At the end of 2014, a multiple-year consultation process to develop the next set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and negotiations to identify Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are expected to merge, and United Nations member states will attempt to create a single set of goals.  The process currently underway to develop the “post-2015” agenda offers the international community the opportunity to chart a new direction for intergovernmental cooperation.  First, however, international actors will need to overcome the decision-making challenges they have faced for the past twenty years.  Governments developing this post-2015 development agenda will face the challenges associated with reaching consensus-based negotiated agreements.

The MDGs, which were to be achieved by 2015, were not originally negotiated.  Rather, world leaders called for a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty in the Millennium Declaration, which was adopted at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, following which the MDGs were elaborated based on consultations among representatives of international institutions.  The United Nations Secretary-General presented what are now called the MDGs to the UN General Assembly in 2001, at which point UN member states recommended that they be used as a guide to implement the Millennium Declaration.  The process of developing the MDGs did not involve the challenges of intergovernmental, consensus-based negotiations, through which any one participating country could hold up agreement, but they also did not have country ownership, and were not immediately embraced by the international community.  Nonetheless, the goals have served to focus actors at all levels on a shared understanding of how to collaborate and coordinate activities.  

At their most basic, the MDGs identify actions that the North can take to help the South develop.  Sustainable development, however, requires all countries to address key issues at the national level, as well as to collaborate across national boundaries.  Recognizing the power of the MDGs to focus international efforts, as well as the need to incorporate additional concepts into them, delegates at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20) called for the creation of a universally applicable set of goals—the SDGs.  Also representing a break with the past, the process to develop the goals has been much more inclusive this time around.  The broad consultation process and open negotiating format that has been followed so far could help when it comes time to implement the goals, but introduces challenges for the decision-making process itself.  

The process to develop these goals will be shaped by a number of influences that have affected the construction of intergovernmental response mechanisms to sustainable development challenges over the past 20 years.  In particular, the international approach to develop plans of action on sustainable development has focused on the negotiation and adoption of international law, particularly through consensus-based negotiations, especially since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.   At the same time, there has been a shift in the norm of participation in intergovernmental environmental negotiations, with the expectation of universal participation (i.e.  all UN member states) taking hold. 

As a result of these factors, the complexity involved in reaching an agreement through sustainable development negotiations has increased.  The negotiating rooms themselves have become crowded, with delegates from the now 193 UN member states being joined by representatives from civil society and intergovernmental organizations.  And the negotiating calendar has become extremely crowded, with each treaty requiring negotiations that extend over a number of years, following which parties to the treaty meet to consider the implementation of its provisions.  Also as a result of this expanding negotiating system, the focus of discussions has moved from initial framework agreements, designed to facilitate cooperation, to the identification of specific obligations within the agreed framework, with attendant challenges for reaching consensus.  

In recent years, negotiators at a number of high-profile meetings have failed to reach consensus.  At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, for example, talks broke down in part due to the lack of transparency and universal participation in the negotiation process on the Copenhagen Accord.   Because they felt unrepresented in the negotiations, several countries insisted that the Accord not be adopted.   Unlike the MDGs, the development of the SDGs will face these challenges.

The negotiating process on the SDGs will face its real test during its second stage, which began in March 2014.  The Open Working Group called for by Rio+20 met eight times between March 2013 and February 2014.  The goal of these meetings was to help negotiators “diagnose” the issues that could be included in the SDGs and understand which ideas other governments are likely to support.  As negotiators move from diagnostics to the development of a “formula”—or shared perception of the conflict that establishes the terms of trade or criterion of justice—and finalize details, the challenges of squeezing preferences of 193 UN member states into a handful of goals will emerge. 

Governments at the negotiating table have yet to agree on how to narrow down possible topics into a coherent set of SDGs.  Some governments promote a process-based approach to the formula, suggesting that preferences be expressed in terms of targets arranged according to which goals best articulate the collective preference for targets.  In this regard, speakers have presented the multidimensional impacts that, for example, a target to increase legal identity could have.  Increased birth registration would affect efforts to improve maternal health, lead to improved educational and employment opportunities, and ensure ability to own property.  

Others have focused on identifying preferred goals first, to ensure their favorites make the final cut.  Some have argued, for example, that since oceans and forests are home to the vast majority of Earth’s biodiversity, that they should each be the focus of a “stand-alone” goal.  The negotiations to elaborate the final details will look different, depending on which approach is taken, but the complexity of ensuring that all countries feel their key issues are represented in the final outcome will be considerable.  

If this complexity can be overcome, there is enormous potential for what the SDGs could deliver as a decision-making procedure that would not require frequent returns to the negotiating table.  International treaties establish intergovernmental bodies that meet periodically to negotiate decisions on further implementation.  Goals, by contrast, provide a yardstick against which implementation efforts can be assessed, but are not be driven by a meeting schedule.  Delegates at Rio+20 recognized that the SDGs would give the international community a chance to spur implementation efforts through a different mechanism than consensus-based negotiations.  However, the challenges that goals would allow the international community to avoid first have to be overcome: negotiations must reach consensus. 

Chasek, Pamela S. and Lynn M. Wagner. The Roads from Rio: Lessons Learned from Twenty Years of Multilateral Environmental Negotiations. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Hoffmann, Matthew J. Ozone Depletion and Climate Change: Constructing a Global Response. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

See Wagner, Lynn M. “A Forty-Year Search for a Single-Negotiating Text: Rio+20 as a Post-Agreement Negotiation.” International Negotiation 18 (2013); Chasek, Pamela S. and Lynn M. Wagner. The Roads from Rio: Lessons Learned from Twenty Years of Multilateral Environmental Negotiations. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Meilstrup, Per. “The Runaway Summit: The Background Story of the Danish Presidency of COP15, the UN Climate Change Conference.” Danish Foreign Policy Yearbook. Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies (2010): 113-135.

Zartman, I. William and Maureen R. Berman. The Practical Negotiator. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.