Open Working Group on SDGs is ‘getting down to business’

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By Bernadette Fischler, Policy Analyst, CAFOD

The Kenyan Co-chair, Mr. Kamau, opened the recent session of the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs taking place in New York from 17-19 April urging delegates to ‘get serious and get on with the business’. This is great news since the OWG has been a long time coming. Initially expected in September 2012, it only came into being at the beginning of this year. The delay was caused by tough negotiations on modalities that resulted in 70 countries sitting in 30 seats.

Cafod blogWhile Member States were still busy refining the modalities during the first session in March, the second session in April addressed a couple of central issues head on: What do universality and differentiated targets for country context look like in practice? How should poverty eradication be addressed in the framework – as overarching target or as a goal (or both)?

Poverty eradication as top priority?

I presume the fact that poverty is on the top of the agenda is a sign that it is a top priority, or even outcome number one. In that case there is a risk that this focus on poverty eradication might be lost further down the line during the sessions scheduled over the next ten months, which cover a wide range of topics related to human development, inclusive growth and environmental sustainability. After all, the purpose of the framework should be keeping poverty eradication on the international agenda, focusing on the poorest and most marginalized, while ensuring that all countries take action to keep development within our planet’s natural thresholds.

Hence it is important that the OWG revisits poverty eradication and its link to each topic, from sanitation in May to gender equality in February. At the end of each session would be most practical, but another option is a big wrap up session in February/March 2014. This will help put into practice the conviction of many delegates that poverty is multidimensional and needs to be addressed simultaneously from multiple angles. Ideally, this wrap-up would also investigate links from each topic to the means of implementation and how progress is measured. The latter had already been suggested by several delegates.

Mind the gaps in the programme

Looking at the OWG draft programme of work, a lot is covered but noticeable absences are human rights and governance, which hopefully will be added to the finalized version. Time allocation for different topics also seems a bit biased – something that can also be easily remedied.

While compiling a list of topics for the OWG Programme of Work seems a necessary starting point, it does not allow a look at the bigger picture. The conversation seems to have jumped ahead of itself since not enough space has been allocated to discuss the framework architecture. Instead the discussion goes straight into topics touted as potential goals.

A conscious effort to step back and look at the bigger picture would help to answer questions such as:

1. How to avoid the siloed structure of the current MDGs and install a mechanism that ensures no goal is left behind (as happened with MDG7)?

2. What criteria should guide prioritization?

3. What are the criteria for a good goal (apart from it being ‘tweetable’)?

4. What makes an issue a standalone goal or qualifies it as cross-cutting?

MDG 7 should be proof enough that we need a framework architecture that leaves no goal behind. One way to achieve this would be by linking goals together with indicators that measure progress across more than one goal (seeCAFOD’s suggestion, for example). Another option is to ensure that certain issues are cutting across all goals, but this is a risky approach since crosscutting often ends with cutting an issue out entirely. Any new framework will also have to ensure that the differentiated actions of each country under each of the global goals add up to development that operates within safe ecological limits.

Any more questions?

Despite some rolling up of sleeves during the recent OWG session, some important questions remain:

How exactly will the OWG follow-on from and afterwards hand back over to the post-2015 process which is still as clear as mud when it comes to ‘life after theHigh Level Panel on post-2015’ until the end of 2015. Will they report to the UN General Assembly, the yet-to-be-definedHigh Level Political Forum, or both by September 2014? Will there be a process to integrate findings from the MDG review, the High Level Panel and the global/national/thematic/regionalconsultation machinerythe UN has been leading? Do they expect knowledge to move by osmosis from one process to the next, or will the expert team hosted at the shared secretariat headed by Amina Mohammed have to take on this key role?

Secondly, how will the OWG interact with civil society and other stakeholders? The High Level Panel and the UN were exhaustive in theirapproach to consultations. The OWG should match them on the consultations and up their game by adding a two-way exchange of information and the opportunity to comment on the draft report. At the moment the nine Major Groups initiated at the Rio Earth Summit are the suggestion on the table. Ironically the same conference that gave birth to the OWG also disbanded the Major Groups to be reformed. Many, includingBeyond 2015, would like to see this done soon and to be accompanied by substantial resources and would actually favour the upgraded version of the Major Groups – the Multi-stakeholder Advisory Panel that would enable more direct participation and open channels for genuine two-way dialogues.

While the wait for the High Level Panel report continues and speculation abounds about its closely guarded content, it is time to start paying close attention to this new kid on the block: theOWG.

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