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The post-2015 casino dilemma: cash the chips or double down?

12 September 2014 - Sunil Suri

A difficult choice looms in the post-2015 debate between accepting a progressive but imperfect starting point for intergovernmental negotiations, and risking losing all the gains made so far.

According to diplomats involved in the arduous negotiations in the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), advocates of the inclusion of peace, justice and governance issues in the post-2015 development agenda have a lot to be pleased about.

First, most of the key issues that civil society argued were important for sustainable peace are reflected in the July OWG Outcome Document. Second, several UN Member States who strongly resisted the inclusion of peace, justice and governance issues – like Brazil – now say they wish to keep the OWG Outcome Document, including Goal 16, as it is currently worded. Given how hotly debated the goal on peace, justice and governance issues was throughout the OWG discussions, finding consensus was a major achievement and one that everyone involved in the SDG process needs to protect.

The acceptance of Goal 16 also reflects and reaffirms what almost all the major inputs (like the Common African Position) and key reports (such as the UN High-Level Panel Report) into the post-2015 debates over the last two years have stated, namely that the new development framework should ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’.

However, what emerged clearly during a two-day conference co-hosted by Saferworld and the Center on International Cooperation in New York on September 4-5, attended by several UN Member States and experts working on conflict from across the globe, is that new fault lines are potentially emerging which could have far-reaching implications for the post-2015 negotiations.

Most significantly, some Member States are articulating the position that the OWG Outcome Document should be ‘locked down’. By this they mean it should be left as it is, with attention shifting to other critical aspects of the new development agenda such as the means of implementation, financing for development and technical work on indicators. These Member States contend that the OWG Outcome Document is the best consensus that Member States are likely to achieve on such an ambitious agenda, especially given that intergovernmental negotiations involving all Member States will be even more politicised than the OWG process was.

On the other side, several Member States now argue that while the OWG Outcome Document is a commendable achievement, the stark reality is that the document’s 17 goals and 169 targets need to be simplified – and language improved – if there is to be a realistic chance of it being effectively implemented at country level. Those emphasising the need for a simpler framework point to countless examples of over-elaborate development strategies which have translated poorly into action, especially where institutions and capacities are still developing. Of course, whatever Member States’ views are on the content of the SDGs, as planning officials and ministers in capital recognise the inherent challenges involved in trying to implement 17 goals and 169 targets the calls for a simpler framework will grow.

Both these perspectives warrant further reflection by all involved in the post-2015 debate, but pose particular dilemmas for those working for the inclusion of peace, justice and governance issues. While it is clear that Goal 16 can be improved, many of the Member States who back keeping the OWG Outcome Document as it is warn that if it is re-opened for negotiations, Goal 16 would be at risk of being weakened or removed. This stance cannot be simply attributed to tactical manoeuvring – and if not handled sensitively, the consensus attained in July could be carelessly gambled away. Many Member States now view the fact that not everyone is totally pleased with the OWG Outcome Document, but can see their priority issues reflected in it, indicates an outcome in which all parties have come to a legitimate and delicate compromise, which needs to be very carefully preserved.

As we look ahead, we need to find a middle ground between these two positions. Even those who said the OWG Outcome Document should be ‘locked down’ acknowledged in passing that it could be improved. One key avenue could be the UN Secretary General’s forthcoming report. This could call on all stakeholders to find a way forward that protects the hard-won gains made by the OWG but raises the level of ambition. This should involve four things: ring fencing core thematic content to preserve consensus; separating targets focused on outcomes from narrative content on vision, implementation, indicators and monitoring processes; strengthening coherence by double checking all goals work in favour of sustainability, equality and conflict sensitivity; and ensuring that people everywhere will be able to understand and hold their governments to account on the new framework.

This would help avoid a scenario resembling a casino, where all stakeholders are forced to choose between cashing out and accepting the OWG Outcome Document as is, or putting all the fruits of last year’s labour at stake in the hope of gaining necessary improvements.

Sunil Suri is Project Officer for the Post-2015 and Rising Powers project.

To read more about Saferworld’s work on the post-2015 development agenda, click here.

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Of course, whatever Member States’ views are on the content of the SDGs, as planning officials and ministers in capital recognise the inherent challenges involved in trying to implement 17 goals and 169 targets the calls for a simpler framework will grow.

Sunil Suri