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Agenda 2030 marred by MDG mindsets on steroids

Business as usual is bad news for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, arguably the greatest human endeavour ever attempted to create just, equal and sustainable societies.

Mandeep Tiwana
18 October 2018
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Clarke Gayford, partner of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, holds their three-month-old baby at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 27, 2018. (Xinhua/Wang Ying/PA Images. all rights reserved

This year’s United Nations General Assembly had its usual share of highs and lows. Headlines contrasted between the drama, nervous laughter and pessimism of US President Trump’s speech and hopes of a new kind of political leadership offered by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern who urged renewed commitment to gender equality and multilateralism.

Now that the motorcades have departed, it’s back to business as usual at the UN.

But business as usual is bad news for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, arguably the greatest human endeavour ever attempted to create just, equal and sustainable societies. As is the norm, several new initiatives were launched by billionaire philanthropists and the UN’s leadership.

Decision makers and technocrats still appear to be stuck in a Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) mindset, albeit on steroids.

Notable among these is a new partnership initiative involve youth in Agenda 2030. Nonetheless, decision makers and technocrats still appear to be stuck in a Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) mindset, albeit on steroids. Too many of them continue to see poverty and exclusion as economic problems to be solved rather than as governance failures and grave human rights violations.   

Conspicuously, three things have changed in Agenda 2030 mainstream approaches to justify the “MDGs on steroids” label.

First, massive efforts are being made on the data front to create and curate data through cutting edge technology. This is positive but it’s important to keep in mind that data without access to information and fundamental freedoms can be easily skewed by those in power to serve their interests. Ironically, the UN’s World Data Forum is taking place this October in partnership with the United Arab Emirates’(UAE) Federal Statistics and Competitive Authority.

It should surprise no one if that country’s official data on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets will tell a story very different from that experienced by trade unionists, human rights activists and investigative journalists.  Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are virtually non-existent in the UAE as attested by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Second, the UN has wooed an unprecedented number of private sector actors both individual philanthropists and large corporations at a time when donor governments are balking at persistent funding gaps in development finance. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of an exponential rise in private wealth and balance-sheets of mega corporations, many of whose revenues exceed that of governments.

There’s welcome emphasis on the universality of Agenda 2030. This constitutes an improvement over the MDGs which often felt like impositions on the Global South by heavily industrialised economies of the Global North.

It might be useful to interrogate the impact of unprecedented private sector involvement in UN activities on SDG commitments to protect labour rights, reduce corruption and address income inequality.  Oxfam has recently released a report on companies’ commitment to the SDGs which concludes that while uptake on SDGs by companies is high there’s little evidence of corporations changing sustainability strategies with regards to priorities, ambition or transparency. Few are taking up human rights commitments.

Third, there’s welcome emphasis on the universality of Agenda 2030 and its applicability to all countries. This constitutes an improvement over the MDGs which often felt like impositions on the Global South by heavily industrialised economies of the Global North.

However, while government officials and development economists have no hesitation to play up the universal nature of the SDGs they are less enthusiastic to admit the holistic and interdependent nature Agenda 2030. This might be deliberate to divert attention from two key areas for political reasons. These are the commitment to sustainable consumption and production in Goal 12 and the commitment to fundamental freedoms, equal access to justice and rule of law in Goal 16.

The focus on data collection needs to move from reporting and creative curation to accountability. Data presentation is intensely political.

Agenda 2030 provides a road map to address global challenges of conflict, climate change, extreme poverty and inequality. This was reiterated in UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ welcome message in advance of the UN General Assembly session. But to achieve progress, significant mindset changes and policy reorientations are required.

Three key shifts are thus vital. One, the focus on data collection needs to move from reporting and creative curation to accountability. Data presentation is intensely political. Moreover, conditions need to be created for civic and political participation to enable people to tell their own story about their lives.

Non-monetised, accessible and good quality basic services are the key to reducing inequality and enabling equal opportunity.

Two, the viability of the current economic discourse with its emphasis on dismantling social protection and deregulating markets needs to be deeply interrogated. Non-monetised, accessible and good quality basic services are the key to reducing inequality and enabling equal opportunity.

Lastly, multi-stakeholder partnerships need to be leveraged to advance the social justice and human rights underpinnings of the SDGs. This cannot be achieved without empowered civil society organisations engaged in policy making. 

A notable highlight of the UN General Assembly session were numerous calls from member states on the value of multilateralism and the need to support a rules-based international order. Indeed, this intent should apply as much to countries’ compliance with the internationally agreed human rights framework as to trade and commercial agreements. 

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