Reference framework for sustainable development

Political article
The United Nation's Agenda 2030 has the potential to cure a world that is out of control. But constant pressure from civil society is needed.

“We are the first generation that can end poverty and the last one that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” With these words, the former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon never tired of pushing a new reference framework that unites the fight against poverty and the drive to combat climate change. He achieved his goal in September 2015 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

All countries, indeed the entire international community, thereby support a common vision of how the world should be in 2030. This is formulated in 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 sub-objectives (targets) and is extremely ambitious: the world is set to be free of poverty and hunger by 2030. Production and consumption are to be adapted to planetary boundaries, workers are no longer to be exploited, climate change is to stay within manageable limits, ecosystems are to remain stable, societies are to be organized in a participative and inclusive way, and the most vulnerable are to be provided for.

Many have welcomed the 2030 Agenda as a paradigm shift. In comparison with the Millennium Development Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 2030 Agenda is something completely new. Its universal character is particularly noteworthy – it assigns duties to industrial countries and talks of “developing countries” in terms of sustainability. The many cross references and explicitly stated reciprocal effects between the various goals as well as the bringing together of previously parallel processes within the 2030 Agenda – the social development under the MDGs and the environmental dimension covered by the Rio processes – bring fresh impetus and new opportunities to the discourse on development. This achievement is due not least to the joint development of the target catalog.

However, the 2030 Agenda, as a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, is not legally binding. This was the price to pay to have any chance of getting all countries to approve a 2030 Agenda as the reference framework for the next 15 years. This way, many goals could be introduced to the negotiation process that would have stood no chance had the document been more binding in nature. This applies to goals such as SDG 16 promoting greater rule of law, inclusive societies, and peace, which rich countries like Switzerland have been particularly keen on. It also applies to goals such as SDG 10, which aims to reduce inequality not just within but also between countries and has found particular favor among developing countries. Overall, the end result was a 2030 Agenda that was acceptable to everyone.

Its adoption by the UN General Assembly gives its genuine legitimacy. It represents a vision of the world in 2030 supported by all countries. However, as the 2030 Agenda is a negotiated document, it is not without contradictions. The final document thus contains some contradictory goals or conflicts could emerge in relation to goals. Depending on how individual goals are implemented, this can influence the achievement of other goals in a positive or negative way.

During the preparatory work for the 2030 Agenda, the developing countries secured the right to discuss the issue of resources (for implementation purposes) before anything actually happened. They were worried that, otherwise, a nice piece of paper with great goals would be adopted but nobody would actually put their hand in their pocket to make these goals a reality. These negotiations were concluded in July 2015 in Addis Ababa, two months before the 2030 Agenda was adopted.

The conference in Addis Ababa, however, did not focus on discussing a specific sum of money. Estimates for the investment required just to develop the infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs range from 5,000 to 7,000 billion USD per annum. Development funds from the Global North are far from sufficient to cover this investment, and money alone is not enough to achieve the SDGs. The conference also had the aim of clarifying the prerequisites needed for sustainable development. Changes to the international financial system play a key role here in harnessing and freeing up existing funds for development purposes. However, the conference missed the chance to push for the structural changes required in this very area.

Target 17.14 – designed to enhance policy coherence for sustainable development – is the focal point for implementing the 2030 Agenda. It is the first time that this goal has been explicitly incorporated into a global reference framework. Countries are thus obliged to analyze their policies in terms of consequences in other areas and take measures to make sustainable development possible for other stakeholders as well. It presupposes that the cross references and links between the SDGs are taken seriously.

For Switzerland in particular, there is some need for action in this respect, especially in terms of international financial and fiscal policies. With over 3,000 billion USD of managed foreign assets, Switzerland – as a financial center – is the largest offshore haven in the world and one of the preferred low tax areas for global companies. Developing countries are losing billions in income that they could be using to implement sustainable development because of legal and illegal tax optimization techniques. Switzerland must also incorporate the SDGs into trade policy objectives, say through binding sustainability provisions on human and labor rights, environmental standards, or access to medicine.

Constant pressure from civil society is urgently needed in order to translate words into actions. Otherwise, there is a risk that federal agencies and the private sector will cherry pick from the 2030 Agenda, meaning the difficult SDGs will be neglected or not tackled at all. This effort requires a strong network of stakeholders from civil society covering all manner of thematic areas. The big picture for the 2030 Agenda will only emerge if people talk to each other.

This article was publishes in the April issue of à propos, the online magazine of the Swiss platform for peacebuilding (KOFF/swisspeace).