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Sustainable Development Goals: is this the post-2015 agenda?

Brendan Martin, 10 December 2012

The American economist Jeffrey Sachs has long divided opinion, and the message of his talk at London’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI) this morning was no exception.

Professor of Sustainable Development and director of the Earth Institute at New York’s Columbia University, and special advisor to the United Nations secretary-general, Sachs is best known internationally for his role in the Millennium Project.

Now he is touring the world promoting his ideas about what should follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015, which a UN ‘high level panel’ with the unlikely chair of British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently considering.

Sachs says the answer is a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to bring together economic, social and environmental dimensions through institutional convergence of the MDG and Rio+20 global diplomatic processes.

With typical outspokenness, he said it would be ‘reckless’ and ‘intellectually weak’ not to bring those agendas together into one drive for SDGs. Extreme poverty could be eradicated by 2030 but only if the various threats of ‘environmental calamity’ are also tackled.

Sachs said the SDGs should have four pillars: ending extreme poverty, social inclusion, environmental sustainability and governance. His ideas about each of those will ruffle as many feathers as will his proposal to bring them together into one international process.

The idea that poverty should not only be measured in cash terms but also in terms of the MDG approach of basic needs satisfaction is already mainstream thinking. (Isn't it?)

But his proposal that the governance agenda should include corporate as well as state governance, because it must adapt to the reality of how power is distributed and exercised in a globalised economy, may not go down well on Wall Street.

That won’t bother Sachs, who reserved his most caustic observations for his own country, where the influence of big business in politics amounts to “legalised corruption” and it took the Occupy movement to alert most Americans to the reality of widening inequalities.

The SDGs, he insisted, should be goals for every country, not just developing countries. No country was yet sustainable but the costs of environmental catastrophe would be borne most by poor people in poor countries.

Sachs argued that the MDGs have proved “surprisingly useful” by offering a focal point for civil society mobilisation and public engagement with the issues, and he believes that SDGs could do the same.

“Every child around the world should learn these goals and be able to answer the question of why we have them,” he said, which is certainly an ambitious target for goals that have yet to be agreed even in principle, let alone in detail.

There are many obstacles to getting there, not least, as he acknowledged, that “many in developing countries see the green agenda as opposed to development”.

The post-2015 agenda is provoking plenty of controversy without tossing the chronic impasse around Rio+20 into the mix. Bones of contention include whether or not human rights and security should be included and to what extent reducing inequalities should be an explicit goal.

Global unions argue that the International Labour Organisation’s ‘decent work’ agenda of employment creation and labour rights should also be added, which might gain traction now that the World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report has described jobs as “the cornerstone of development”.

There are also those who say that the MDGs have not been as effective as Sachs and other advocates make out, arguing that insofar as they have been achieved it is because of other factors, such as China’s rise.

Even so, Sachs is surely right about the potential of capturing the imagination of young people the world over to crystalise an international movement behind goals that reconcile economic, social and environmental sustainability.

In his talk this morning he referred to “critics and cynics” who had opposed the MDGs. As one questioner pointed out, you don’t have to be a cynic to be a critic. Nor do you have to be wearing rose-tinted spectacles to think Sachs might be on to something with his SDGs idea.

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