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The UN Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals completed its outcome document a few weeks ago, putting forth 17 goals and 169 targets.  The optimistic take: that’s only just over twice the number of goals in the Brazil-Germany World Cup match.  But for all the space devoted to targeting almost every conceivable area of global progress, there was one topic on which the OWG was notably silent: what’s the purpose of all of this?

Since talks began seriously in 2012, the post-2015 agenda has become an all-things-to-all people process, thereby doing nothing really well. Nowhere was this more evident than in the lengthy OWG outcome document.

So what could be the purpose of post-2015 sustainable development goals?

  • If they’re a shared vision of where we all agree we want to see the World in 2030: (i) you’d actually want the document to be broader (we’d want the whole text of the universal declaration of human rights incorporated); and (ii) you wouldn’t slough off bits just because there happens to be another UN-mandated body looking at it (IPCC, WTO…). And, this being a visionary document, it would matter less whether targets were measurable and practical.
  • If they’re a shared vision of where we all agree we want to see the World in 2030, and how we’re going to get there, you’d want a lot more on ‘how to get there.’ This would include: (i) a heavy focus on means of implementation (goal 17 in the OWG’s outcome document); and (ii) member state negotiations tackling big questions around partnerships and financing for the new agenda.
  • If they are to prioritize the most pressing sustainable development challenges over the next 15 years, the agenda would have to: (i) answer the fundamental question ‘prioritize for what’? (Are these targets for assistance, UN activities, policy changes of member states?); and (ii) you’d definitely need fewer priorities.
  • If they are about ‘global challenges’ that we need the global community to address: (i) you’d only include global public goods (and back to the first point, not exclude issues around climate and trade because the UN was dealing with them elsewhere); and (ii) have to get into specifics around “common but differentiated responsibilities” –  the UN lingo for burden sharing – which has thus far been a stark dividing line between countries.
  • If they are to hold governments to account, you’d want to make sure: (i) the goals and targets were realistic (zero violence against women and children?); and (ii) they were easily and uncontroversially measurable (zero violence against women and children?). You’d probably also need to include far fewer goals and targets so governments might stand a chance of tackling even half what a post-2015 agenda would include.

We all knew the point of the MDGs (or at least how they were mostly used): setting a framework for global aid discussions.  Everyone has agreed that the world should be much more ambitious this time around, but there’s been no agreement on what all that ambition should be aimed at accomplishing.  At the moment we have an outcome document that is essentially useless for prioritizing anything, goes far beyond global public goods (and excludes key ones), is very weak on ‘how do we get there,’ is full of unrealistic targets, and yet fails as a complete vision of where we’d love to see the world in 2030.

It would be a huge step if the Secretary General’s upcoming synthesis report actually laid out the rationale and purpose of the post-2015 goals in a way that doesn’t suggest they are designed to be all things to all people.  If his report offered a coherent and singular purpose for the post-2015 agenda, member states would at least be operating from the same rationale as they move into the final year of what looks to be a difficult and lengthy drafting process.