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Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber Headshot

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): The Light at the End of the Summit

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International summits suffer chronically from disappointment. The Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development held this summer is a case in point. It was largely written off as a failure by commentators and has already all but faded from memory.

But, little heeded, Rio+20 did achieve something historic. In Rio, leaders agreed to launch a process to elaborate Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) -- goals that have the potential to guide the sustainability agenda of the next 20 years. And last week, the first step was taken at the United Nations to form the working group that will elaborate these goals. As a serious advocate for SDGs, I believe this step is worthy of reflection.

To understand the SDGs concept, let's look back to 2000, when the world adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a significant innovation in global aid and development. In the pre-MDG world, development discussions focused mostly on the amount of funds flowing through developed countries' aid programs. In contrast, the MDGs set specific targets for 2015 in areas such as poverty reduction, primary education and maternal health. In doing so, they refocused development not just on means, but results.

Some of those results have been very positive indeed. For example, MDG2 -- aimed at ensuring that children everywhere are able to receive primary education -- is almost within reach. Major inroads are being made to combat malaria and HIV. And in some parts of the world, notably Asia, efforts to eradicate extreme poverty have been impressive.

Yet the job is far from done. While we have made progress on some of the MDGs, indications are neutral and sometimes negative for others. Gender equality and women's empowerment remains uneven globally and is declining in some places. Arguably, indicators on environmental sustainability are going in the wrong direction in most countries. Least-developed countries, as well as fragile and failing states, face ongoing challenges in meeting the MDGs.

Redoubled commitment to the achievement of MDGs -- particularly in least developed countries -- should be an ongoing priority.

The SDGs must not divert attention from the universal achievement of such basic goals. At the same time, it is clear that the MDGs have some limitations, including scope, as well as the ability to tackle linkages between economic and environmental drivers that underpin efforts at sustained poverty reduction. This is where SDGs can play a vital role.

For a start, access to essentials, such as clean water and energy, continues to elude many developing countries, undermining efforts to reduce poverty and inequality. Access to energy is not covered by the current MDGs. As we look to elaborating SDGs, we can surely agree that access to sustainable energy, alongside clean and reliable water supplies, and food security, are among the critical priorities.

Another area SDGs can tackle relates to the interactions between poverty and unsustainability. Understanding and effectively managing these interactions -- such as those between water, energy and food -- has largely evaded the development community to date. Better understanding them can improve development effectiveness.

Where the MDGs have demonstrated success, we can explore further ambition. For example, as we draw closer to achievement of universal primary education, we could explore further goals to enhance education quality.

Indeed, the issues prioritized in the MDGs remain relevant, and will require implementation by 2015 and beyond. In framing the future development agenda, it will therefore be imperative to incorporate existing MDG issues into a broader framework that is both more holistic and structural in its approach.

This is why the agreement signed to establish SDGs is so important; it opens the door to fundamentally reframing the global development agenda.

To elaborate SDGs, a robust process was launched in Rio. Notably, unlike the process to establish the MDGs, it is to be intergovernmental in nature. This addresses a key critique of the MDGs' legitimacy -- the lack of consultation and country input--particularly from developing countries -- in their creation. We must now embark on the SDG process in good faith, avoid protracted negotiations, and develop final recommendations that enable us to measure and achieve the future we want.

Yet as we saw firsthand in Rio, government negotiations can be long, drawn out processes that result in lowest-common-denominator ambition. SDGs are too important to be allowed to fall victim to this. Accordingly, this process must begin without delay. And as governments, we should be held accountable to deliver ambitious SDGs, as agreed in Rio, no later than 2013 to the UN General Assembly.

Coming out of Rio we can choose to either focus on disappointments, or to seize the opportunity to build on our momentum in support ofsustainable development.

I am determined not to let this opportunity slip. A lasting solution to poverty is not possible unless development is truly sustainable. I believe that in years to come, Rio+20 will be seen not as a minor milestone but as the birth of a new, concerted effort to make poverty and unsustainable consumption and production challenges of the past.

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