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Some progress – but more questions than answers…

Environment ministers from around the world met last week in Nairobi for the final time before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in June.

As at Rio itself, the discussion focused on the green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and the institutional framework for sustainable development. We now know the issues – but do we know what messages we’re taking to Rio +20, and what outcomes we want the other side?

Overall, the proposal for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from Colombia has gained a lot of ground as a potential ‘successful’ outcome. This is good, as it means that discussion on the development framework beyond 2015 is happening, but we need to ensure it doesn’t detract from progress on other more ‘difficult’ areas where decisions need to be made now, such as ocean governance, fossil fuel subsidies, and biodiversity.

A colleague from the Southern Green Economy in Ghana pointed out that the post-MDG discussion isn’t taking place equally in every region of the world – for example, there isn’t as much discussion on the post-MDG agenda in East Africa as there should be, especially considering that their experience will be crucial in ensuring that the same mistakes aren’t made again.

Nonetheless, the Colombian representative Paula Cavallero does an excellent job of building momentum and motivation around the SDG proposal; at one event, the UK and Australian governments offered their strong support, although Cavallero was careful to emphasise that governments from across the world are supportive, not just the global north. She also listed broad civil society engagement, including both NGOs and the business sector.

Colombia have outlined principles for the SDGs, which correlate to those the Beyond 2015 campaign has been pushing for:

  • universality based on common but differentiated responsibility
  • poverty eradication (described as the ‘mother of all goals’)
  • an integrated and holistic approach that addresses all three dimensions of sustainable development
  • building on the Rio principles and Agenda 21
  • learning from the Millennium Development Goals
  • effective at national and regional levels
  • concrete and focused for implementation.

What’s missing? A stronger emphasis on a holistic approach, although it’s part of the narrative (and it’s great that they use language of ‘dimensions’ over ‘pillars’). What does inclusion and civil society participation mean and how will it take place? Colombia call for an open and participatory process to define the goals but how are the voices of the poor and marginalised, usually excluded from decisions that impact on their lives and livelihoods, be included? And finally, human rights and equity are slipping from the language of the international community.

Thinking on SDGs isn’t fixed yet. The Colombian government are looking to engage with stakeholders, to build ownership and consensus. Colombia have suggested that a favourable outcome from Rio is agreement on the vision, the process and the main thematic areas. Following Rio, country-led, science-based expert groups, open and inclusive to all stakeholders, develop the understanding of the intersections between the dimensions of sustainable development, and work on creating solid indicators and ambitious targets for one year. This will not be a political process but a scientific one; Colombia is clear that SDGs cannot be created through a political, negotiated process. We need greater clarity on how this will work and where civil society input.

One potential sticking point is defining the thematic areas. The MDGs were manageable in number. Having only 8 means they’re easy to communicate and were a platform for cooperation. We need to work together now to define the priority areas for SDGs, again in a manageable, coherent group  – this is not a time to push individual agendas but to work together to look for the common themes. Rather than division and polarization, we need a common understand of stewardship. This year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon launches the Sustainable Energy for All initiative. Does that provide a template for how to address the environmental, social and economic challenges we face under a particular thematic area?

Neva Frecheville
International Development Policy Advisor,  WWF UK
Chair of the Rio+20 Taskforce of Beyond 2015

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