United Nations: Work on Sustainable Development Goals gains momentum

A conceptual discussion will precede the identification of specific Sustainable Development Goals as momentum picks up on the follow-up to the June 2012 Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 Conference).

Two topics will be the focus of the second session of the United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will take place on 17-19 April at the UN headquarters in New York. The first will be on conceptualising the SDGs and the SDG process, and the second on poverty eradication.

The focus on conceptual issues is a shift from the original draft programme of work prepared by the OWG Co-chairs Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary and is the result of a concerted call by developing countries since the first session of the OWG on 14-15 March 2013.

At the informal consultations of the OWG chaired by Ambassador Korosi on 5 April, the Group of 77 and China (G77) reiterated this, emphasising that as the OWG designs the parameters and contents of the work programme, it is critically important to allow all members to identify priority issues first through a mapping exercise before adopting the programme of work for the months ahead.

Two documents were discussed at the informal consultations: a revised draft programme of work for the second session of the OWG, and an "Overview of Options for Programme of Work 2013-2014".

The first document proposed the following topics for the 17-19 April session: (i) conceptual issues, MDG (Millennium Development Goals) gap analysis and lessons learnt, and moving towards SDGs; and (ii) poverty eradication, food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, desertification, land degradation.

The second document on "Overview of Options for Programme of Work 2013-2014" included various clusters of different issues as well as means of implementation as topics for the OWG sessions. The periodicity options for meetings after the 17-19 April session were: four five-day meetings, every second month or eight three-day meetings once a month.

Most developing countries expressed concerns over the choice of clusters of issues at this stage of the OWG's work, with many of them highlighting missing issues as well as the need to first agree on conceptual issues related to the SDGs and the overall approach to the programme of work.

[The Rio+20 outcome document mandated the OWG's establishment and restricted its membership to 30 countries. Due to overwhelming interest of Member States, it was finally agreed that some seats would be represented by two or three countries, usually with these countries coming from the same region. There are thus 70 members in total with some countries taking turns being in the official 30 seats. In the inaugural session of the OWG on 14-15 March, all UN Member States were invited to attend and this will continue to be the procedure.

[Differences between developing and developed countries over the vision and priorities for the SDGs were evident at the March meeting. Most developing countries emphasised that these goals should be grounded in the 1992 Rio Principles, particularly the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Developing countries also stressed that adequate and additional means of implementation (finance and technology) must be the basis of the SDGs' plan of action. However, developed countries emphasised poverty eradication as a collective responsibility (as opposed to an equitable approach) of the SDGs, and prioritisation of ecological improvements as an overarching objective of the SDGs.]

At the informal consultations on 5 April, developing countries reiterated that the OWG is a Member State process and the proposed panels of presenters on the topics for discussion at the OWG sessions should not dominate the time available, which should be prioritised for Member States. A number of developing countries support the creation of the post of a rapporteur for the OWG, with many developed countries expressing satisfaction for the Co-chairs to prepare the report of the OWG's work.

On the periodicity of the OWG meetings, many developing countries preferred five days every two months rather than three days every month, for reasons of resources and practicality, since many of their delegates will be from their capitals. A "hybrid" solution has been proposed by the Co-chairs on 10 April.

The draft programme of work dated 9 April that will guide the OWG's work on 17-19 April now states that: The overarching framework is poverty eradication and sustainable development; Cross-sectoral issues will underpin all discussions, inter alia: governance, inequality and equity, gender equality and women's empowerment, human rights and rights-based approaches, means of implementation (added after the 5 April informal consultations); The discussions will be guided by: the principles affirmed in the Rio+20 outcome document, the need to balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions, ensuring coherence, implementation and assessing progress.

The 17-19 April session will comprise of three parts. First, a keynote address on conceptualising the SDGs and the SDG process, followed by an introduction of a UN Technical Support Team (TST) Issues Brief on Conceptual Issues, and then an interactive exchange of views with and among the OWG Member States on the topic. There will then be presentations by two panellists followed by a moderated exchange of views on the topic. Secondly, the same process will take place for the second topic of the session, on poverty eradication. Thirdly, there will be a stock-taking by the OWG of its second meeting, and a summary of the discussions, with concluding remarks by the Co-chairs.

As agreed at the 5 April informal consultations, the panels will be composed with due regard to ensuring regional representation, gender balance, and the appropriate mix of expertise. The Technical Support Team is co-chaired by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the UN Development Programme, and contributions to the Issues Briefs are from the various UN bodies and programmes as well as the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, according to the topics.

Below are the statements and views of various Member States and groupings during the 5 April informal consultations that led to the revised draft programme of work for the 17-19 April meeting. The focus was on the draft programme of work for the 17-19 April session and the periodicity of meetings for 2013-2014.

(There is an "input phase" of dialogue this year, followed by an "output phase" of inter-governmental negotiations of the SDGs next year.)

The Chairman of the Group of 77 and China (G77), Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, expressed appreciation at the inclusion of a conceptual discussion in the April session of the OWG. He said that as the OWG designs the parameters and contents of the work programme, it is critically important to allow all members to identify priority issues first through a mapping exercise before adopting the work programme for the months ahead. In this regard, the G77 was of the view that members should have more time to identify and discuss the issues. The involvement of panellists in the April session should therefore be limited with the objective of value adding to assist members to achieve greater clarity in the conceptual debate. The Group also considered that the work programme should not be rigid but provide reasonable flexibility to allow the inclusion of emerging issues as discussion progresses in the OWG.

On the periodicity of OWG meetings, the Group reiterated its preference to have five-day meetings taking place every second month. This arrangement is more financially and logistically feasible for most developing countries to engage the participation of capital-based officials, said Thomson.

On the content of the work programme, the Group said that the categorisation of cross-cutting issues or the clustering of issues should be identified by members and be guided by the principles affirmed in the Rio+20 outcome document as well as the need to balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It was concerned that some of the Rio+20 Summit themes were not included in the revised programme (the version that was considered at the 5 April informal consultations) while others have been reflected differently. For example, while the revised work programme attempted to address issues relating to the economic dimension of sustainable development, the Group wishes to include structural and systemic issues pertaining to governance, economic and financial stability.

The G77 reiterated the fundamental importance for the SDGs to build upon and complement the MDGs. Thomson said that as we focus our attention on the SDGs, it is necessary that we also examine the inter-linkages of the MDGs and the SDGs in the greater context of the post-2015 development framework. The Group also stressed that it is imperative for the success of the SDGs that the means of implementation must be an integral component of the process. It is essential to underscore the importance of having synergy in the work programme between the OWG on SDGs with the Working Group on Financing for Sustainable Development.

(The financing working group is also an outcome from the Rio+20 Conference.)

Benin, on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), said that the LDC Group's view is that the process of the SDGs should move sequentially starting with the setting up of principles, followed by goals and targets, and finally framing the report outlook. It also said that the draft Programme of Work 2013-2014 has no clarity on some of the important procedural issues and does not yet reflect some of the substantive proposals of the Group.

Benin stressed that the entire process should be owned and led by Member States. The issue notes prepared by the Technical Support Team should not pre-judge the discussions. For the credibility of the notes, they should be prepared in a balanced and objective manner, with full reflection of the challenges and priorities of the LDCs. The first set of thematic areas, namely poverty, food security, agriculture, desertification and land degradation are vitally important, said Benin, referring to the cluster proposed in the draft programme of work for the 17-19 April meeting. However, the time allocated for interventions by Member States would be insufficient.

While the LDC Group was happy to note that the means of implementation has been identified as a stand-alone agenda item, it called for explicit reference to Official Development Assistance (ODA), trade, debt relief, investment, capacity-building and technology transfer. The same issues should be highlighted under the MDG gap analysis scheduled to take place on 17 April.

(The 9 April version of the draft programme of work does not explicitly refer to MDGs; however, the two Issues Briefs provide information and analysis of the MDGs in addition to possible ways forward for the SDGs.)

The LDC Group stressed the particular importance of ODA to the Group because a recent OECD-DAC report demonstrates that development aid has decreased by 4% in real terms in 2012, following a 2% fall in 2011. Worse still, bilateral net ODA to LDCs has plunged by 12.8% in real terms in 2011, said Benin. The Group also wants the inclusion of productive capacity development, economic crisis and resilience building, capacity- building, migration, floods and droughts, commodities, ocean and mountain and tourism in the programme of work. These items should be included in relevant clusters, with discussions on the inter-linkages among the different themes of a cluster. The allocation of time for the discussions on the three pillars of sustainable development should be balanced.

Ghana (speaking for West Africa) said that we need to understand conceptual issues first before going to the goals. We need to understand how we are going to make them universal, simply, how to design them, how to attach means of implementation, indicators etc. It added that the OWG could ask those who crafted the MDGs to tell us how they did it. Ghana stressed that the panellists invited to the OWG session should give goals and indicators and how to structure these so that Member States can have a proper discussion. It also cited financial constraints in supporting five-day meetings every two months.

Barbados (speaking for the Caribbean Community, CARICOM) noted the importance of the inclusion of a conceptual session and the need to have a better idea of how to move forward conceptually. It said that more time is needed for MDG mapping, and to ensure that the three dimensions of sustainable development are balanced, and that means of implementation are included. Barbados also called for balance in the panels - views of civil society and experts should contribute to the OWG's work, and the process should not be too laden or bereft of panels.

Mexico (speaking also for Peru and Colombia) said the group does not want to see academic exercises. It agreed that discussions should be facilitated, and structured with analytical elements prepared by the UN system and the Secretariat. But it did not think it would be appropriate to abuse the presence of panellists and make it difficult for dialogue among Member States. Mexico added that we already spent a long time discussing thematic issues since Rio+20, and institutional memory is not lost. When it's necessary, there can be inputs from the UN system, but for now we do not want academic exercises.

The group stressed the need for sufficient time for conceptual discussions (an entire day), and did not agree that we should shrink the conceptual discussion of SDGs and MDGs and the inter-linkages and transitions to mapping. Mexico also emphasised the issue of poverty as an overarching issue, stating that poverty is a multi- dimensional phenomenon and that it cannot just be linked to food security (as in the proposed draft programme of work under discussion on 5 April). It said that the OWG needs a conceptual discussion of poverty in all its dimensions, adding that the UN has come a long way from poverty as an indicator of income.

On thematic issues, the group agreed with the G77 that there should be a balance among the three pillars and countries should be allowed to identify other themes. Mexico further said that discussion of themes does not mean we are losing sight of the global context, the macroeconomic and social context, the structural parameters - these are very broad but are challenges that should be addressed at the very first meeting.
Indonesia said that with regard to the organisational arrangement of the OWG, a five-day session taking place every two months is a more reasonable and feasible option. For a developing country such as Indonesia, the option for monthly meetings will seriously pose logistical and financial difficulties, particularly as we have capital-based representative in the OWG.
It stressed that the second meeting of the OWG should be dedicated for conceptual discussion on the OWG in which Member States are given ample space to discuss and share thoughts in an interactive manner, on elements and priorities of the development agenda based on the lessons learnt from the MDGs as well as from other internationally agreed development agreements and conventions, among others, Agenda 21, the Millennium Declaration, JPOI (Johannesburg Plan of Implementation), Monterrey Consensus, and Rio+20 that are important to be highlighted and further discussed in the OWG.
On the finalisation of the Programme of Work of the OWG, Indonesia said that this should be built from the synthesis of the discussion on the mapping and conceptualising of the SDGs, and therefore, subsequently take place after the conclusion of the discussion.
Indonesia also stressed that there are a few important elements of the development agenda that have been reiterated by many developing countries at the first informal (consultation of the OWG) on 28 March, that are not yet well reflected in the draft Programme of Work, among others, the focus on the systemic and structural issues, in particular reflection on global economic governance, global financial stability, issues of trade and financing for development. It added that these issues deserve special attention and ample time for deliberation by the OWG.
Indonesia then proposed (supporting the views that were expressed by other countries) that the second meeting of the OWG on 17-19 April 2013 should be dedicated to having comprehensive discussions on concepts and elements of priorities, as well as clarifying how the linkage of the issues that are going to be discussed during the "input phase" of the OWG on SDGs, from April to December 2013, could feed in a comprehensive and inclusive manner with the "output" phase from January to September 2014, the period for us to structure and formulate our recommendation on the SDGs.
China expressed full support for the G77 and Indonesia (who will represent the China-Indonesia-Kazakhstan troika for the April session). It said that the G77 wants a conceptual discussion because it is to figure out the structure and the outline, the roadmap, and timetable of the work of the OWG before jumping into thematic clusters like the first programme of work did. If you already set out the agenda, then there is no point in having a conceptual discussion, said China. It heard different requests for priority issues, so why don't we as Member States spend the day discussing priority areas and then we can choose, it said, proposing the second day of the April meeting for this. After discussing conceptual issues and priority areas, then on the third day, we will be in a better position to discuss the way forward, China added.
India supported China, adding that inter-linkages should be included during the conceptualisation discussion.
Ecuador (speaking also for Argentina and Bolivia) expressed concern that some suggestions from the G77 and China supported by many delegations have not been taken into account and reflected in the programme of work. It said that the OWG cannot confine poverty to one theme in the first (substantive) meeting, stating its agreement with Mexico that this is a broad, multi-dimensional theme. It also stressed the link between poverty eradication and inequalities. The group was concerned that too much time is to be devoted to experts, also querying who these experts are and whether there will be a balance in the representation. Ecuador said it is not a question of micro-management but rather suggestions to implement the inter-governmental mandate entrusted to us from Rio.
Argentina separately said that the first meeting on 17 April must have states doing a mapping, stressing that delegates look at the links among the contents differently, e. g. water and energy. It stressed the need to look at all the issues, linkages and cross-cutting issues. On the panels, it said there are still too many of them and not much time for interactions of States, and that panellists should provide a framework of what they are going to speak on. On the summary of discussion, this should be authentic, neutral and clear but must also allow States to say whether their views are reflected or not.
Nicaragua (speaking also for Brazil) said they have emphasised on many occasions the importance of having in-depth discussions on conceptualisation, and since the very first meeting have stressed the importance of poverty eradication as a key issue. On experts at the roundtable, it said that we have little time left so we should focus on Member States. We know you say 90% time for Member States but we are not going to negotiate with experts. For them to be useful for us we need to know who they are, and how they are chosen.
(The Co-chair had earlier, in response to Ecuador's statement, said that panellists will take minutes, they will offer ideas but 90% of the time is for Member States.)
Pakistan (speaking also for India and Sri Lanka) noted that the task ahead is difficult and requires intensive negotiations/work. It sought a better understanding on the status of the "note(s)" (to be prepared by the UN Technical Support Team mandated to provide inputs to the OWG). Are they information documents, conference room papers and/or background notes? This is important since the proposed conclusions are based on Co-chairs' summary and therefore, a comparability would be needed in treating the note(s) and the inter-governmental summary, said Pakistan.
The group also said that it is useful to have Co-chairs' summary during the initial phase of conceptualisation, but we may need to revisit this aspect at a later date when the work would get more substantive and important.
Pakistan said that it may be useful to further clarify the nature of stocktaking and its relationship with the Summary. It understood that stocktaking would be open to the wider membership of the UN and that we will provide sufficient time to other stakeholders in addressing the OWG and its membership. In such a scenario, would the Summary separately reflect views from the stocktaking, asked Pakistan.
The group also encouraged the Co-chairs to maintain focus on the MDG and SDG nexus during all sessions and where appropriate, and to not limit it to the session on 17 April; revisiting this nexus along with Means of Implementation at the final session would be highly useful. Lastly, Pakistan requested consideration for inter-sessional work and how that work could be conducted under the Co-chairs' guidance.
Nauru (representing the Pacific troika) supported a conceptual discussion of the MDGs, lessons and gaps and expressed tentative reservations about the issues listed in the programme of work, for example, in the Pacific, food security and nutrition have a lot to do with fisheries (an issue not in the list of the draft programme of work for the 17-19 April session).
South Sudan agreed with the G77 and LDCs that we should get into conceptual issues. How would the goals look like? What is the roadmap of how this work will be done? The delegate described the process as a teacher telling a class to draw an animal with four legs but every one would have a different idea - a cow, a goat, etc. It said that once we have identified the principles of the SDGs, then we can look at goals and targets. It expressed a need for a rapporteur, for clarity and constructiveness of the OWG.
Tanzania agreed that a MDG gap analysis offers information on what glaring gaps exist and what needs to be addressed by SDGs. Those gaps need thorough analysis, so it agreed with Mexico that poverty should be overarching and that it cannot be pigeon-holed to a single focus. While it welcomed the participation of experts, it also wanted to ensure there is balance between their presentations. It also supported having means of implementation in every cluster.
Egypt supported the call for more space for conceptual discussion, noting that drought that affects many African countries, and that is part of Chapter 5 of the Rio+20 outcome document guiding the OWG's work, is not in the programme of work. It is important to have a conceptual discussion so we can unlock the many questions, it added. Uganda said that there is also need to discuss conceptualisation of implementation and the means of implementation; it is indicated as a stand-alone item later on but this needs to come out in the conceptualisation process.
Morocco said that identifying the point of transition from MDGs to SDGs is not an easy task; a lot is at stake. Poverty cannot be discussed without taking account of the MDGs, and we are in the midst of an extremely sensitive phase, very much subject to the history of development. How do we conceptualise goals for the international community - what are the most significant goals? How do we demarcate what is significant and what is not, what is significant for developed countries but also for developing countries?
Norway (speaking also for Denmark and Ireland) agreed with Co-chair Korosi's reminder of the interactivity of the input phase of the OWG's work, and the need for inputs, stating that it would leave the number of panellists to the Co-chairs. It fully supported the inclusion of cross-cutting issues in the programme of work. It did not see a need for a rapporteur, adding that the Co-chairs have been empowered to lead Member States for this work.
Switzerland (speaking also for France and Germany) also agreed to a Co-chairs' report of the OWG meetings, saying that they can capture crucial points of the discussion and that there is no compelling reason for a rapporteur. The group emphasised that we are in the input phase so we need inputs from all the experts and that an "open" working group means that experts can be invited. It added that in Rio (June 2012 conference), it had clearly spoken out against the (UN General Assembly) Second Committee procedure where we negotiate everything that we do.
Israel (speaking also for Canada and the US) expressed support for the draft programme of work for the 17-19 April session and asked that water and energy be included in April, at least in relation to agriculture. This topic should be discussed separately as well later. It agreed that the OWG should do an MDG gap analysis and mapping and that the Secretariat (DESA) and UNDP could provide a summary. Stating that Member States should not micro-manage, Israel also acknowledged the challenge we face due to lack of mutual trust (referring to the issue of a rapporteur).
The United Kingdom (speaking also for Australia and the Netherlands) supported empowering the Co-chairs with sufficient flexibility. It asked for issues to be looked at from the perspective of drivers of poverty as this is the overarching aim of the OWG work. It said that cross-cutting issues should be the backdrop of the April discussion and offered Sir John Beddington, former chief scientist of the UK Government or Sir Bob Watson, to speak on agriculture.
Cyprus (speaking also for Singapore and the United Arab Emirates) said it had expressed some reservations at the March informal consultations, over some of the linkages made among the clusters of issues, but supported the Co-chairs' draft programme of work for the April OWG session. The Republic of Korea and Japan also supported the draft programme of work.
In his concluding remarks, Co-chair Korosi said that from the informal discussions, the April session will be devoted to the two dimensions of conceptual issues and eradication of extreme poverty. The panellists will be advised on what to focus on, and their papers and interventions will not be considered in any way as any sort of binding document. These will be for Member States' consideration and digestion, you can use them, you can bring your own ideas, he said.
He added that efforts will be made to get the best experts, especially with regional balance and hopefully with gender balance as well. In addition, the Co-chairs will ask the Secretariat to prepare issues notes on conceptualisation and eradication of extreme poverty and these will be available on 11 April.
At this point, Peru intervened to stress that the theme of poverty must be dealt with in a multi-dimensional manner, not just eradication of extreme poverty. This was supported by Ecuador who asked for the word "extreme" to be dropped.
On the options for the periodicity and length of meetings, a letter dated 10 April from the Co-chairs to Member States proposes a hybrid as follows: 22-24 May, 2013; 17-19 June, 2013; 25-27 November, 2013; 9-13 December, 2013; 6-10 January, 2014; and 3-7 February, 2014.
The letter also states that, "It is expected that the precise topics for these meetings will be determined by the outcome (of) the conceptualisation and mapping exercise meeting next week."

Source: Chee Yoke Ling with inputs from Bhumika Muchhala.
Published in SUNS #7567 dated 17 April 2013