TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Jul14/02)
18 July  2014
Third World Network

Developing Countries concerned over outcome and future of SDGs process

New York 18 July (Ranja Sengupta) – The final session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals on 14 to 18 July in New York reveal that the fault lines between the North and the South have become sharper.

The OWG, during its one and a half years of work is no stranger to these conflicting positions. But standing at the concluding week of negotiations, the conflict over means of Implementation seems strong enough to topple the entire process at the beginning of the week. A parallel concern of developing countries is that the outcome on SDGs coming out of the OWG process may be tinkered with or tweaked in its movement towards the General Assembly discussions in September.

[The Thirteenth Session of the OWG is mandated by the Rio+20 Outcome Document “The Future We Want” to come up with a set of Sustainable Development Goals. These are expected to feed into the General Assembly negotiations on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The OWG is co-chaired by Ambassador Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Ambassador Csaba Korosi of Hungary.]


Differences are not new to the OWG. As expected, there have been major differences between the developed and developing countries over the inclusion of specific goals and the substance of the targets under the goals. The debate over the “stand-alone goal” as opposed to “mainstreaming” of targets is one that has continued for quite some time. For example, the goals on “reduce inequality within and between countries” (currently Goal 10), “promote sustainable infrastructure and industrialization and foster innovation” (Goal 9), “promote sustainable consumption and production patterns” (Goal 12), “tackle climate change and its impacts” (Goal 13), and “achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all, and effective and capable institutions” (Goal 16) have seen major debates over their inclusion as stand-alone goals.

While the first three were resisted by the developed countries, the last two have seen serious concerns from several developing countries, and these last two continue to be a major area of divide as the OWG inches towards the finish line on Friday 18 July. During the morning session on Wednesday, some of the developed countries threatened to bring back issues related to inclusion of Goals 9 and 11 as a cross cutting rather than a stand-alone goal if the list of goals is reopened (implying if Goals 13 and 16 are dropped at the insistence of developing countries). 

Targets under many other goals, for example, the ones on “conserve and promote sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources” (Goal 14), “ensure sustainable energy for all” (Goal 7), and in particular Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) related targets under Goals 3 and 5 (on health and gender equality respectively) have continued to witness major debates.


However the battle over Means of Implementation (MOI) has been the longest and hardest of them all. Informal discussions on MOI took place from mid-week, and it is clear from several delegates that most developing countries expect the developed countries to not commit to MOI. It seems several finance ministries of the developed countries are unhappy with the MOI targets as they stood.

At a meeting called by Bolivia and Brazil to interact with civil society groups on Monday 14 July, these and other apprehensions were expressed by the delegates. Since the G-77 and China have repeatedly said that they cannot be expected to commit to the other SDGs in the absence of concrete commitments from the developed countries on MOI and a strengthened global partnership for development, the talks looked to many as on the verge of a collapse unless a solution appeared to what looked like an insurmountable problem. 

During the last OWG session in June (the 12th session), the developed countries had made it clear that they will generally not support goal specific MOI and wanted only a stand-alone Goal (No. 17). As a result of their demands, the revised Zero Draft released on 30 June, saw stand alone goal components on trade, finance, technology, capacity building, policy and institutional coherence, data, monitoring and accountability and a segment on multi stakeholder partnerships. While the first few areas were much generalized and diluted, the segment on partnerships emerged stronger with a major emphasis on the role of the private sector. However, the goal specific components of MOI, though much weakened, also remained in this revised draft and have remained a hotbed of opposition from the developed countries.

Reportedly, during the informal sessions in the week before the current session and around the OWG 12 last month, most developed countries had repeatedly made proposals to shift the goal specific MOI to goal 17 under a stand-alone goal. During the OWG 13, developed countries reportedly continued in the same manner and while they proposed changes to the goal specific MOI, they continued to first demand that these be either deleted or moved to Goal 17. According to some sources, this may be one of red lines for the developed countries.

As opposed to the reluctance by developed countries to pursue and commit to MOI, the developing countries want MOI on both goal specific components and the stand-alone Goal 17 to be resolved this week. They want faster negotiations on this as well as the entire set of SDGs which, they claim, developed countries do not seem to want. The G-77 and China seem to be worried that the developed countries will want to discard the SDGs on the excuse that there is no agreement and go for fresh and full negotiations on a Post-2015 global development agenda.


As the OWG 13 began its session on Monday, an apprehension was also expressed repeatedly by the developing countries that the process going into the Post-2015 negotiations following the OWG should respect the OWG outcomes and the text jointly negotiated by the Member States. There should not be any tweaking or changing of the SDGs coming out from this process.

In this context it is important to keep in mind that the UN Secretary-General is supposed to come out with a synthesis report based on the OWG outcome report as well as reports from other processes that will feed into the Post-2015 negotiations in the General Assembly. The Post-2015 intergovernmental discussions at the General Assembly will be launched in September though actual negotiations are expected to take place in December or later.

Reiterating this concern at the meeting with civil society groups, Brazil and Bolivia asked for civil society’s support in facilitating an agreed outcome to the OWG and if needed also a freeze of the document until it is opened up at General Assembly for further negotiations. Several civil society representatives expressed serious misgivings as they did not feel they could support the document as it stood at the beginning of the week. In response, Brazil and Bolivia explained they were not asking them to support the content but rather for a fair and open follow up process leading to an intergovernmental process where the SDGs arrived at or in process will not be reduced or changed in any way.

Another apprehension expressed by several delegations was that the SDG targets may undermine some of the commitments made at other international fora. Co-chair Ambassador Kamau assured them this was not so.


After opening on Monday and some initial statements on process, the 13th session moved to the informal format until Tuesday with the objective of covering discussions on goals 12 to 17. Ambassador Kamau suggested that while there were worries about the limited time left to reach an agreement the beginning is not bad and they already had a comprehensive document to work with. The revised texts on goals 1-11 was circulated by Tuesday morning. The co-chairs promised to circulate the revised goals 12-15 by Wednesday. The format suggested for Wednesday-Friday was to go through the goal titles first, reach an agreement and then to take up each goal and go through the targets. If they ran into difficulties with any specific goal, they will move on after giving it some time and then come back to it at a later point of time.

In the interest of time he encouraged countries to talk among themselves and speak in bigger groups. For example Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Guatemala have combined voices and are making single interventions. This will also help in resolving conflicts over difficult issues, he suggested, and urged countries to talk bilaterally or in groups to resolve these conflicts.

Referring to the concerns expressed earlier about OWG targets conflicting with agreed international commitments, he said that while it is impossible to correlate every single target with every single legal instrument or treaties or international agreement, they will do their best to keep an eye out for such conflicts and asked the UN agencies to assist in this process.

Ambassador Kamau expressed optimism that they will reach an agreement, by affirmation, by the end of this session.

Notably, in a break from earlier tradition, the 13th session has no organized interactions between the co-chairs and civil society. However a combined set of recommendations across the 17 goals by Major Groups and other stakeholders were sent to the Co-Chairs and Member States by UN DESA on Tuesday. Civil society organizations continued their hectic lobbying with Member States. Following Bolivia and Brazil’s meeting with civil society the United Kingdom and the European Union held meetings with civil society respectively on Tuesday and Thursday.

So while the last Session of the Open Working Group moves towards the end of its 1.5-year tenure, uncertainties still loom large over the outcomes. While many developing countries want a conclusion, and if not, a freezing of the document and further negotiations on its basis at the General Assembly, the developed countries may set up red lines with regard to MOI that may put the process back to square one. While the content of the SDGs as it stands now suffers from major shortcomings, it has been a long and hard process that needs to show some results. For it to contribute to sustainable development it requires the commitment and honesty from all Member States as it tumbles into the larger post 2015 process.