After 17 months of debate among representatives of 70 countries, a UN Open Working Group has proposed a set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire next year. The proposal is a significant accomplishment and a milestone in the ongoing intergovernmental process to forge a post-2015 agenda to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to accelerate a global transition to more inclusive, equitable and sustainable development. So how do the proposed SDGs stack up against these ambitious aims, and what are some key questions going forward as the global community seeks final agreement a little more than a year from now?

Assessing the Open Working Group’s Proposal

While not consistent with its mandate that goals be “limited in number” and “easy to communicate"—17 goals and 169 targets, versus the MDGs' eight goals and 21 targets—the Open Working Group has offered a comprehensive and potentially transformative agenda. In addition to tackling core dimensions of poverty eradication, other critical areas of concern such as inequality, climate change, sustainable consumption and production, and sustainable cities are included. And other important areas have garnered strengthened attention—such as targets on ecosystems and natural resources, and on transparent institutions and access to information—that go well beyond the MDGs.

Yet there is considerable room for improvement starting with the need to make the goals and targets more explicitly universal in scope. This is fundamental to ensuring a globally-shared and transformative agenda. The lack of quantified targets throughout the proposal makes the level of ambition unclear. Targets need to be specific and measurable to spur action and to evaluate progress. While one strength of the MDGs was that they helped development actors prioritize and better coordinate their efforts, the sheer size of this agenda almost guarantees diluting focus. The Open Working Group’s goals and targets could well be consolidated without sacrificing issues on which consensus has been built. And the framework could much more effectively address the interlinkages between goals. For instance, there are targets for water that also contribute to food security and could be considered part of achieving both goals.

Global Agreement or Collision Course

While the Open Working Group report is a major step, more intense negotiations and potential political obstacles lie ahead on the road to a UN Summit in September 2015 at which a final agreement is expected. With many issues still unresolved, here are five key questions to watch:

  • How can the weaknesses in the current draft—a lack of specificity, focus and integration across the framework—be improved while preserving the consensus that has been achieved? While there is considerable scope for improvement, many countries would prefer not to re-open the proposed goals and targets, and it is uncertain whether doing so would result in a stronger or weaker final outcome.

  • How will the most contentious issues, such as climate change, rule of law and peaceful societies, and sexual and reproductive rights, be addressed? While they all made it into the Open Working Group’s proposal, these topics are some of the most vulnerable when more countries have their say. Will they be strengthened, weakened or dropped altogether?

  • Will rhetoric around universality turn into tangible and substantial commitments by all countries? Much has been made of the idea that the post-2015 SDGs will apply to all countries—developing, emerging and advanced economies alike. How much of this will materialize in the final agenda and its subsequent implementation?

  • What will be the shape of a ‘new’ global partnership for sustainable development and will it be ‘fit-for-purpose’? Difficult work lies ahead on elaborating the policy, trade, technology, capacity development and financing measures needed to implement the post-2015 SDGs. The Financing for Development Conference in July will be a critical opportunity to set the contours for how the new agenda will be financed and implemented, and how to reshape the global partnership for development to meet the challenges of a universal sustainable development agenda.

  • Finally, whatever the final outcome, how can we package and communicate the agenda in a way that speaks to governments, civil society, the private sector and citizens? The agenda is only as effective as its ability to motivate action above and beyond business-as-usual. The complexity of the agenda needs to be distilled into a limited number of core messages that articulate a compelling vision and the potential that the post-2015 agenda represents to all countries and stakeholders—from heads of state to ordinary citizens.

As the answers to these questions unfold, it will become clearer whether we are on a collision course or turning toward a new and transformative global sustainable development agenda.

WRI is a member of IRF2015—a collaboration of 11 international research institutions providing critical thinking, integrated analysis and awareness raising for a post-2015 sustainable development agenda. IRF2015 partners are preparing a more in-depth analysis of the OWG proposed goals and targets for release in September 2014.