One of main outcomes of the Rio+20 summit is likely to be a commitment to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015, with an upgraded set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) coming into effect immediately after.
The SDGs will be universal and aim to eradicate poverty and the challenges of economic growth in a way that is compatible with sustainable development principles. For developing countries they are likely to complete what the MDGs have started and tackle the immediate needs of the most vulnerable through food, water, sanitation, education, medication and livelihood targets. Unlike the MDGs, SDGs will be commitments for developed countries too and force them to change unsustainable behaviours and reimagine the way that they consume, produce and grow.
But what about all the previous commitments we haven’t met?
A report by the United Nation’s Environmental Programme has revealed that only 4 out of the 90 most important environmental goals agreed by the world show significant progress. 40 made ‘some progress,’ 24 made little or no progress, 14 we don’t have any data on and 8 have got worse.
So when such little progress has been made on previous agreements, why should we consider a fresh set of goals as the solution to global poverty and environmental catastrophe?
The MDGs have done a great job in alleviating the immediate problems of the world’s poor, but despite the huge publicity and wide, high-level political commitment, they have failed in not only putting a plaster over the major issues, but also in tackling the root causes of global poverty.
Though providing mosquito nets has certainly reduced infant mortality, children grow up in a world of global youth unemployment and inability to earn a living through a sustainable livelihood.
Though providing anti-retroviral medication and condoms increases the length and quality of people lives and prevents the spread of HIV, we have still failed in provided universal access to treatment, changed attitudes and the altered the stigma suffered by those with HIV preventing them from engaging economically and socially in their communities.
When the world has only achieved one sub-goal of the MDGs, surely the question is why haven’t we done better?
While we must applaud the success and impact the MDGs have had on people’s lives around the world, policy makers mustn’t shy away from recognizing and accepting their limitations.
A global sustainable development framework is needed for beyond 2015, but international agencies and national governments must look seriously, critically and honestly at why so many agreements have failed. By jumping onto the latest policy bandwagon, it is too easy to shift away from the current commitments and move onto the next set.
If our global institutions are not up to the job of implementing policies that ensure basic provisions of water, food, jobs and medication, then it is better to admit that now before we commit ourselves to repeating these conversations again in 15 years time.
There is nothing wrong with the development goals, but development goals with weak institutions, lack of a resourced, supported and global implementation strategy will be pointless and lead to incoherent decisions being made with sporadic success at best.
A powerful framework on the other hand, can go a long way in getting us away from short-term growth at the expense of the environment. Just in February 2012, Oxfam’s Kate Raworth introduced a model conceptualising and visualising planetary and social boundaries as a basis for creating a safe and just space for humanity:
“Between the social foundation and the planetary ceiling lies an area – shaped like a doughnut – which is the safe and just space for humanity to thrive in. The 21st century’s unprecedented journey is to move into that space from both sides: to eradicate poverty and inequity for all, within the means of the planet’s limited resources.”
Let’s hope that the diplomats, negotiators and activists at Rio+20 take a long and enlightening look at Kate’s instructive model – or at the very least glance at the introductory 4-minute video, where Kate introduces ‘the doughnut’ of social and planetary boundaries for development.
So can you!