G20 to the Rescue?

Barry Carin And Wonhyuk Lim

CIGI & Korea Development Institute


“If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”.

Can the G20 backstop the UN process formulating the post 2015 Development Goals? The Center for International Governance Innovation and the Korea Development Institute and anticipated the global debate and published a report in 2012 after an extensive research effort with many expert collaborators. This process proposed eleven candidate post 2015 goals.

In May 2013, the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons published its report, with twelve “illustrative goals.

The UN had no choice in the process to determine what will succeed the Millennium Development Goals. It undertook an unprecedented worldwide outreach and consultation effort to elicit public opinion. The higher the number of people involved in a consensus decision, the less likely the decision will be cogent and coherent. The lowest common denominator will result. A very long list of candidate goals emerged from the UN process. This was no surprise, given the diversity of people’s concerns. In a CIGI-KDI effort to contribute to the process, suggestions for Goals were made which seem idiosyncratic, but which accurately represented real issues in specific countries. A Cambodian colleague asked that we emphasize clearance of land mines. A Mongolian contributor insisted that one of the Post 2015 Development Goals highlight anti-corruption. In January 2015, the first three Google search results for “post 2015 development agenda” are advertisements! The Copenhagen Consensus promotes its own work pushing a “value for money” criterion. The second and third Google search results are ads advocating goals for “regions in conflict” and to “get girls on the agenda”.

The General Assembly’s mandate for goals was “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number”. The train wreck coming this September is foreseeable. The UN’s 70 member country Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals succumbed to pressure with 17 Goals and 169 associated targets to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals”.

The scope for Post 2015 Goals has thus been expanded beyond poverty eradication to now include “environmental sustainability, inclusive growth, equality and a people-centred agenda for sustainable development”. There is a fundamental disagreement between the relative importance of poverty eradication vs. sustainability. One school argues that we should maintain the focus on poverty goals - aside from being both a moral responsibility and the key to long term prosperity, poverty eradication is a prerequisite for sustainability. The other school argues we should focus on sustainability in its economic, social, and environmental dimensions; otherwise, life will be "nasty, brutish and short” in the medium term and increasingly unpleasant in the short term. The inability to compromise on the emphasis (as well as the desire to include political and security goals) leads to an impractically large number of proposed post 2015 goals.

The UNSG’s recent synthesis report on the subject noted the 17 Goal outcome produced by the Open Working Group. He noted that we must recall the General Assembly mandate at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, at which they declared that the:

“Sustainable development goals should 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.”

The UNSG reiterated that the result “should include concrete goals, together with measurable and achievable targets.”

Proposing Goals on inequalities, economic growth, decent jobs, cities and human settlements, industrialization, energy, climate change, sustainable consumption and production, peace, justice and institutions compromises prospects for meeting the mandate. Further burdening the task, the “post 2015 agenda will require serious commitments for financing and other means of implementation….it should include strong, inclusive public mechanisms at all levels for reporting, monitoring progress, learning lessons and ensuring mutual accountability.” It is unreasonable, if not quixotic to overload the Post 2015 Goals with all these objectives and dimensions.

In his December synthesis report, the UNSG makes a courageous attempt to “frame the goals and targets in a way that reflects the ambition of a universal and transformative agenda…. in particular, the possibility of maintaining the 17 goals and rearranging them in a focused and concise manner that enables the necessary global awareness and implementation at the country level. The UNSG proposed “six essential elements for delivering the sustainable development goals, without any logic or organizing principle:

  People: to ensure healthy lives, knowledge, and the inclusion of women and children

  Dignity: to end poverty and fight inequalities

  Prosperity: to grow a strong, inclusive and transformative economy

  Justice: to promote safe and peaceful societies and strong institutions

  Partnership: to catalyse global solidarity for sustainable development

  Planet: to protect our ecosystems for all societies and our children.”

Unfortunately, this formulation will not rally the kind of support that is required. It does not meet the general Assembly mandate.It tries to cover all the bases and to satisfy everyone. It is unlikely to work.

The G20 is not encumbered by the legacy of the UN’s process and can be constructive, speaking only for its own members. What ought the G20 to do? Options are limited, because the post 2015 process is jealously guarded by the United Nations. For example, Columbia, Guatemala and Peru captured the process in the sense that at the 2012 Earth Summit they succeeded in making the process focus on sustainability rather than the MDG focus on poverty alleviation. The many civil society advocacy groups will all defend their own parochial interests. A prudent rule when dealing with large political bureaucracies is to avoid direct confrontation and instead find an oblique route. Perhaps the most constructive G20 approach would be to applaud the September outcome and announce it will support the Post 2015 process with a G20 initiative. The G20 initiative could focus on a limited number of aspirational goals and measurable targets, based on its current priorities of strong, sustainable, and balanced growth, with sustainability as an overarching theme. It could establish targets based on criteria such as simplicity, feasibility, and rate of return on investment. It could frame the initiative as an effort supporting the UN, to add clarity and catalyze action. The G20 would do well to base its effort on the CIGI-KDI One World Goals cited above. Pending the outcome in New York in September, a substantive G20 announcement at Antalya could be welcomed as salvaging a valuable public good.

Barry Carin is a CIGI Senior Fellow.

Wonhyk Lim is director of policy research at the Centre for International Development, Korea Development Institute