspects of the 2030 Agenda, as countries grappled with the prospect of how governments can produce sufficient and credible data for measuring progress.

    The Interagency Expert Group on the SDGs (the IAEG-SDGs), a grouping of UN Member States, has been tasked with developing a global indicator framework for presentation to the UN Statistical Commission when it meets in March 2016.  So far, 225 indicators have been agreed to, and many more are still being discussed. Many development agencies have been involved in the online consultations to shape the final indicator package. At this point, it looks likely that the IAEG-SDGs will continue to meet as it grapples with many conceptual and technical issues; their efforts will be influential in development circles.
  4. Crowdsourcing of development solutions will become a more frequent complement to technical, expert-led approaches. Between the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio in June 2012 (Rio+20) and the adoption of the SDGs in 2015, online consultations through the UN and civil society ‘World We Want’ initiative made the shaping of the 2030 Agenda, arguably, the most participatory international process ever. While the full import of the broad and expansive scope of the 2030 Agenda is still sinking in, the Internet is making it possible to garner broad input to development questions. One example of this is the “knowledge co-production” exercise led by Sheffield Institute for International Development and the UN Research Institute for Social Development, that the University of Sheffield exercise last year, which sought to prioritize the top 100 research questions for international development in the SDG era.

For a full account of negotiations leading up to adoption of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, see the Earth Negotiations Bulletin archive of reports on the post-2015 process. For ongoing news implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, see the Sustainable Development Policy & Practice.

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