A critique of the emerging post-2015 agenda

[Previously published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – XLIX No. 46, November 15, 2014]

A déjà vu agenda or a development agenda? A critique of the post-2015 Development Agenda from the perspective of developing countries

While the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been lauded for focusing the world’s attention on poverty, they have also drawn sharp criticisms.  Perhaps the most damaging of these is that although the MDGs are meant to be a universal agenda for all countries and all people, in reality they reflect the priorities of the world’s most affluent countries and powerful agents, prescribing goals for the South but allowing the North to bypass any real commitments, save for aid commitments, of which not all have been met.

Other serious criticisms are that the MDGs were formulated in an undemocratic manner with little meaningful input from civil society and developing countries; that they contributed to the shrinking of national policy space in developing countries; that they merely addressed the palliative symptoms of poverty while wholly ignoring the structural drivers of under-development; and, most worryingly, that they disproportionately burdened the poorest countries of the world while demanding very little from rich countries, and other influential agents, such as international financial institutions and multinational corporations.


The official debate on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015, is moving very quickly at the UN headquarters in New York. The content of the SDGs will be finalized over the next year through a process of inter-governmental negotiations, and it is expected that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) will adopt the new goals in September 2015 as the key component of a broader post-2015 agenda.

Steered by the UNGA’s Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs, the first set of negotiations took place between March 2013 to July 2014, with developing countries, organized in the Group of 77 (G77) and China, consistently calling for the inclusion of means of implementation (MOI), through finance and technology, and structural reforms to international systemic issues, such as trade and finance rules.[2]

Despite a number of improvements, in both process and substance, the SDGs proposed by the OWG suffer from the same key defects as the MDGs, do not pay sufficient heed to the G77’s central demands, and may raise the spectre of a new layer of environment-related obligations for developing countries without the concomitant financial or technological resources.

Another most worrying trends is the aggressive cementing of ‘multi-stakeholder partnerships’ into the SDGs discourse, which explicitly implies a lead role for multinational corporations and foundations in development financing and agenda-setting, particularly through public-private partnerships.

Indeed, if deliberations on the post-2015 agenda do not take a radically different turn, the much-touted language of “universality” and “partnership” that saturates the emerging framework will do little more than serve as vehicles – and masks – for exacerbating and expanding the privatization agenda and North-South asymmetries of the existing fundamentally flawed neoliberal paradigm.

The universality problem

The absence of measurable targets, indicators, and achieve-by dates for MDG-8, the only goal among the MDGs that deals directly with the responsibilities of affluent states and international agencies, suggests that the MDGs were essentially a slate of instructions for the developing countries alone.

The notion that the SDGs are a universal framework, in contrast to the MDGs, has defined the very understanding of the SDGs. The UN has taken great pride in the claim that the new goals will be universally applicable. Yet actual negotiations on the SDGs have betrayed a different reality. Deliberations at the OWG have been marked by chronic resistance by developed countries to the inclusion of meaningful and substantive language for MOI targets that would require action by developed countries.

This has led the G77 to express concern that a “universal” agenda is now dangerously implying that there are no differentiations between developed and developing countries, and that developing countries will be stuck between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they will not have the structural, financial and technological support they will need to implement the SDGs, and on other, they will not have adequate policy space to carry out their development plans. While rhetorical language on policy space is in the document, developed countries routinely blocked the operational language of commitments, which is nuanced with the clause, “with respect to nationally defined policies and priorities.” It was only after an intense session in July that some basic demands by the G77 for the MOI were ceded to.

Most crucially, the last few days of SDG negotiations witnessed almost total rejection of all instances where developing countries nuanced commitments, particularly in Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production, with the clause of “developed countries taking the lead.” While the developed countries refused to “take the lead” on target commitments, on MOI where they already have existing commitments, they actually demanded equal treatment and suggested that forthcoming MOI should also be available to them for use.

Such actions of developed countries put into threat the very definition of universality that developing countries had unanimously clarified from the outset of the SDG discussions in March 2013.  This understanding of universality, affirmed by the Rio+20 Outcome Document, “The Future We Want,” is that while SDGs are universal to all countries in nature and relevance, the degree of national responsibility in the implementation of the goals should be differentiated in accordance with the varying capacities, realities and developmental levels of countries.[3] A cursory interpretation of this mandate of universality and differentiation could jeopardize the balance, coherence and impact of the SDGs.

“Partnerships” section paves pathway for private sector

Perhaps the most crucial failure of the SDG text is the complete absence of the global partnership for development in its original invocation as that of international cooperation on a broad range of key development issues, principally between governments of developed and developing countries, with the developed countries taking the lead in providing resources and the means of implementation. The global partnership for development is supposed to be an enhanced and strengthened version of the paltry MDG-8.

While some developing countries urged that it is imperative to re-capture the term with its original meaning and not allow it to be isolated only as partnerships with the private sector and civil society, developing countries did not call for this with as much urgency or collective action as they did for many other structural issues.

In previous OWG discussions, Brazil and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) were the only countries to explicitly caution against excessive reliance on private sector financing for sustainable development.  They argued that a comprehensive assessment of existing and future partnerships should be carried out through a governance model that ensures ex-ante transparency and accountability, and that such assessments should take into account the impact, accountability and compliance of existing partnerships, and their institutional arrangements, with the principles and governance mechanisms of the UN.

They had pointed out that while the UN should be open to catalyzing all existing support for sustainable development, this should not facilitate an evasion of government responsibility, or a means of compensating for unmet commitments in official development assistance (ODA), from both developed and developing countries.  Brazil had expressed in strong words that outsourcing development cooperation to the private sector raises serious issues about the UN as an intergovernmental organization, in large part because they have expanded outside the purview of intergovernmental oversight, without regular and effective participation by Member States.

Since it became clear, during the course of 2013, that private sector partnerships will distort the original global partnership for development, a critical mass of global civil society groups, along with progressive academics, have argued that public-private partnerships need to be accompanied by a governance framework, led by the UN, within which private sector partnerships can be held accountable and transparent.

Such a governance framework should incorporate accountability, ex-ante assessment and criterion, transparent reporting, independent evaluation, and monitoring mechanisms.  Furthermore, partnerships should demonstrate sustainable development results in developing countries, and this should formulate a key criterion that must be met before a private sector actor is able to engage in a “partnership.”

Forum-shifting as classic negotiation tactic

The particular tactic of “forum-shifting” has been widely employed in the SDGs negotiations.

Developed countries have repeatedly argued, for example, that all content related to systemic and financing issues should take place through the Financing for Development Conference (to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in July 2015) and through the report of the International Committee of Experts on Financing for Sustainable Development (ICESDF, due in August of this year). The rationale provided by developed countries is that the SDGs must show respect for other UN intergovernmental processes, and that the OWG could be, at best, a forum for re-affirming earlier commitments but not for making new commitments. Developing countries, on the other hand, have argued that while other processes such as the ICESDF have important bearing, they cannot decide the actual language negotiated for the SDG document.

More significantly, however, developed countries have consistently attempted to diminish the leadership role of the UN.  For example, under the mandate of the Rio+20 outcome document, the UN in New York has been holding discussions on a global technology facilitation mechanism for the objective of sustainable development that would strengthen North-South, South-South and triangular regional and international cooperation on and access to science, technology and innovation.  Developing countries pressed for this mechanism to be housed under the United Nations while developed countries tried to evade this.

Furthermore, when discussion of structural macroeconomic, trade and finance issues arise, developed countries would immediately claim that these issues are the domain of international financial institutions, namely the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, as well as other institutions such as the Financial Stability Forum and the Bank for International Settlements.  The line of argument is that the UN does not have the technical expertise or the legitimacy to adequately address such issues, which have their home elsewhere.  Thus, systemic issues are kept out of reach for the one global arena (the UN) that has an equitable governance structure.

The G77’s 50th anniversary summit produced a critical declaration in June of this year that stressed within its 242 paragraphs the importance of the central role of the UN in global economic governance. The declaration outlined how the General Assembly and a strengthened Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) could both act to mitigate the impact of the international financial and economic crisis and to ensure the right of developing countries to policy space for sustainable development. The G77 urged the UN Secretary General to further strengthen the development pillar of the whole Organization, and urged developed countries to show real political will to enable the UN to improve its capabilities in the social, environmental and economic development fields.


The adoption of the SDG document by the OWG in some sense is a step forward, even though the text fails to substantively address an enhanced global partnership for development and a structurally relevant means of implementation both within the goals and through themes of trade, finance and technology.  The myriad green lights given to private sector financing and partnerships for sustainable development, without any specific language on evaluations, accountability, transparency and overall governance, are deeply worrying, as is the absence of meaningful language on systemic reforms of global institutions that will address the root causes of poverty (such as debt cancellation for the poorest countries).

Nonetheless, the text encompasses a bold spectrum of the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.  And there is present a fair amount of progressive, development-oriented language, as well as some demonstration of political will to prioritize a more holistic framework for development through sustainability.

In a complex negotiation process amidst sharp differences and disputes among Member States, the work going forward will be to ensure that the forthcoming UNGA negotiations take place based on the document as it stands now, in a manner that is inclusive, transparent and accountable, without any further dilution or deletion of the hard-won gains in the SDG text as it currently stands, and with an upward trajectory towards ensuring key deliverables not only in finance and technology but more importantly, a genuine paradigm shift in a world economy that sustains itself on entrenched inequalities.

[1] Mitu Sengupta is Global Coordinator for CDHR. Bhumika Muchhala is Senior Policy Researcher on Finance and Development for Third World Network (TWN).

[2] The country perspectives noted in this article are based on Third World Network’s witnessing the OWG negotiations first hand between the time frame of March 2013 – July 2014.

[3] The Rio+20 Outcome Document, ‘The Future We Want,” states in paragraph 247 that SDGs are supposed to be “global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account the different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.”