Sustainable development goals, targets and…clusters?

by | Mar 25, 2014

The UN’s Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) will meet next week to discuss potential goals and targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015. The OWG and its co-Chairs deserve praise for making significant progress in an incredibly complex process involving an overwhelming number of issues and actors.

The OWG co-Chairs have admirably attempted to reduce a long list of development priorities into 8 “clusters” for discussion (issued last week), following reactions to the 19 “focus areas” they released last month. Many asserted that 19 is too many, compared to the 8 goals of the MDGs. Though the co-Chairs are careful to caution that the focus areas are not goals – and that the clusters are simply for discussion – these caveats are generally ignored. The co-Chairs themselves have indicated they would like to have a better sense of the sustainable development goals and targets by the end of next week. Under considerable pressure to provide structure, producing the 8 clusters is a natural attempt to meet these demands. But any clustering of issues at this point will inevitably raise questions.

Making decisions too early can have unintended consequences. Preempting the conversation over the focus areas has considerable potential to impede negotiations going forward. Those interested in specific areas will inevitably have opinions about why their subject requires its own ‘cluster’ or why it should or should not be grouped with other issues.

The co-Chairs have put forward a good and comprehensive list of issues in the earlier “focus areas” document, and these will form the basis for discussion in the next meeting. Discussions and negotiations have only just begun and should be allowed space to evolve, and for disagreements and tensions to be discussed. As I’ve noted elsewhere, “A little flexibility early on in the process allows relationship building to take place, viewpoints to evolve and more sophisticated proposals to be put forward.”

A rigorous, evidence-based method for narrowing the list of focus areas is needed, and solid political grounding to support such consolidation. It is unclear what methodology was used in the current iteration. For example, Cluster 2 includes a wide sweep: gender equality and women’s empowerment; education; employment and decent work for all; health and population dynamics. While there are connections among these issues, each represents a unique set of challenges with very different constituencies and tools and mechanisms available. It is difficult to determine the empirical or political base for an eventual goal around these sets of issues.

Or, to take another example, energy is grouped with industrialization and infrastructure, which may be interpreted as a signal that the focus is exclusively on access to energy rather than on sustainable energy. The lack of access to energy and, where energy is available, its contribution to waste, pollution and climate change are widely seen as critical and connected development challenges. The Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative tackles them jointly. The current structure will lead many to question whether sustainable energy will be neglected in favor of industrialization and infrastructure.

At the same time, cluster five includes sustainable consumption and production, urban settlements, and climate, creating tensions with cluster four (industrialization, infrastructure and energy). This will lead to questions about what the overall framework is trying to accomplish.

It is still early in the process, and there is a year and half before the 2015 Heads of State-level Summit to decide on the next set of development goals. The OWG is well placed to set up a constructive negotiation, which will begin in earnest in 2015. The co-Chairs have steered the OWG well, offering a solid list of 19 focus areas. Taking the time to carefully consider the areas – without pre-judging how they may or may not be consolidated – is crucial to ensuring a smooth transition from the work of the OWG to the intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda yet to come.


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    Molly Elgin-Cossart is currently Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Non-resident Fellow at the New York University Center on International Cooperation. She was previously Chief of Staff to the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

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