ENB Summary of OWG-2 now available

Jay Owen Sustainability News


  Second Session of the Open Working Group (OWG) of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

17-19 April 2013 | UN Headquarters, New York, United States of America



The second session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) took place on 17-19 April 2013 at the UN Headquarters in New York.


The meeting brought together OWG members, other member states, observers, representatives from the UN system and Major Groups. The meeting was devoted to conceptualizing the SDGs and the SDG process, and to poverty eradication.


On Wednesday, an interactive exchange of views on conceptualizing the SDGs and the SDG process was held followed by a moderated panel discussion. On Thursday, delegates continued discussions on conceptualizing the SDGs and SDG process. In the afternoon, a keynote presentation on poverty eradication was delivered, followed by a moderated panel discussion on poverty eradication. Discussion on poverty eradication continued on Friday. On Friday afternoon delegates discussed the Programme of Work (PoW) for 2013-2014 and discussed the programmes for OWG-3 and OWG-4.


Co-Chair Macharia Kamau opened the session by imploring delegates to “get serious, and get on with the business of the OWG.” Delegates got down to business, discussing conceptual issues such as: how to make the goals universally applicable but still meaningful to the specific circumstances of countries; the SDG relationship to, and key lessons from, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); and poverty eradication.


On universality, delegates seemed torn between the need for simple, clear, “tweetable” goals like the MDGs, indicating this format was a clear factor for their success, and a framework that is not just “global in nature” but also “universally applicable to all countries.” Two main options laid out in an issues brief by the UN Technical Support Team (TST) were discussed: a common set of goals coupled with the adoption of differentiated targets and/or timelines calibrated to level of development and national circumstances; or a common set of goals with multiple targets and indicators under each (a dashboard or menu) from which countries themselves could prioritize when devising their own development agenda, in keeping with their level of development and national circumstances. The idea of a global dashboard seemed to be favored, although some countries expressed concern that too many targets and indicators might make the SDGs look like “a Christmas tree with too many trimmings.”


There seemed to be agreement on the need for the SDGs to aspire to be “bigger, deeper and more transformative” than the MDGs, although the Co-Chairs emphasized that this does not mean the MDGs have been abandoned. “The MDGs are the point of departure, while the SDGs are the destination,” Co-Chair Kamau said to reassure delegates at one point. The relationship of this process with the post-2015, however, is still unclear. One delegate commented in the sidelines that clarity on the relationship might be delayed at least until after the upcoming UNGA special event to follow up efforts made towards achieving the MDGs in September 2013. Discussions on poverty eradication focused mainly on whether it should be an overarching target for all the SDGs or a stand-alone goal; and how the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty can be captured in the new set of goals. On the former, although many delegates stated a preference for one or the other, some noted that it might, once again, be too early in the process to choose. On the latter, most agreed on the need to move beyond traditional income-based measures of poverty. As one panelist commented, the SDGs should leave behind “outcomes chosen for bureaucratic ease of measurement.”


Most delegates were pleased with progress made, although some issues that emerged at the meeting could prove to be contentious at future sessions. Developing country delegates made it very clear in their statements that the Rio Principles, particularly the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), were not open for debate or discussion, while developed countries hinted at the new emerging global order rendering past alliances redundant.


The discussion on the PoW at the end of the meeting also hinted at potential future discontent. For instance, many developing countries were unhappy with energy being clustered with climate change in the programme. They felt the focus of the SDG process should be on the developmental aspects of energy and access to energy for the poor, and hence the SDG discussion should take place in the context of sustained and inclusive growth. Many asked for means of implementation to be discussed with each issue, rather than in a separate session.


It remains to be seen whether the trust quotient, a vital ingredient for the success of the process, can be maintained in future sessions. Otherwise, as one delegate noted, at future sessions the conference room may need to be requisitioned for long past the daily 6:00 pm deadline.

The  Summary of this meeting is now available in PDF format

at  http://www.iisd.ca/vol32/enb3202e.html  and in HTML format at