The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations General Assembly set in motion a tremendously complex and wide-ranging set of processes that will stretch human ingenuity to its limits. The SDGs outline a comprehensive global agenda and set ambitious social, environmental, political and environmental targets. They are the culmination of a lengthy consultative process that involved innumerable governmental and non-state organisations, and many of those same organisations are now developing strategies for achieving the SDGs. First and foremost this requires defining what their achievement would mean in practice because terms like “sustainability” and “inequality” differ in particular contexts. Stakeholders must (1) agree on a vision of equitable and sustainable development that has relevance in their particular locales, (2) prioritise what must be done to realise this vision and (3) develop strategies most suitable for pursuing these objectives. After the objectives and strategies are established the appropriate roles for a range of stakeholders must be defined (e.g. international organisations, governmental institutions, civil society organisations and private-sector firms). This requires lengthy consultative processes among diverse actors from around the world with unequal amounts of agency, resources and capacity and whose institutional cultures vary.
It is too early in the process to consider the feasibility of achieving the SDGs. Instead, the top priority at present is to ensure that the participatory process is legitimately inclusive and generates actionable recommendations that can inform policy at the global level and set in motion events at the local level (e.g. capacity building initiatives for local governments). However, the SDGs themselves have been criticised for being too ambitious, expansive and vague. While the SDGs are indeed ambitious imagine how farcical the entire process would be if they weren’t. Oxfam estimates that the world’s wealthiest 1% will own more wealth than the remaining 99% by the end of the 2015. It is difficult to imagine anyone working enthusiastically to reduce the share of the world’s wealthiest 1% to a mere 40%. Similarly, there is a consensus that as a result of human activity the world is experiencing an extinction event which is devastating biodiversity around the world. How many people would rally to the cause of ensuring the existence of coral reefs and tropical rainforests until 2050? The challenges we face in the 21st century, such as extreme inequality and irreversible environmental devastation, must be met with concerted action and unshakable commitment which is unlikely to be inspired by modest goals.
Another criticism was levelled by respected scholar David Satterthwaite, who argued that while the SDGs amount to a progressive vision they do not say “how these very ambitious goals will be realised, by whom and with what funding.” Furthermore, he states that the precise role of city-level actors – particularly municipal governments – is vague and it remains unclear how they will acquire the capacity and funding required to meet the ambitious targets set by the SDGs. These criticisms are based on a misunderstanding of a number of aspects surrounding the SDGs and the ongoing consultative process. The SDGs were ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations whose members represent nation-states. They were the result of a lengthy consultative process that was transparent at least until the final stages. In cases where UN agencies work directly with municipal governments their assistance is part of a framework that has been agreed upon with the respective national government. In other words, the UN General Assembly cannot bypass national governments and micro-manage development policy by imposing mandates on municipal governments.
Nevertheless, the participation of municipal governments in achieving the SDGs is institutionalised through the development of a declaration that will be ratified 2016. The meeting will be held in Quito, Ecuador, and organised by UN Habitat, the UN organisation that works on urban issues. Every twenty years UN Habitat convenes a summit of this magnitude and this is the third such meeting. The declaration that will emerge will be a product of an ongoing consultative process involving a range of stakeholders – many of whom are city-level actors – who are developing strategies for achieving the SDGs. This process is ongoing and includes meetings held around the world, some of which focus on the specific challenges faced by cities in particular regions while others are thematic. The scale and scope of the consultative process is remarkable, but it would be unnecessary if the SDGs included top-down expert-driven mandates that defined the precise role of city-level actors. For example, take the issue of financing the SDGs. One of the thematic meetings that will take place this December in Mexico City is entitled Financing the New Urban Agenda. It remains to be seen if this meeting will devise progressive policy recommendations, but the point is that the criticism that the SDGs do not include details regarding finance is premature.
The extensive consultative process that will inform Habitat III should be welcomed. Given the poor track record of top-down development planning it is obvious that the SDGs are more likely to be achieved if city-level actors define problems and devise solutions. I recently had the opportunity to witness the consultative process first-hand in Jakarta. The Asia Pacific Urban Forum (APUF) was held in late October 2015, and it resulted in a Call to Action that outlined the challenges faced by cities in the region and recommendations for addressing them. This served as a starting point for regional preparatory meeting for Habitat III that began in the same venue on the following day. The APUF was attended by representatives from all of the international organisations one would expect (e.g. UN Habitat, UNEP and the World Bank), and there were also representatives from national governments (e.g. Afghanistan’s Minister of Urban Development) and cities (e.g. the mayors of Dehradun, Thimphu and Quetta). In addition to policy makers there were delegates from civil society organisations, the private sector and academia.
The consultative process is far from straightforward and disagreement is a matter of course. For example, there is a general consensus that policy should aim to lock in path-dependent water, energy and waste management systems that are equitable and sustainable. However, some people think the private sector should play a leading role while others think governments or non-governmental organizations can most effectively manage urban transformation. Reaching a compromise takes patience and can be tedious, but if this range of participants can craft policy it will be more effective than a top-down mandate that privileges some groups and subordinates others. One group that would most likely not be empowered by such a mandate is the Indonesian Green Action Forum. It was founded by university students and engages in educational activities and advocacy surrounding environmental issues, and approximately 40 of its members participated in the conference. They arrived at the venue in central Jakarta by public bus, and given the city’s horrendous traffic they had to depart from their university at 4 a.m. There is a forum for youth to participate in the Habitat III meetings, and in Jakarta they developed a policy brief which was presented in a plenary session. All of these young people displayed the same passion and dedication that I routinely see among my students at the University of Sheffield, as they earnestly sought to develop solutions to the most pressing issues of the 21st century. One of their members asked me what I thought about the SDGs. The answer is what I would say to the critics mentioned above: The SDGs are only a beginning, so before you criticise or champion them help develop ways in which they can be realised.
Dr. Seth Schindler is a SIID Fellow and Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. He attended the Asia Pacific Urban Forum (APUF) in Jakarta in October 2015, where an inclusive consultative process enabled city-level actors to develop strategies for achieving the SDGs.
This blog was originally posted in the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) website.