Looking Forward to the June SDG Negotiations: Agreeing Principles Is Fine, Details Are Harder

Last month's negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) brought both greater levels of agreement and familiar notes of discord. Focusing on 'Follow-Up and Review,' the international process to monitor SDG progress, it was the final debate-style session of negotiations before delegations meet next week to finalize an outcome document for the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September. One thing is clear, a number of challenges remain for countries to find agreement on ahead of the July deadline for the outcome document.

General agreement on Follow-Up and Review: all sewn up?

In May, delegates were able to agree to a set of principles for follow-up and review, under the auspices of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). There had clearly been a number of discussions within groups of countries ahead of the negotiations, leading to more agreement across the floor.

All delegates were very keen to stress that follow-up and review should be a voluntary and national government-led process. Nigeria stated the importance of respecting national policies, practices, and outlooks. The G77 and China wanted to make sure that it must also review the work carried out by UN agencies, but not 'assess' or grade the reports of national governments. This concern was raised by many countries.

There was a genuine concern raised that global comparison may not actually be useful for many countries, given their different situations. Regional 'peer-learning' between countries that are at least somewhat similar, may actually be beneficial. This was raised by a number of delegates as an important aspect of follow-up and review.

Changing the world in 8 days

There are questions remaining about whether the whole process can be overseen by the HLPF in practice. It will meet for only 8 days a year (it is replacing the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which met for 4 weeks a year). As Co-Facilitator Kamau noted, three of those days will be taken up with minister's statements. This leaves only five days for the monitoring of global sustainable development progress, identification of areas for improvement, and sharing of ideas and best practices.

Other UN agencies (such as the UN Environment Programme and the Regional Commissions) and other international and regional approaches will have to be adroitly utilized in the build-up to each meeting of the HLPF to make sure it functions effectively as a global reporting mechanism. There will need to be greater coordination between UN entities. While nobody expects mechanisms to address these concerns will be finalized next week, there needs to be greater clarity on what they will look like.

Indicator work progresses well

May's negotiations also featured an update from the United Nations Statistical Commission on the process to design global indicators for the SDGs by March 2016. This work is progressing well. The UNSC has taken on board feedback from the March session, where countries stressed that designing the indicators should be inclusive of all regions and member states, but not be a political process like designing the goals.

It was also interesting to indicators that may need further development will be considered, as will those where currently there is no globally agreed methodology. The Commission is hopefully taking up the call of measuring what it's important, not measuring what's possible. As the indicators will not be ready by September, what is needed from the upcoming discussions is a robust set of principles for the SDGs' outcome document.

Finalising targets: the thread unravels

Last month, countries were not able to agree on a set of changes to 21 of the targets. This remains a major area of negotiation for next week's sessions. These changes would fill in the blanks in the targets that were highlighted previously, as well as aligning the 'ambition' of some targets with existing international agreements.

Interestingly enough, countries used details of the proposed changes in order to disagree with the principle of changing them. Strikingly, Benin, speaking on behalf of the least developed countries (LDCs), disagreed with the principle of changing the politically negotiated targets at this stage in the process. Except that is, when it came to one target on the amount of Official Development Assistance that should be given to the LDCs, which it felt should be doubled.

Some have softened their stances. Within Latin America, Mexico agreed with some of the changes, whereas they were thoroughly rejected by Venezuela and Columbia because of a changed reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Maldives, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, were cautiously supportive. In many other situations, both groups would have agreed with the G77 and China.

In general, the impasse comes down to one group of countries arguing that the changes are merely technical and do not affect the political balance of the negotiated SDGs, and another argues that they will affect the balance.

A degree of frustration is understandable. Two sessions of negotiations over two months have been spent discussing the lack of time for discussions on these changes. As Iceland noted, the member states' collective credibility is on the line. The other option is for Ban Ki-moon and the heads of state to adopt a set of SDGs in September that are flawed and unfinished.

One of the looming questions for the June meeting is why so many member states oppose making targets more specific. Is it a genuine concern for ensuring that the SDGs maintain political consensus, or is it because doing so will allow countries to set their own targets in these areas? While national ownership of the SDG process is an important virtue, being too permissive on distributed target setting may not yield the kinds of consistency and ambition needed to make the SDGs succeed.

The draft schedule for June's negotiations indicate that these issues will continue to be debated. But time is growing short.