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Symposium 2015

Solution for Putting the SDGs to Work

The Challenge

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Dev ...

Much of the recent public debate on international development has revolved around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are due to expire in 2015. Negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now under way. While the MDGs had a rather narrow focus on key issues of human development such as income, poverty, basic health, and education, the scope of the SDGs is much broader. The SDGs follow up on the previous poverty-oriented goals which have not been met completely, but they then also include distributional considerations as well as environmental objectives such as the protection of oceans and tropical forests. The SDGs are thus firmly rooted in the sustainable development paradigm, which renders them conceptually appealing. At the same time, the SDG list is extremely long, comprising 17 goals broken down into 169 sub-goals (so-called targets) as compared to the 8 MDGs with their 21 targets. This new complexity may pose a risk to the popularity and realization of the new development goals, given that the MDGs' appeal to a wider audience also originated from their catchy simplicity and measurability.

Sustainable Development Goals—A Chance for a Real Transition!

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which passed the UN in September 2015, represent a new frame of reference for the international community aiming at reducing social inequality and poverty worldwide and respecting the biophysical and atmospheric planetary boundaries. What now exists is negotiated multilaterally and shows what is currently possible in the multilateral context—quite a lot, but by far not enough to stop climate change, the loss of biodiversity or to address the root causes of inequality and poverty. The SDGs are way better than the Millennium Development Goals. We are finally back where the 1992 Earth Summit has already been: bringing issues of justice, poverty reduction and environmental as well as social sustainability together. More: these goals shall be applied universally. Finally, not only the governments of the South are challenged, but also the Northern hemisphere.

It is time now that the SDGs will be filled with substantial content. While discussions are going on regarding how to monitor and report on progress made at the national, regional and global levels, a major element that must be considered is how to translate global goals and targets to state-level action. How can the SDGs be implemented in countries like Germany?

First, national plans will need prioritizations and need to focus on certain parameters which can make a systemic change. 17 goals and 169 targets need to be analyzed on how a real transition can be enforced. The goal 10 “reduce inequality within and among countries” and the goal 13 “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” could be seen as the most essential goals for the implementation of the SDGS universally to achieve a social and economic transition. Curbing global warming, sustainably shaping the “Great Transition” for a post-fossil-fuel economy in a socially just manner, progressively achieving greater equality through fiscal, wage and social protection policies, redistributing wealth, curtailing the consumption of resources, effectively combating poverty and hunger, preventing and peacefully resolving wars and conflicts are core objectives to which political and social negotiation processes should be geared at global, regional and national level.

Second, isolated and sectoral political management of political fields has therefore long since reached its limit. Coherent and transdisciplinary policies are needed more than ever. National Action plans therefore need to make all branches of government responsible for implementing the SDGs and not only the development department. Issues such as climate change, migration and food security are directly linked and policies need to focus on their interdependency.

Third, the SDGs do not touch the rules of the global economy, but the national action plans can take the private sector into account. This would be an important sign to make the business world accountable for the implementation of human rights in the private sector. It could lead to a radical change. Many private sector actors reject limits of emission or limits of the consumption of resources. It is the majority of the economic and political elites worldwide who do not agree on a trend reversal to move away from “business as usual.” The private sector rather wants no political guidelines. Even more, the call for less environmental and social standards is louder than ever. They are considered to be an obstacle to investment and trade. In Germany, hence, National Action Plans could set a sign by enforcing rules for the private sector and implementing principles for Human Rights and Business.

Fourth, the implementation of the National Action Plans needs to be observed. Therefore, we need an alert civil society which takes their watchdog function and their role as public opposition seriously. In many countries, the emancipatory role, the role as a countervailing power or as a watchdog of policies of government and international organizations is dramatically shrinking due to so called NGO laws and by discrimination and criminalization of civil society organizations’ (CSO) activities. Governments should guarantee basic rights such as the right of assembly, freedom of speech and opinion, etc.

The SDGs can only become successful if the civil society stays alert and if governments take the universality of the goals seriously, radically change certain systemic parameters in their respective countries, and make the private sector responsible.

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