Last week, I was at the second meeting of the open working work discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN headquarters in New York. Everyone here agrees that “coherence”, “integration” – call it what you will – is critical to address poverty and environmental sustainability. But then why are we here talking about SDGs, when someone else somewhere else is talking about successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?
I’m sure there are experts and practitioners out there who can give you a long and complicated answer listing the differences between the SDGs and MDGs. But the short answer is simply that we haven’t managed to pull off that marriage between environment and development concerns that we dreamt up at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Twenty years later, many of us are still pulling in different directions.
This is partly driven by vested interests in keeping the two apart (after all, the funding for many institutions and processes depends on making the case for one or the other – environment or development). But there is also the fact that many developing countries still fear bringing the two together, because they do not trust that existing global governance practices are inclusive and equitable enough to adequately reflect their priority for development. They have at least two primary concerns in marrying the two in practice: that it will give rich countries more opportunity to resort to green protectionism and green conditionalities; and that it will affect the arguments they have been making for funds to address global environmental concerns to be “additional” to development finance.
If we cannot achieve coherence and integration at the top, how can we ever expect … I was going to say expect to achieve it at the bottom, but that would be the wrong question. Integrated and coherent thinking at the bottom is relatively easy, given the smaller scale – until it is muddied by the agendas and priorities of the top. The right question would be: how can we expect that the lack of coherent and integrated thinking at the top won’t trickle down in waves to the bottom? And there it can do severe damage, resulting in uncoordinated policies, small, insignificant packets of earmarked funding that is never enough to make a difference, and a failure to identify and address systemic issues.
It isn’t as if the irony of extolling the virtues of coherence and integration while discussing the SDGs was completely lost on the participants at the OWG. Many spoke of the need to link the MDG and SDG processes, and warned that two tracks will be less effective than one comprehensive approach. But if past experiences with such global going-ons are any indication, there is a real danger here that we will be swept away by the processes, and be landed with both MDGs and SDGs before we know it.
Isn’t it time the two got talking, not just about integrating the MDGs and SDGs, but more importantly about a more inclusive and trustworthy system of global governance? A marriage counsellor who looks at the causes of mistrust, not just symptoms, might be advisable.