What Will America Do Differently Once It Signs On to the SDGs? – Podcast with US Chief Negotiator Tony Pipa

August 31, 2015

If anyone understands the nuances and political realities of the American position on each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it is Tony Pipa. As the US Chief Negotiator for the Post-2015 Process, he helped hammer out the wording of the final document and, when he visited CGD last week to record a podcast, he was keen to remind me that “this was a politically inclusive process.… All countries are committing to the norms and the aspirations the goals set out.”

True enough. If the Millennium Development Goals were about rich countries helping poor countries, the SDGs apply to all nations and are designed to improve all our lives in a range of different ways.

That also means all countries that sign up are expected to implement (at least some of) them at home.

So what will the US do differently — domestically — once it signs up to the goals in New York later this month? (Clue: This is why I said "political realities" earlier).

“I would put it the other way,” the chief negotiator tells me. “The SDGs are reflective of the agenda that President Obama and his administration have been pursuing domestically. When you look at the focus on inequality … the focus on 'leave no one behind' within the SDGs, when you look at the president’s proposals on universal early childhood development, you look at proposals on access to a community college system — that fits with the focus on economic growth and about having people prepared for the knowledge economy.”

With the negotiations now concluded, Pipa can reflect on the text that countries will sign up to in a few weeks’ time. Click on the video below to find out how he thinks the SDGs could be better and how the world will measure progress.


US domestic policy may not exactly be facing an overhaul in light of the SDGs, but Pipa says domestic departments within the US government have “a familiarity” with the SDG process and have been helping to shape US positions in the negotiations.

“We have had a very robust interagency process throughout the last couple of years of negotiations.… We brought some of the best thinking from our domestic agencies as we were negotiating and engaging with other member states at the UN to help shape this agenda. We were learning from some of things we have done here in the US and some of the models that have been successful in bringing that to bear both internationally and domestically.”

Some SDGs are better than others. Pipa may not say as much publicly, but it’s clear that he — and let’s be honest, by “he” we mean the United States — is happier with some of the 17 goals than others.

Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

“We’re very happy to see Goal 16 in there,” he admits.

Not surprising really, when Goal 16 is a less-than-subtle nod in the direction of democracy. But how does that fit with the world-beating progress of China in lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty with nary a whiff of political representation?

“From our perspective,” the chief negotiator begins, “nations will set their own benchmarks and their own milestones of what they’re trying to achieve via development. From our perspective, we’re about promoting resilient, democratic societies. We want to see the elements that are in Goal16 … taken seriously by every country.”

Goal 16 is one of the SDGs that members of the US Congress may appreciate, and getting US lawmakers on board is crucial to the success of the process overall. Pipa says Congress has already been involved.

“We’ve been in conversations with our congressional committees and members to get their input. They were very excited about the focus on governance and strength of governance and peaceful societies of Goal 16.... We went through the entire agenda with them trying to get input on where they thought the important things were on food, hunger, health.”

“There are transformational elements to this agenda … peace and governance, the inclusive nature of it, the focus on gender and other vulnerable populations, and I think all that will be exciting to members of Congress.”

You can see the full video Podcast with Tony Pipa below.


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