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What is sustainable development?

The United Nations defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Previous dialogues on sustainability have more or less focused on climate change and environmental issues, but the new paradigm of sustainability, as negotiated over the last three years for this summit. includes all efforts towards an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for people and the planet. There is a significant departure from the previous framework to now include a “harmonising” of three elements: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. “Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is an indispensable requirement for sustainable development,” the UN has said.

What are the Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted today?

The 193 Member States of the United Nations, following negotiations that lasted from July 2012 till last month, have agreed upon the text of a new document entitled, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. This agenda contains 17 goals and 169 targets. These will be officially adopted on Friday at the start of the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York. The goals are to be achieved by all member countries within the next fifteen years, thereby giving it the moniker of ‘Agenda for 2030’.

But what are the goals exactly?

End poverty in all forms; end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; ensure inclusive and equitable quality education; achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all; ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment; build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation; reduce inequality within and among countries; make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable; ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns; take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources; protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss; promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels; strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.

Why now?

This agenda builds on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in 2000 and were to be achieved by 2015. With 2015 drawing to a close, it’s time for a new set of goals. Also, at the Rio+20 meet in 2012 to mark 20 years of the Rio Environment Summit, world leaders had to concede that decades of environmental activism had not achieved the set targets, leading to a consensus that a new sustainability document was in order for the world to commit itself to. From the Rio+20 conference emerged a report, ‘The Future We Want’, in which were enshrined the principles and markers based on which the negotiations proceeded for the next three years.

Do we need another set of global goals?

The document is being seen as a political document, not a technical one. Criticism that there are too many — 17 goals with 169 targets makes it a complex task to monitor, ensure reporting and hold governments accountable, but the Rio+20 consensus was for a comprehensive document, and this is comprehensive. But while the jury remains out on whether these are achievable and realistic, whether the lack of clarity on monitoring and accountability makes it an exercise in spelling out truisms and platitudes, the fact that this is a political undertaking is important. As undertakings that civil society and citizens can hold leaders accountable for, the goals are significant. Also, given that this is the first time that ALL nations adopt the same set of goals, regardless of their relative position on the development continuum, given that emerging economies in the developing world will play significant roles as donors in their own right even as the developing world negotiates with the developed world to keep its commitments on Official Development Assistance and other forms of financial structural reform, the goals are more than just 17 desirables.

Who foots the bill for the implementation of the agenda?

The fine print on how developed countries are to contribute vis-a-vis developing countries is still being finalised, though the Indian contingent of negotiators is among those G77 countries and China who insisted upon a Means of Implementation section in the document, the latter squarely laying responsibilities upon the developed world to fulfil its commitments on assistance and on transfer of technology to developing countries. For the first time, the role of the private sector and its participation is also being chalked in from the very start of the process. According to UN officials, a “framework of a revitalized global partnership for sustainable development” including the policies and actions arrived at in the Addis Ababa Conference on Financing for Development held in July this year will define the precise nature of resource mobilisation for implementing the goals.

How enthusiastic is civil society, given that it has been part of the consultative provcess of drafting the SDGs?

Indian NGOs say they harbour a healthy skepticism of the goals themselves being achieved, especially in the absence of clearly defined monitoring processes and clarity on resource mobilisation — these are still being negotiated. But their participation as stakeholders means that they continue to engage with the process.

If it’s adopted today, what next?

The 17 SDGs and 169 targets of the new agenda will be monitored and reviewed using a set of global indicators. This framework of indicators is still to be developed and is currently being reviewed by an Inter Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators. The UN Statistical Commission will finalise these markers or indicators, which will naturally demand capacity-building on data collection in countries, by March 2016. Subsequently, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly will adopt these indicators. Chief statisticians from Member States are working on the identification of the targets with the aim to have 2 indicators for each target. Governments will also develop their own national indicators to assist in monitoring progress made on the goals and targets. The follow–up and review process will be undertaken on an annual basis by the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development through a SDG Progress Report to be prepared by the Secretary–General.

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