UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recently released Synthesis Report, “The Road to Dignity by 2030,” aims to help set the stage for intergovernmental negotiations on a new post-2015 development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals. In brief, the report:

  • endorses the 17 goals and 169 targets agreed to in July by the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the proposed successor to the Millennium Development Goals, which expire next year;

  • demonstrates the extensive consultation that has gone into crafting the agenda, and the broad-based support that now exists for an ambitious and comprehensive final agreement;

  • makes the case for an integrated, universal sustainable development agenda that links inclusive economic growth, human well-being and the imperative to sustain healthy ecosystems;

  • puts the broader international human rights framework at the core of the agenda, including economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, as well as the right to development and future generations’ right to well-being.

Overall, Ban has provided a compelling narrative and vision. The report does not propose radical changes from what member states have already agreed. Had he done so, it would likely have been outright rejected by the member states. At the same time, lack of specificity in his proposals poses a challenge to member states as they enter negotiations over the next 10 months. Here’s a perspective on some of the outstanding challenges they’ll face.

  1. The report provides six essential elements for delivering on the SDGs, but the relationship between the elements and the proposed 17 goals is not clear. The elements—dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice, and partnership—are powerful in explaining the intent of the agenda and may help in describing it to the public. However, the report does not explicitly link goals to the elements, and it is not clear what the relationship between them will be.

  2. The report suggests a way to improve the existing 169 targets. While the secretary-general did not recommend outright to reduce the number of targets, he did call for a “technical review” by relevant actors within the UN system to improve target specificity and set target values where needed, and to ensure “full consistency with current political commitments and existing obligations under the law.” Currently, most targets either lack a deadline, are not quantified, or both. This technical tightening of the targets is essential to drive action and enable accountability.

  3. The report provides some strong, concrete recommendations on finance, but could have gone further. The long list of recommendations from the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing left an opening for Ban to make more specific proposals, and the report could have more clearly and forcefully articulated priorities, particularly around domestic resources, financial regulations and innovative ways to raise additional resources, including private finance. On specifics, while the secretary-general underscores the need for better-targeted development aid, he does not propose a higher target for aid to the least developed, most vulnerable countries. Although he highlights the need to examine the role of development finance institutions in sustainable development, he leaves open the question of whether member states should call for a review process. One welcome proposal calls for an expert group to consider the relationship between climate finance and development aid.

  4. The report says relatively little on partnerships, leaving more work to be done on how to catalyze, organize, and scale up different types of partnerships. While the importance of ‘partnerships’ is broadly recognized, the agenda still lacks a common understanding of how they are defined, how to encourage more of them, and how they can be most effective. A clearer articulation is needed, starting with a more nuanced definition (e.g. multi-stakeholder, multi-scale, multi-purpose).

  5. The report is on the mark with a call to incorporate environmental and social dimensions into traditional economic measures of progress. Despite broad agreement that GDP alone is an insufficient indicator of sustainable development, there has been little progress in introducing broader measures. The report calls for development of alternative measures of progress to replace GDP, and mandatory environmental, social and governance reporting by corporations.

  6. The recommendations for a multi-tiered accountability framework are a good start, but the private sector needs to be included. The proposal for regional participatory, multi-stakeholder peer reviews to consider national reports and identify regional trends, obstacles and best practices is a step forward. However, while the report calls for “a new innovative financing stream to support national data capacities,” there is no concrete proposal to ensure countries have the resources they need now to collect baseline data. Finally, in the overall accountability framework and institutional mechanisms such as the High Level Political Forum, a dedicated place and role for the private sector is missing.

Looking ahead

Amidst member state fears that the secretary-general would propose reducing the goals put forward by the Open Working Group, initial reaction to this balanced report has been favorable. Now the General Assembly must prepare a final text and goal framework for world leaders to endorse at the UN Summit in September 2015. If those drafting the global framework for the post-2015 world build on this useful synthesis report with more actionable guidance for governments and non-state actors, backed by adequate means of implementation and a strong accountability framework, then the world will truly be a better place by 2030.