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Looking Backward:  Anticipating a Verdict on our 2030 Development Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Feb

This was an unusually synchronized week at UN Headquarters.  The Security Council was largely focused on the London pledging conference for Syria and then returned to the urgent need to plot next steps – including likely new sanctions — in response to the DPRKs latest missile launch.  Instead, most of the building was preoccupied with assessing and enriching the early stages of implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This past Monday, ECOSOC kicked off a two-day youth event that brought out an “A” list of presenters, mostly to encourage youth to join in the full implementation of the 2030 development agenda.   We’ve written previously about the ways in which UN youth events tend to patronize their audiences – fairly heralding their talents and urging their full involvement, but without either expressing regret for much of the state of the world nor insisting, as older people used to do in my life, that youth are not yet quite as ready for prime time as we have previously convinced them they are.

For its part, the General Assembly held its own informal review of the early stages of implementation of the 2030 development goals, featuring addresses by the President of the General Assembly and the Deputy Secretary General.   DSG Eliasson’s recent presentations have helpfully integrated his own vast institutional memory, and here he noted the considerable differences in energy and urgency on SDG implementation in comparison with the Millennium Development Goals of year 2000. The morning sessions urged development leadership that can “inspire confidence on the ground,” and heralded the implementation of the “Technology Facilitation Mechanism” deemed essential to broad SDG fulfillment. The DSG, PGA, the European Union and many states noted the enormous development challenges and responsibilities that we all have assumed in these urgent times, a commitment that we should not seek to control and at which we simply must not allow ourselves to fail.

On top of these, the 54th Session of the Commission for Social Development convened under Romania’s leadership.  While the Commission room was often half empty (due less to NGO interest levels than to the manner in which “secondary passes” were distributed), the Commission spawned some interesting side events that also helped to clarify our roles and responsibilities to the 2030 Sustainable Development process.

One of these events focused on the launch of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) report on global labor trends.   While few if any want the Security Council tampering with unemployment statistics, the status of labor clearly poses major implications for international peace and security.   Unavailable work, dangerous work, work that fails to pay a livable wage – these and other employment circumstances stoke social unrest and grave discouragement. While the ILO struggles to define and then promote its best understanding of “decent” work, our global economy remains in the hands of elites stubbornly unaccountable to workers; indeed largely unaccountable to the UN itself.  Another “manufactured” global recession will deepen poverty for some and throw others back into previously untenable economic options, which could well spark new waves of violence but will surely compromise the fulfillment of the SDGs even beyond their employment-specific targets.

Another side event exuded a more positive energy, this an event on “social protection” hosted by Ghana and featuring several of its ministers and parliamentarians.   Ghana has done good work establishing and maintaining social protection floors, including innovative ways of paying for state services, in ways that could well provide a model for its regional neighbors and others far beyond the African continent.  Indeed, we have already suggested to two other African states that they also consider placing their most hopeful “protection” measures on display for the review and edification of the international community.  There is never enough of this good development news.

This event (and others of the week) also stimulated thinking on the best strategy for maintaining what the DSG referred to earlier in the week as “positive energy” towards fulfillment of the SDGs.  Concerns in this regard are fully appropriate. Indeed, at a side event this week focused on positive changes in the mining industry in the DRC, Ireland’s Ambassador Donoghue was forced to admit that he is only “cautiously optimistic” that the SDGs will eventually achieve their targets.   Along with Kenya’s  Amb. Kamau,  Amb. Donoghue’s leadership on sustainable development goals was nothing short of heroic.  But he also understands the UN system, its political and fiscal compromises, its acceptance of “good enough” when only the best is called for.  As I understood his comments, his discouragement has less to do with the goals themselves and more to do with the limitations of the institution that houses them. Moreover, as understood by those leading the ILO event on labor, fiscal contingencies brought about by those persons and institutions perpetuating gross inequalities could easily dry up the revenue available (and necessary) to modulate and clean up the planet, and bring concrete hope to those most often abused or unreached.

Fortunately, side events associated with the Commission are providing some intriguing options to soften the contingencies of inequality and caution.  As a set of global norms, the SDGs (and their indicators, now in progress on several fronts) seem somewhat unforgiving.  Either we meet the goals and targets or we don’t.  And of course we should meet them once we can agree on the scope of their indicators.  But there is another way to look at the SDGs, less as a normative burden and more as a menu of resources for replicable and sustainable social change.

While watching images and listening to stories about persons in the DRC who had been abused by and then gained their freedom from the extraction industry, it seemed obvious that this is the sort of story that the SDGs were designed to magnify: identifying the relevant norms, to be sure, but also the available (fiscal and other) resources and the responsible parties.  Used in this way, the SDGs become part of the cutting edge of global problem solving, a stimulating factor in replicating things gone right, rather than a set of directives which we are almost destined to fall short of fulfilling.

Fifteen years from now, when a generation first cutting its teeth on development policy walks through that creaky door towards middle age, how will they assess our current commitments?   How will they feel when they look back at the choices we now make and the steps we now take to heal what has been broken and reach beyond our comfort levels to those who most need relief?   Looking backward is always precarious business, tinged with the inevitable “second guess,” but 15 years is a veritable blink of an eye.

We’ll be there before we know it, most probably with health and equity left to pursue, but hopefully with so many innovative and energizing successes that can inspire another generation to help save the rest.  The more creatively — and less punitively – we can harness the power and hopefulness of the SDGs, the larger the number of global communities that will be able to find their stride.  Hopefully, then, these will join to help another set of communities find their own.