Update From the April SDG Negotiations: How We Can Make Sustainable Development Happen

Time is growing short for the Sustainable Development Goals and Financing for Development processes to be finalized and put into action. The two initiatives, which take into account human and environmental welfare, comprise the United Nations' roadmap for sustainable development. At a recent joint session for both initiatives, looming deadlines did not inspire the requisite urgency to clearly define some of the most basic principles.

Kenya's soft-spoken Ambassador Macharia Kamau startled delegates and observers as they settled into their seats. Holding up the front page of the New York Times, Kamau delivered a 'reality check': headlines illustrating the ubiquitous global challenges confronting the Sustainable Development Goals and Financing for Development programs, from conflict in Syria to unrest on the streets of Baltimore.

The UN will officially announce the SDGs in September--that timeline is set. It is clear from the most recent round of discussions, however, that a host of problems and differences of opinion remain. Stances will have to soften on the prominence of private finance. Delegates will have to compromise on what "technology transfer" means -- building capacity for innovation? Delivering existing technologies? Something else entirely?

Parsing definitional problems like these will be vital to produce a forward-looking outcome at the Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa in July and, ultimately, the Sustainable Development Goals' launch.

The week's key developments

  • Financing: the World Bank presented a report by the main International Financial Institutions, in which a call was made for a transition from 'billions to trillions.' The idea is essentially to move from billions in Official Development Assistance (ODA) to trillions in development finance from a wider range of sources, including private finance and charitable trusts. But the G77 and China and other developing countries showed concern that the 'billions to trillions agenda' will establish a hazardous paradigm of privatization of development assistance. Financial Institutions, on the other hand, see this move as a pragmatic recognition that the SDG agenda is too broad to be funded by ODA alone.
  • Means of Implementation: One recurring theme was the alignment of Financing for Development's agenda and outcome document with the Sustainable Development Goals' targets. Delegates assumed stances with great gaps between them, and stark differences arose regarding whether the scope of the outcome document for FfD should be broader or narrower than the SDG's Means of Implementation. The Co-Facilitators did well to reach a general consensus on the relationship between FfD, SDG targets, and the Means of Implementation, representing a hard won outcome for the week. Yet there remains much to be done before Addis Ababa.
  • Technology: One full day was devoted to technology transfer, but there was no shared understanding of what the term means. Summarizing the discussion at the day's end, Kamau stressed the need for knowledge sharing, for studies to identify potential partnerships and to address broader institutional issues. We need to get to a detailed, specific plan of action for technology transfer, and ideally, we needed to do it during last month's negotiations. Due to the disparity in negotiating positions, this did not happen.
  • Partnerships and accountability: distinctions between a 'renewed global partnership for development' and more tangible partnerships required to make the SDGs happen were a source of confusion for negotiators. It's not yet clear how SDGs will create a participatory environment for all stakeholders, including private sector and civil society organisations. How such an environment would fit into the member state-driven United Nations system is also unclear. There needs to be more definitiveness on how a global partnership will differ from the MDG process, and how accountability will be incorporated into SDGs, FfD, and the partnership in general.

A second reality check

The present moment is a crucial point in both programs. As Norway's Geir Pederson, Co-Facilitator to the FfD process noted, there were only 12 weeks to go until Addis Ababa (now 8). The SDG launch, in September, is less than five months away. Taking a long-view, 2030--the year the SDGs expire-- is basically tomorrow. Time is short and too few concrete solutions are on the table.

Member states, despite inertia and confusion, did propose some new, provocative models illustrating a path forward. New Zealand spoke of the genuine and durable partnerships it is creating with other Pacific nations. In 2013's Pacific Energy Summit, New Zealand invested $80m throughout the Pacific, leveraging $635m more from a range of partners, for renewable energy initiatives in 13 countries.

India highlighted the urgency of producing affordable pharmaceuticals for developing nations, particularly those in Africa. Indian generics production has made life-saving drugs available at a lower cost. The Representative of India suggested that their country's pharmaceutical industry serves as an example for how technology transfer could lead to genuinely positive outcomes under the SDGs.

In another statement, India drew attention to key questions to be answered to bring a Technology Facilitation Mechanism into existence. The mechanism would be the best way for technologies to flow to countries that need them under the SDGs. The Indian delegation addressed the mechanism's core functions, the arrangements for oversight and accountability, and whether the mechanism will be able to tap into the expertise of different groups. These are the kind of questions we needed answers to this week.

An article from Ambassador Kamau on the Huffington Post last year shows that those steering the process know the great importance of strong outcome documents for the FfD and SDG programs. 2015 remains a huge year for international development, and much more has to happen as we move into a phase of almost constant meetings. It is time, as many representatives have said, to focus on concrete solutions and develop positive paths forward, and to do so quickly.