Poverty, environment, even traffic fatalities: UN’s sweeping sustainable development goals aim to fix everything — on paper

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United Nations logoEnd glob­al hunger and all forms of mal­nu­tri­tion and pover­ty by 2030, along with all urban slums around the world. Halve the num­ber of deaths from road traf­fic acci­dents glob­al­ly (an esti­mat­ed 1.24 mil­lion in 2010, accord­ing to the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion) by the same date—and “reduce lev­els of vio­lence and halve relat­ed death rates every­where” by then too. Make sure that the income of the bot­tom 40 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in all coun­tries grows faster than the nation­al aver­age. Achieve “glob­al resource effi­cien­cy,” and try to sep­a­rate eco­nom­ic growth from “envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and resource use” every­where over the next decade and a half.

All of those lofty, ambi­tious –and for crit­ics, improb­a­ble and not-very-closely-linked—objectives, as well as many more, are cur­rent­ly being bun­dled, mas­saged and repack­aged at the Unit­ed Nations, to be for­mal­ly unveiled in Sep­tem­ber as the ”sus­tain­able devel­op­ment goals,” the cen­ter­piece of the lat­est mul­ti-tril­lion-dol­lar U.N. bid to reshape the plan­et along large­ly social­ist or pro­gres­sive lines.

That is the idea, any­way. Accord­ing to crit­ics of the notion, the exer­cise amounts to more of a grab-bag of often mean­ing­less and hard to mea­sure social and eco­nom­ic objec­tives, held togeth­er large­ly through their argued rela­tion­ship to the con­cept of “sus­tain­abil­i­ty,” a term that has not yet been very pre­cise­ly defined.

They are a very big con­tain­er of ver­bal fudge,” argues William East­er­ly, a for­mer World Bank econ­o­mist and co-direc­tor of New York University’s Devel­op­ment Research Insti­tute, who is a long­stand­ing crit­ic of “top-down” gov­ern­ment and U.N.-led efforts to lift the world’s bil­lions of poor peo­ple out of mis­ery. “It sounds real­ly good, but it’s real­ly a sub­sti­tute for doing things that actu­al­ly help poor people.”

The main effect of the goal-mak­ing exer­cise, he argues, is “to cre­ate a cam­paign for the U.N. to get more fund­ing and more polit­i­cal pow­er. But it’s hard to imag­ine peo­ple get­ting very enthu­si­as­tic about that.”

To the mul­ti­ple anony­mous authors of a six-page cur­rent work­ing ver­sion of the goals, known as a “zero draft,” the aim is sim­ple, how­ev­er: As they put it in the document’s pre­am­ble: “we strive for a world that is just, equi­table and inclu­sive, and we com­mit to work togeth­er to pro­mote sus­tained and inclu­sive eco­nom­ic growth, social devel­op­ment and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and there­by to ben­e­fit all.”

They affirm simul­ta­ne­ous­ly that “pover­ty erad­i­ca­tion is the great­est chal­lenge fac­ing the world today,” and that “cli­mate change is one of the great­est chal­lenges of our time,” and present the sus­tain­able devel­op­ment goals, or SDGs, as they are known in U.N. par­lance, as a series of slo­gan-objec­tives that are sup­posed to bind solu­tions to those two chal­lenges together.

What­ev­er else the SDGs prove to be, they are the cul­mi­na­tion of one of the largest, bulki­est and most exten­sive bureau­crat­ic exer­cis­es the U.N. has undertaken.

The “zero draft” is the most con­crete out­come to emerge so far from an opaque U.N. process of nego­ti­a­tion cen­tered on an “open work­ing group” of 30 gov­ern­ments, includ­ing the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion, that have been hud­dled over the exer­cise since Jan­u­ary 2013. The group ends its final sched­uled session—the 13th—on Fri­day July 18.

Their efforts were sup­ple­ment­ed by inputs from what the U.N. calls “major groups” of civ­il soci­ety, mean­ing indus­tri­al and labor asso­ci­a­tions, as well as thou­sands of non-gov­ern­ment organizations—that is, activists of all kinds—whose par­tic­i­pa­tion in U.N. delib­er­a­tions has grown enor­mous­ly in the past decade.

Coor­di­nat­ing all of the efforts is a “com­pre­hen­sive cross-agency Tech­ni­cal Sup­port Team,” which turns out to the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some 40 U.N. agen­cies, funds, pro­grams, and oth­er insti­tu­tions, which are help­ing to orches­trate the effort and will also sub­se­quent­ly help imple­ment it at “glob­al, region­al, sub-region­al and coun­try levels.”

In oth­er words, the U.N. is oper­at­ing at the cen­ter of the exer­cise as chief cheer­leader, ref­er­ee of the out­comes, cus­to­di­an of stan­dards for mea­sur­ing its sub­se­quent suc­cess, and, in many coun­tries around the world, chief tutor in the imple­men­ta­tion of what the U.N. calls an “inte­grat­ed, indi­vis­i­ble set of glob­al pri­or­i­ties for sus­tain­able development”—whatever those ulti­mate­ly turn out to be.

This mas­sive win­now­ing exer­cise was pre­ced­ed by anoth­er stan­dard U.N. exer­cise, the year-long delib­er­a­tions of a “high lev­el pan­el of emi­nent per­sons on the post-2015 devel­op­ment agenda”—a selec­tion of inter­na­tion­al fig­ures cho­sen by the U.N. itself—to cre­ate guide­lines for the goal-mak­ing of the SDGs.

In the case of the U.S., the high-lev­el pan­elist was John Podes­ta, then head of the lib­er­al Wash­ing­ton think tank Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress, and cur­rent­ly the man at the cen­ter of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s “phone and pen” effort to impose his polit­i­cal agen­da through aggres­sive bureau­crat­ic regulation.

Still to come in the SDG process are a vari­ety of options for how to finance the entire ground­break­ing plan­e­tary change agen­da. These are cur­rent­ly being chewed over by an Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Com­mit­tee of Experts on Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Financ­ing. These in turn are nom­i­nat­ed by gov­ern­ments that make up the 30-mem­ber “open work­ing group.”

As things now stand, the finan­cial experts include rep­re­sen­ta­tives from such coun­tries as Iran, Chi­na, Britain, Ger­many, Rus­sia, Sau­di Ara­bia and South Africa—not to men­tion Cuba, Libya, Cos­ta Rica, the Bahamas and Estonia—but there is no expert from the U.S.

These doc­u­ments, and a flock of sub­sidiary reports, will be bun­dled togeth­er by Ban Ki-moon in a hefty “syn­the­sis report” to be pre­sent­ed as part of the hoopla.

Tak­en togeth­er, the goals—so far, there are 17 of them, but in the “zero draft” each con­tains pro­posed sub-goals that make the total more like a smor­gas­bord 145– are intend­ed as the ral­ly­ing cry at a cli­mate sum­mit meet­ing called by Unit­ed Nations Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon for Sep­tem­ber 23 in New York City, where the entire exer­cise will be for­mal­ly pre­sent­ed, and where the goals will for­mal­ly be pre­sent­ed for even­tu­al approval by the U.N. Gen­er­al Assembly.

The meet­ing, in turn, is sup­posed to be fol­lowed by a year of inter­na­tion­al nego­ti­a­tion lead­ing among oth­er things to a new glob­al cli­mate treaty, to be announced in Paris at yet anoth­er sum­mit in Sep­tem­ber 2015, and tak­ing effect in 2020.

The sum of the process­es would bind all 193 U.N. mem­bers, includ­ing the U.S., to a “uni­ver­sal sus­tain­able devel­op­ment agen­da” with the SDGs as sign­post high­lights, along with new tar­gets for car­bon emis­sions to replace the now-defunct Kyoto Pro­to­col. Whether—and with what—the Pro­to­col will be replaced is still very much an open issue, as defec­tions from the Pro­to­col, which the U.S. nev­er rat­i­fied, had already under­mined it severely.

The SDGs are fur­ther intend­ed to replace the U.N. Mil­len­ni­um Devel­op­ment Goals, or MDGs, an eight-point U.N. pro­gram of most­ly anti-pover­ty mea­sures that was endorsed in 2000 and is slat­ed to expire in 2015. The MDGS have had, at best, spot­ty success.

Most of the gains achieved by the goals so far—such as a 50 per­cent cut in the num­ber of peo­ple around the world liv­ing below the extreme-pover­ty guide­post of $1.25 per day—owe much to the mas­sive improve­ment in stan­dards of liv­ing in India and Chi­na over the peri­od since the MDGs were introduced.

Nonethe­less, notes NYU’s East­er­ly, “where the U.N. goals were suc­cess­ful was in rais­ing the pro­file of the U.N.”

The new SDGs are intend­ed to be much more ambi­tious than their predecessors—and cov­er a lot more social, eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal ground. Much of it, as the “zero draft” authors make clear in their pre­am­ble, is also linked to a huge and turgid flow of U.N.-directed envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic con­fer­ences and their out­come doc­u­ments, which date back to the first Rio Earth Sum­mit in 1992, and extend through the Rio + 20 sum­mit of 2012, which explic­it­ly called for the new goals.

All of that doc­u­men­ta­tion adds fur­ther freight to the rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple slo­gans of the SDGs.

The plans behind the slo­gans include such high­ly detailed pro­grams as the 1992 summit’s Agen­da 21 (a doc­u­ment that details a myr­i­ad of out­comes for glob­al envi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment) and a fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion on Agen­da 21 cre­at­ed five years lat­er; the numb­ing­ly named Johan­nes­burg Dec­la­ra­tion on Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment of the World Sum­mit on Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment (a 2002 event); along with many, many more, includ­ing The Future We Want, the con­clud­ing man­i­festo of the Rio + 20 summit.

Com­pared to that flood tide of doc­u­ments, the cur­rent “zero draft” of SDGs is rel­a­tive­ly simple—which was the main point. The prob­lem, how­ev­er, notes Brett Schae­fer, an expert on the U.N. and its finances at the con­ser­v­a­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, is that sim­plic­i­ty and coher­ence are not the same thing.

The SDG ros­ter is, he says, “sim­ply a list of objec­tives that groups want to achieve,” he told Fox News. “There is noth­ing here that log­i­cal­ly sticks togeth­er in an over­all strat­e­gy. They are a series of arbi­trary objec­tives with no real rhyme or rea­son behind them.”

In some case, he adds, they are also immea­sur­able, and even in a few cas­es unknowable.

How do you decide when you have end­ed ‘all forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion against women and girls?’” Schae­fer asked. “And how do you end by 2030 ‘the epi­demics of HIV/AIDS, tuber­cu­lo­sis, malar­ia and neglect­ed trop­i­cal dis­eases’? We’ve been try­ing for decades now. Where is the start­ing point for cut­ting world lev­els of vio­lence in half?”

The “zero draft” also con­tains fun­da­men­tal con­tra­dic­tions, he notes; for exam­ple, between end­ing world hunger by 2030 and “assur­ing that all peo­ple have access to ade­quate, afford­able safe and nutri­tious food all year round,” and the phas­ing out of “all forms of agri­cul­tur­al sup­port subsidies”—which will cause food prices to rise.

Ulti­mate­ly,” Schae­fer argues, “this is based on a nar­cis­sis­tic delu­sion, that by decid­ing on goals, the U.N. can cat­alyze achieve­ment.” The same prob­lem held with the pre­vi­ous mil­len­ni­um devel­op­ment goals, he added: “The MDGs did not lead to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment. Eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment lead to the MDGs.”

Such crit­i­cism, how­ev­er, will do noth­ing to derail the bulky and labyrinthine SDG process that will go pub­lic in September—the com­bined effort of innu­mer­able bureau­crats, plan­ners, spe­cial inter­est groups, gov­ern­ments invest­ed in the process and atten­dant hang­ers-on who have been toil­ing for years to make it happen.

Where it goes next will depend on the var­i­ous gov­ern­ments that take over the sub­se­quent nego­ti­at­ing process to turn the SDGs into nation­al pol­i­cy. For Amer­i­cans, that means it will depend on the very sup­port­ive Oba­ma Administration.