Sustainable Development Glee

by khristian méndez

These eight little icons will serve to illustrate the past fifteen years in the global politics of sustainable development. These icons, along their accompanying statement, represent the Millennium Development Goals. And as we wave these eight promises goodbye from the international agenda, we are preparing for a new generation of promises to guide the work of the international community into an uncertain future: the Sustainable Development Goals.

On the morning of January 1st, 2016, people should wake up to a world where we don’t have to worry about eradicating extreme hunger and poverty anymore. The morning light and sunshine should be a celebration for ensuring environmental sustainability. And a few days later, kids around the world would start getting ready for school, since we should have achieved universal access to primary education.

Sadly, as the more cynical among our readers will have expected, this is far from being an achievable reality.

Instead, on January 1st, 2016, we will have a new set of goals to guide the work of the international community, and of national governments, towards “The Future We Want.” The Future We Want (or TFWW, depending how many acronyms you can handle in one blog post) is the name of the outcome document from the Rio+20 summit, in 2012. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have not been agreed yet, but there are many things we can infer from the history that precedes them.

The most cited definition of Sustainable Development was put forward by Our Common Future, a report published by the World Commission on the Environment and Development in October of ’87: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Much like a relay race, several summits took place between 1983 and 2014, all of which explored and produced, in one way or the other, outcomes that expressed the relationship between the ‘environment’ and Development. And accordingly, we saw a set of summits march over decades:

– the Earth Summit (the original Rio) in 1992, which produced Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development.

– the Millennium Summit in 2000, which produced the soul of the Millennium Development Goals

– the World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio+10) in 2002, which produced the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation

– the Millennium Development Goals Follow-Up Meeting in 2010,

– and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012, which produced The Future We Want, a vision and roadmap for Sustainable Development.

At the end of the last summit in 2012, following a proposal by the government of Colombia and Guatemala, it was agreed that countries would start a process to craft Sustainable Development Goals. These will replace the Millennium Development Goals that will expire in 2015. They should also be integrated with the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and “be action oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.” (1)

Considering the decades of work in international settings that have taken place until now, the hours spent in air-conditioned negotiating rooms around the world, and the thousands of files of written input created by governments and other stakeholders, the Sustainable Development Goals are a generation of Goals that have a titanic duty over their shoulder. The SDGs will attempt to carry on with the task of Ending Poverty that was set in motion by the Millennium Development Goals as these exit the stage of international politics. The SDGs will attempt to marry the twin concerns of Protecting For The Environment, as asked by developed countries, and Ensuring Human Development, as asked by developing countries. The SDGs will be easy to communicate, action oriented, and limited in number.  They will follow each of these conditions lest the international community ignores the wording from The Future We Want. And, very likely, they will each have an icon and a color, much like our current 8 MDGs. But will they deliver?

Will the joy and glee conveyed by the colorful imagery in UN websites and consultations on Sustainable Development really deliver? Will that glorious morning that we won’t see in 2016 come to us in 2031? That, dear reader, is a task we all have at hand. This is a task that will be mapped and charted politically in negotiation rooms around the world, but that must be started by questioning the words enclosing what we seek: Sustainability and Development.

(1) (The Future We Want, Section B, Paragraph 247.)

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