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Home » Africa, Development, Energy & Environment, Europe, Policy, Sustainable Development

The world needs more robust commitments on sustainable development

Submitted by on 20 Apr 2015 – 16:36

Gonzalo Fanjul, Policy Director at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) offers a gloomy assessment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.


Over the coming months, the negotiators working to define the new global development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will have to square the circle if they are to preserve the relevance of the agenda negotiated to date (and particularly the focus on equity and sustainability—core values around which all the other issues revolve) while reducing the overall number of goals so as to achieve a credible proposal that will ensure the commitment of all the parties involved.

Ultimately, the outstanding virtue of the MDGs was that they demonstrated how, within 15 years and with a clear roadmap and adequate resources, it was possible to achieve feats such as halving the number of deaths among children under five years of age (from 12.6 to 6.6 million per year according to the latest estimates).

We do not have many reasons for optimism. A laconic observer close to the process recently remarked that governments, experts and institutions of every kind have turned the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into “a letter to Santa Claus”, a document in which absolutely everything can be included. Whatever your hobby horse in the sphere of poverty or sustainable development, if you look hard enough you will surely find it among the 17 goals and 169 targets included in the document proposed by the Open Working Group.

 The ambitious scope of the proposal is also at odds with the recent behaviour of the negotiators. The same governments adding goals to the list of SDGs have revealed the true extent of their commitment to sustainable development in the course of the unsuccessful climate talks: a succession of increasingly funereal meetings at which official spokespersons from Europe, the United States and the emerging economies have to bend over backwards to justify the lukewarm commitment of their leaders. Nor are we seeing any tangible progress on development financing—a topic that will have its moment in the spotlight this summer in Ethiopia. While cooperation programmes are increasingly bogged down by conditionalities, donor and recipient governments —in interminable debates about the effectiveness of aid—have reduced to mere footnotes the promises made by the G20 in 2008 with respect to tax avoidance and the responsibility of elites to the citizens of their own countries.

Photo: Arsenie Coseac

Photo: Arsenie Coseac

But none of this detracts one whit from the importance of the new framework. Despite their indisputable contribution to the welfare of millions of people, the MDGs were handicapped by the fact that they were wholly target-oriented. The objectives currently under discussion attack the very roots of the problem and would make it possible to break out of the vicious circle of vulnerability and poverty.

Equally important is the fact that this process comes at a time when the international community is more than ever aware of how their destinies are intertwined. The fight against global warming is being waged in Spain and the United States as well as in Mozambique and Thailand. Recent events, such as the fight for access to effective treatments for patients with Hepatitis C, demonstrate the need for a solid Universal Health Coverage system in every country in the world and not only in the less developed countries. The forced displacement of millions of people towards southern Europe reflects a collective failure to ensure peace and security in entire regions of the planet, such as the Horn of Africa.

The SDGs are too important to become just another international treaty whose usefulness never goes beyond decorating the walls of the UN. The text approved by the General Assembly next September must be a concrete, credible and measurable plan. Together, all the actors (both rich and poor) should agree on a calendar for implementing the actions and put in place the means to carry them out. The developed countries (where inequality and family poverty have reached runaway levels) should be bound by commitments to reduce poverty consistent with their responsibilities and capabilities. It will not be easy, but there is still time to achieve it.

Gonzalo Fanjul is Policy Director at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), and an author and anti-poverty campaigner.