The Sustainable Development Goal Dance: Two steps forward, one step back

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 14:30

Representatives of the UN’s 193 member states have spent the last 10 days agreeing on a new set of development targets in New York. If all goes according to plan, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 related targets to be achieved in the next 15 years will be rubber stamped at the next meeting of the UN General Assembly in September.

If met, the SDGs would go a long way towards ending poverty, reducing inequality and slowing the pace at which humans are destroying the planet. But it is unclear how countries will actually move towards meeting these goals at the national level, especially given the complete inability of global systems to hold governments legally accountable – especially the governments of rich countries – to the promises that they are making.

While there are many criticisms one can make of the SDG text, the one that stands out is the abject failure of the SDGs to address the issue of corporate tax dodging. Developing countries lose an estimated $200 billion US dollars because companies don’t pay their tax in the countries in which they operate (preferring instead to make it look as though they earn most of their money in tax havens). Without that $200 billion, achieving these ambitious goals becomes nearly impossible.


Two steps forward

There’s a lot of good stuff in the SDGs, especially when compared with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that they will replace. Those MDGs only applied to poor countries and at the global level they were written in such a way that the most important goal – around income poverty – was going to be met given that China and other big developing countries were growing at such rapid levels, so was not a real measure of progress.

By contrast, it’s not at all clear that many of the SDGs can be met by 2030. “Achieving gender equality” basically means that all manifestations of patriarchy must be globally expunged in 15 years (Goal 5). “Full and productive employment and decent work” is a goal shared by trade unions across the world and that business associations see as completely unrealistic (Goal 8). And reducing “inequality within and among countries” would mean reversing the trend towards plutocracy that we’ve seen over the last 40 years at the global level (Goal 10). Increasing resilience to climate change, ensuring access to sustainable energy for all, the list goes on. These are ambitious goals and, unlike the MDGs, they are fully in line with the requirements of international human rights law as set by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

One other important difference is that the SDGs apply to all countries. This means that communities and civil society organisations in each member state might have new tools (though not legally binding tools) to advocate for their agendas. Thinking of another way to highlight inequality challenges in India? Once India signs onto the SDGs, ask their lawmakers what their plan is for implementing goal 10 around reducing inequality. Need another argument to defend sexual and reproductive rights in the United States? Goal 3 mandates universal access to sexual and reproductive health services including family planning. Worried that women farmers in The Gambia may not have access to and control over land for sustainable family farming? Language in target 2.1 may help you make your case.

For those struggling for just and sustainable solutions to make the world we live in a bit more habitable for all, there’s a lot of ammunition in this document.


One step back

Some of the negatives are only apparent to those of us who have spent a lot of time following the negotiations. Rich countries appear to have intervened at the last minute here to water down some of the language on “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” (a technical way of saying that countries that have been polluting longer should contribute more to the clean up) and to make the entire document less binding. This may have implications on the upcoming climate deal in Paris this year, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and other related processes. There have been small but significant modifications in the wording of certain commitments. So the word “promote” now replaces the word “ensure” when talking about everyone having access to the benefits of genetic resources and traditional knowledge - wording that would allow US companies to continue to isolate specific genes and obtain and enforce patents on them.

Rich countries also intervened at the last minute to derail efforts to create a new UN tax body at the Financing for Development conference in July. That would have given developing countries a voice in shutting down corporate tax avoidance that deprives them of needed development funds. The G20, together with the OECD (two clubs of the world’s richer countries), are taking forward a process on tax dodging this year, but that process doesn’t involve everyone – it’s just an agreement among the most powerful countries without any voice for the rest . That process also doesn’t address one of the key questions in the tax debate - whether companies should pay tax in the poor countries where they do business or in the rich countries where they’re registered, or both.


Next step

As we head towards September’s UN General Assembly meeting, where heads of state from around the world will sign on the dotted line to agree to these goals, there’s a real need for civil society around the world to keep the pressure on governments. The battle for transformative progress on ending poverty and inequality and the fight for climate justice over the next 15 years does not end with these commitments – in many ways we’re still at the beginning. The battlegrounds for progress on these agendas – a global agreement on climate change, for a UN Tax Body, and how governments can be held accountable for implementing these goals – need to be in our sights and on the minds of everyone making promises in New York.