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The Post-2015 Development Agenda: Linking Sustainability and Poverty Eradication

The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda provided a welcome injection of energy and ambition into the future of development with its final report released last week. While the details will be parsed over the coming months, the report’s recommendations were at once bold and practical. The Panel sees that the promise of a world free of extreme poverty is within reach, and achieving this vision requires that sustainability and equity should be at the core of the global development agenda.

While there have been many such calls to move the world onto a more sustainable and equitable development path, if the Panel’s proposals are to be truly acted upon, the results would be transformational.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the report stacks up against the four “issues to watch” that we highlighted last week:

1) Will sustainability be on the margins or at the center of the post-2015 agenda?

This was a clear winner, as the Panel recognized that environmental sustainability and poverty eradication are inextricably linked. The report identified sustainable development as one of five essential “transformational shifts.” Unlike the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which relegated the environment to just one of eight goals, the panel offered four goals--on energy, water, food, and natural resources--that directly connect human well-being with care for the planet. Of course, many decisions are still ahead, and true integration of these goals remains a challenge. Most importantly, we’ll need to see if even well-designed goals and targets can succeed in inspiring greater action at the national and local levels and in both the public and private spheres.

2) Will specific, measurable goals and targets be put on the table?

In a word, yes. The panel set out 12 “illustrative” goals supported by 54 targets. The goals incorporate many issues that were left out or insufficiently addressed in the MDGs, while managing to avoid becoming so sprawling that they are unachievable. Many of the targets are measurable, though the precise values must be defined and several remain vague (e.g., “safeguard ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity”). This proposal, however, lays out a strong foundation, opening the door for further debate on the specifics.

A lingering question is how to most effectively address critical issues—such as inequality and resilience—that are cross-cutting in nature and have not been captured within stand-alone goals, but must feature strongly post-2015.

3) Will the post-2015 goals ask developed countries to make concrete commitments?

The biggest development challenges of our time—including climate change, food insecurity, and resource scarcity—are truly global in nature and require global solutions. In a world marked by growing economic and ecological interdependence, our collective security and prosperity is increasingly tied to how well we address these global challenges. The panel put forward an agenda that is universal in scope and entails commitments, responsibilities, and accountability from all—rich and poor—while being sensitive to the particular circumstances and needs of different countries. It is clear that this ambitious vision cannot be achieved without both developed and developing country actions.

However, the recommendations do not offer many details beyond the framework. For instance, they do not sufficiently spell out how to respond to the problems of unsustainable production and consumption patterns, instead relying primarily on a target for social and environmental accounting.

Another crucial test is goal 12 on creating a “global enabling environment.” The current goals do not go further than current international agreements in calling to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of temperature rise or 0.7 percent GNI in development assistance. In addition, there are outstanding questions about what action developed countries will take on issues like international trade, domestic subsidies, financial system reform, and technology transfer.

4) What kind of global partnership will it imagine?

The report takes needed steps toward redefining the “global partnership for development.” The Panel makes it clear that the global partnership for development should go beyond national government-level exchanges. The partnership should include local governments, business, civil society, the scientific community, and the public. New types of partnerships between these actors—including south-south collaboration—features prominently. These are all good concepts, but the path toward implementation remains uncertain.

Global goals must be translated into sufficiently ambitious national commitments, and governments and their partners must be held to account for results. Developed countries will have to go beyond giving aid or removing trade barriers. Developing countries—particularly the major emerging economies—also have a role in creating financial stability, curbing illicit financial flows, and ensuring that economic growth does not undermine the health of the climate or ecosystems.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The High-Level Panel’s report provides a solid foundation for a development agenda that can truly benefit both people and the planet. But the road ahead has many potential speed bumps.

The next major step will be for the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals to go through its process of identifying goals, means of implementation, and mechanisms for monitoring and accountability. These two separate tracks need to come together if either is to be effective.

Ultimately, the sustainable development agenda can only succeed if this voluntary framework changes how people make decisions, including national and local governments, investors, and businesses alike.

The proposed agenda points in the right direction. Resolving the remaining issues and turning the agenda into action is critical to raise the quality of life for people around the world and ensure that people and the planet can thrive together.

Sonya Suter, WRI's special assistant to the managing director, contributed additional research and analysis for this piece.

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