Benchmarking the global development policy since 2000, the MDGs are fast reaching their expiration date. In 2015, the Millennium Campaign will end and the global development agenda will be equipped with a new set of goals. Or not? After the 65th United Nations General Assembly, and in the eve of a remarkable event such as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), or better known as Rio+20, the international debate on what should be there after 2015, has officially kicked off.

Targeting development on a global scale

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), emerging from the UN Millennium Declaration of 2000, represent a set of priorities that have been framing the UN development agenda and development plans of countries around the globe for over a decade. Covering a broad scope – from poverty, education, gender equality, over to mortality rate reduction, maternal health improvement, HIV/AIDS and other disease prevention, to environmental sustainability and global alliances – the MDGs propose a set of development targets to be reached by the end of 2015. Reflecting the fundamental values agreed among the Member States, the MDGs have collected remarkable support from a number of actors – governments, international organizations, civil society and businesses alike. Participating in the process, it is precisely the supporters of the MDGs that are showing skepticism in projecting the successful completion of the targets set for 2015.

The economic crisis, financial breakdowns, subtle and less-subtle conflicts alike, along with the standing worries such as increasing population, natural disasters and climate change, are making the difficult task of contributing to the MDGs even more so complex. Meeting these targets requires suitable coordination, good timing and, of course, major funding. Difficulties experienced by many donors and recipient countries are directly translated in difficulties underlying the MDGs processes in almost every region. Yet, although falling far from the desirable projections of ending poverty and ensuring prosperity for all by 2015, the MDGs have provided an important structure in the dialogue among development actors at all levels – and have translated a good portion of global thinking to local actions. Thus the worry, what will happen after 2015?

The Development Dialogue 

The development dialogue of the 65th UN General Assembly Session held in June 2011 opened the discussion on how to advance the UN development agenda beyond 2015, understanding that identifying strengths and challenges of the MDGs will be essential in mapping out a path towards a future development framework. Claimed as the first informal session on this topic, the dialogue introduced the question of whether in the post-MDGs era we should be looking for a new set of goals or an adoption of a new strategy. 

An overall expectation is that whatever comes next will provide – as did the MDGs – a new outline of priority objectives to be worked on, but this time also offer concrete guidance on how to approach countries and ensure that their specific sustainability needs are met.  This being said, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) – or Rio+20, the 2nd sequel of the first UNCSD held in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992 – is seen by a good portion of the international community as an opportunity to start getting serious about what to do in the aftermath of the MDGs.

A new concept: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

A set of ideas circling around gave rise to a new concept – that of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The initial buzz is that these goals would be set as complementary to the MDGs and based on the Agenda 21, therefore avoiding the reopening of the debate. Aligned along the three pillars of Rio+20, these goals would take up on economic development, social equity, and environmental protection. The idea is that the SDGs would revise and improve on the strengths and deficiencies of the MDGs, and eventually set the scene for an improved institutional framework for global development beyond 2015. Placing an important emphasis on sustainability, the SDGs would lead to an improvement of national ownership and potentially to a new setting in which local governments would have a greater say, thus greater responsibility for making things work. Could this possibly mean placing an important focus on sustainability of natural resources to ensure, for example, water accessibility for all as a source of life and energy as well? Or directing serious efforts to maintain stable food production and prices as prerequisites for a healthy (and therefore, productive) population? Will the SDGs succeed in avoiding the criticism directed to the MDGs for focusing on primarily developing countries?

The SDGs are officially placed on the agenda at Rio+20 thanks to the joint official proposal submitted by the governments of Colombia and Guatemala. The document calls for a joint effort in revising the MDGs and the introduction of a new set of goals with an in-depth sustainability focus. How these will be set forth, applied and monitored? Will the SDGs eventually substitute the MDGs in the Global Development Agenda? Will the SDGs even have a role at all? This is still to be determined. Considering the complexity of the proposal, the expectations are that the interactions at Rio+20 could only provide with a broad agreement (or not) on further discussion about the SDGs.

To Walk the Talk

With new proposals emerging and many questions still up in the air, the countdown to the end of the Millennium Campaign and the expiration of the MDGs in 2015 are bound to offer times of plenty of debate and changing topics in the international development scenery. The result of any such debate will most probably provide with far-less-than-a-perfect institutional framework. But, hopefully one suitable enough to address imperative development challenges, preventing a conceptual void that could potentially place development and sustainability altogether, far behind on many national agendas.

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