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The World We Want: A Conversation with Amina J. Mohammed on the Sustainable Development Goals

This post first appeared in TriplePundit
The Sustainable Development GoalsThis weekend world leaders met at the United Nations in New York City to define a sustainable development agenda through 2030, a process built on the successes, failures and lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) launched in 2000 and expiring at the end of this year. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a global framework of 17 goals designed to address humanity’s most pressing problems, from poverty and hunger to health, education, gender equality, energy, climate change and environmental sustainability.
Earlier this month, I spoke with Amina J Mohammed, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning, about the process of defining these goals and turning words into action.
The premise is simple: what kind of world do we want?  Considering the seven billion people other people in the world and this simple premise turns into a thorny nest of complexity. But we can agree on what kind of world leads to basic human dignity and a healthy environment. Without a set of goals mutually agreed upon that describe a world where we can all live and thrive, we hobble our efforts in ever achieving it.

The aspirations of a new century

At the Rio+20 UN summit on sustainable development in 2010 member states drafted the Future We Want Outcome Document setting in motion the process for post-2015 sustainable development, building on the MDGs and extending back to the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
“Quite clearly we never would have embarked on this process if we hadn’t had some success from the first goal-setting that we did in 2000,” says Ms. Mohammed. “I think what we’ve learned from that is 193 countries could come together and agree in principle on a set of goals that would move forward on things that really were important to people.”
At the turn of the century efforts on issues like poverty, education, water and sanitation, gender equality, building partnerships were scattered, lacking focus and a clear means of implementation, explains Ms. Mohammed. “We didn’t see much over the past decades of the different UN platforms”
The Millennium Development Goals were a “brave attempt to try to be much more hopeful and fulfill people’s aspirations,” says Ms. Mohammed. “A review and  prescription of what we ought to do in the next 15 years to bring everyone together and get some movement.”
“Some things that happened on the MDGs we take stock of. Things that didn’t happen, the unfinished business of the MDGs  you see in the first six SDGs,” Ms. Mohammed says. “So we don’t leave anyone or anything behind. We take it forward and we face the more complex and difficult challenges that are emerging today.”
Building on the Millennium Development Goals

The first six sustainable development goals build on the work remaining from the millennium development goals: 1) No Poverty 2) Zero Hunger 3) Good Health and Well-Being 4) Quality Education 5) Gender Equality 6) Clean Water and Sanitation

Beyond a band-aid, the big picture of sustainable development

Sustenance is the foundation of sustainability. As long as people are hopelessly bound to hunger and poverty, global sustainable development remains out of reach. As with the MDGs, goal number one for post-2015 development is “ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.” Easier said than done, but by meeting the goal of cutting extreme poverty in half, the MDGs proved the concept. Poverty can be significantly reduced.

“We set out a goal that would reduce poverty by half,” Ms. Mohammed says, “and we got that as a global goal. That’s a lot of people taken out of poverty.” But, as critics are quick to point out, it leaves much work left to do. “I’d say the glass is half full in terms of what we achieved in the reduction of poverty. That did happen, largely because of China,”

The demographics and definition of poverty have much to do with getting the glass half full. The lesson is that poverty relief is not spread evenly and must start from the bottom up by defining extreme poverty as surviving on the equivalent of no more than $1 per day.

“We do know that the underlying causes of many more remaining remaining in poverty is the inequalities,” says Ms. Mohammed. “…within countries, across countries, it really is a big issue. You have a whole goal to represent that in the SDG.”

So it is with other MDG goals like education. “We got kids into classrooms but we question the quality,” says Ms. Mohammed. By accepting responsibility for both the success and shortfall of the goal, the new goal encompasses and expands the original development goals of of the MDGs.

As Peter Hazlewood writes in the World Resources Institute blog, “…despite some impressive areas of progress along the way, nearly a quarter of humanity continues to live on less than $2 per day, inequalities have worsened dramatically, and unsustainable resource use, environmental degradation and climate change march steadily on.”

Reviewing progress at the Rio+20 summit in 2012 was critical to the process of building on the MDGs and forging an iterative path forward. “Member states agree that we need to change the paradigm because we need to do development beyond just a band-aid,” Ms. Mohammed says. “We want to look at new courses, we want to integrate a social economic and environmental perspective so that we will get sustainability.”

“One of the first things we sat down to do was to be very clear on what was the state of the world,” says Ms. Mohammed. “What is the fabric that we want to stitch on the remedies in the shape of goals. I think having an agreement of what existing challenges there are and what are the emerging ones. Conceptually, the sustainable development discourse came of its time in 2012 and that’s because we’ve been discussing it for over two decades. This is where it comes to fruition.

The two main takeaways for member states from Rio+20 are the need for an integration and ownership of efforts and goals, built on a common, shared belief that partnership and trust will lead to a better world.

Universal, transparent

The new SDG framework is built on transparency and universality. All sectors of society must be involved in the process of sustainable development, including institutions, government, the private sector and civil society. Beyond this integrated approach is transparency. “It’s something that really hasn’t happened before,” Ms. Mohammed says.

Adoption of the SDGs marks the culmination of two years of negotiations involving 193 member states and, perhaps more importantly, an exceptional degree of public participation from civil society, the private sector and all stakeholders.

“Two-and-a-half years is a long time to address a single issues and keep the momentum going,” says Ms. Mohammed, but the result is widespread ownership from all sectors in laying the shared groundwork for the success of the SDGs.

Achieving sustainable development is simply not possible without inclusion, transparency and partnership.

The role of business

“Business has a role to play in every one of the goals we set,” Ms. Mohammed says. “Any agenda that looks to have transformation in their economy that needs to be inclusive, business will be an integral part in the way their core business model is taken to task. That they are much more aware of how their business must not be detrimental to people and certainly not the environment.”

“There’s no cookie cutter for this,” she says, but one essential element Ms. Mohammed mentions for inclusive business is through the financial sector allowing more avenues for women and young people to access credit for entrepreneurship. All have a role to play in this regard,  from community and national banks to multinational and development banks.

“I think we’re going to take a two year transition where we reflect on how best to partner with business. The issues that business needs to address as they become fit for purpose on the sustainable development agenda.

No peace without development, no development without peace

The new development agenda succeeds, says Ms. Mohammed, to the degree that development, human rights and peace are understood as three pillars of human progress.

“I think it’s a difficult discussion to have because the mandates are so clearly delineated,” says Ms. Mohammed. Over the years we’ve managed to speak to them in silos. The fact that we’re talking about an integration of issues brings us to how the three pillars themselves are inextricably linked.”

“We’re cognizant of the fact that the UN itself is held up by two other pillars. The human rights pillar and the peace and security pillar,” she explains.

The human and financial resources are available to move toward a shared vision of peace, equality, human rights and sustainable development, Ms. Mohammed says. She does not imply the task will be easy, nor that there are flaws, suspicion and doubt remaining in the process. We’re only human.

But the process of the past two years, the past two decades and indeed back half a century and more of building the world we want takes a big step forward with the Sustainable Development Goals. We each have a part to play in seeing these ambitious goals come to fruition.

The 17 newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals

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