Entrenching sustainable human development in the design of the global agenda after 2015.

Author:Zampetti, Americo B.

    Since the dawn of the 21st century, the Millennium Development Goals ("MDGs") (1) have largely dominated the development discourse. The new concept of "sustainable development goals" ("SDGs") was launched at the 2012 Rio conference on Sustainable Development. (2) The General Assembly of the United Nations was called on to develop them. Due to the proximity in time with the conclusion of the MDGs framework in 2015, the project to define such goals has been subsumed in the design of a new, broad U.N. development agenda, which is to be adopted by heads of state and government at a U.N. Summit (the "Summit") in September 2015. (3)

    This article aims to elucidate the importance of the conceptual framework for such development agenda and the related goals and sees an opportunity for the Summit to entrench some crucial elements of sustainable human development and the allied capability approach at the international level. In particular, the emphasis that the capability approach places on ends, rather than means, on well-being rather than simply income and wealth, and the close association of human development with human rights makes this approach particularly relevant for the ongoing discussion at the United Nations.

    This article starts with Sections II and III reviewing, on the basis of the MDGs' experience, plausible understandings of what international goals are, and what they can aim to achieve, as policy and cooperation instruments. Or, in other words, what are their perceived nature and purpose(s). Sections IV and V look at the MDGs' ideational foundation as one possible explanation of why international commitments, such as the MDGs, can achieve considerable impact and success in delivering on their functions.

    On the basis of the existing experience and of the ongoing debates at the United Nations, the article explores the normative questions that need to be addressed in the design of the new global agenda. These questions essentially relate to the interpretation of the normative core of sustainable development as set out and understood through state practice at multilateral level, how this core is grounded in a shared notion of human dignity, and whether such understanding promises to provide a firm basis for action (Section VI). A consensus on the normative core would indeed provide a solid and ethically grounded foundation for a universal agenda, thus promoting sustainable human development across people, countries, and generations. The contention is that understanding the meaning and purpose of international goals-setting, and the source of their compliance pull, can help in the process of designing and then successfully implementing the new agenda, and thus contribute to moving the world towards sustainable human development (Section VII).


    After some considerable debate, the concept of SDGs, first proposed by Colombia in 2011 during the negotiations leading up to the 2012 Rio conference, was retained in the conference outcome document (in the part setting out the "Framework for Action and Follow-up"). (4) The agreement on the notion came late, which explains its positioning in the outcome document after the substance of thematic and cross-sectoral issues was already addressed. (5) The document does not define what the SDGs are, or what exactly they are meant to achieve, it only sets out some of the characteristics they should have. (6) The existing experience with goals-setting at the United Nations, and especially the experience of the MDGs, of which the SDGs are considered the immediate successors, can provide useful lessons.

    The establishment of development-related and sectoral goals has a long tradition at the United Nations. (7) The classic, and arguably most successful, example relates to the goal of eliminating smallpox, which was set by the World Health Assembly in 1966 and achieved by 1977. (8) Many other objectives were set over time, and especially in the U.N. conferences of the 1990s, such as those dealing with children, education, environment, women, population, urbanization, and social development. (9) In the debates of the second half of the decade, a sub-set of the objectives established in such conferences, summarized and partly recast, started to be referred to as "development goals." (10) Such reframing and distillation took place within the relevant international organizations, especially in the United Nations, the World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ("OECD"), with the contribution of the related epistemic communities and civil society. (11) The "development goals" finally found their way, not without considerable debate and controversy, in the 2000 Millennium Declaration, (12) which incorporated the majority of them (albeit with some noticeable differences). (13)

    The Millennium Declaration is a rather unusual document, which departs from the tradition of long, and often convoluted, U.N. documents that by their nature include formulaic passages, compromises, and obfuscation of underlying disagreements. The Millennium Declaration, on the contrary, is relatively terse and clear, but also wide-ranging and visionary. In its first part devoted to "Values and Principles" it displays a "constitutional" tone. (14) The following sections, while short, provide a rather clear sense of direction and set specific, and in some cases time bound, objectives in the areas of peace and security, human rights, environment, and development, among others. (15)

    These objectives were further elaborated upon in 2001 in a U.N. Secretary General report requested by the General Assembly as a follow-up to the Summit. (16) The Secretary General's report was meant to set out in detail how the Millennium Declaration commitments could be implemented and fulfilled. (17) Goals were set in all areas, but in the field of "development and poverty eradication" specifically, these were named the "millennium development goals" and were said to "highlight some of the priority areas that must be addressed to eliminate extreme poverty." (18) In particular, the Millennium Declaration set out the goal to "to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day." (19) The focus on poverty eradication had already been firmly established at the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit, albeit in more ambitious but also open-ended fashion. (20) The actual formulation, which was retained as Target 1 in the MDG framework, is definitively less ambitious (halving instead of eradicating poverty) but time-bound (by 2015), and is essentially the same as the one set out in a 1996 OECD Development Assistance Committee document. (21) The MDGs also set out several other objectives (especially in the areas of health and education), which are necessary to address basic needs and foster human development in developing countries. (22)

    The MDGs as such (with the goals/targets/indicators construction) were informally discussed but never formally agreed by governments. (23) The MDGs were established essentially through consultation among members of the U.N. Secretariat and representatives of other international organizations. The experts established specific targets and selected relevant indicators with a view to developing a comprehensive evaluation framework for the MDGs. (24) The Secretary General report was only "noted with appreciation" by the General Assembly in 2002 with no mention of the MDGs. (25) They were formally endorsed, ex post facto, after a few years when a sense that they could actually be at least partly successful emerged. (26)

    Their functions thus need to be gleaned from sparse textual references and ensuing practice.

    As noted the Millennium Declaration exhibited some novel characteristics of clarity and simplicity, as well as a renewed sense of purpose for the United Nations. However, it is fair to say that at the time of its adoption, and despite the excitement at the turn of the millennium, few would have expected that the objectives it included, and the derivative MDGs, would turn out to be, or at least be perceived, as successful, as they have been. (27)


    Many international documents, both mandatory and not, establish goals expressed with some precision, including by way of numerical levels (e.g. percentages of growth or reduction) and are accompanied by timelines. The MDGs are a prime example of this approach, and arguably among the most successful. The set of accompanying targets and indicators made them even more specific, actionable, and measurable.

    However, the actual nature of goals and targets, such as the MDGs, has never been fully established in an internationally agreed-upon document. (28) The 2001 Secretary General report clearly stated the aim to "harmonize reporting," which apparently gave rise to the goals/targets/indicators apparatus. (29) However, the report also stressed the importance for the goals/targets to "focus national and international priority-setting," and to "trigger action." (30) In order to do so, the report also noted that the goals/targets need to be "limited in number, be stable over time and communicate clearly to a broad audience." (31) These references speak to three distinct, but not incompatible, understandings of the goals/targets as policy and cooperation instruments. (32)

    The first understanding (which was probably among the main objectives pursued by the Secretary General in 2001 when setting out the MDGs) relates to the establishment of an evaluation framework. (33) Clearly spelled out goals and targets, accompanied by indicators, allow governments and other stakeholders to monitor progress towards broad objectives such as those set out in the Millennium Declaration. This framework also creates some transparency, and some limited accountability (i.e...

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