Poverty, environment, even traffic fatalities: UN’s sweeping sustainable development goals aim to fix everything -- on paper

End global hunger and all forms of malnutrition and poverty by 2030, along with all urban slums around the world.  Halve the number of deaths from road traffic accidents globally (an estimated 1.24 million in 2010, according to the World Health Organization) by the same date—and “reduce levels of violence and halve related death rates everywhere” by then too. Make sure that the income of the bottom 40 percent of the population in all countries grows faster than the national average. Achieve “global resource efficiency,” and try to separate economic growth from “environmental degradation and resource use” everywhere over the next decade and a half.

All of those lofty, ambitious –and for critics, improbable and not-very-closely-linked—objectives, as well as  many more, are currently being bundled, massaged and repackaged at the United Nations, to be formally unveiled  in September as the ”sustainable development goals,” the centerpiece of the latest multi-trillion-dollar U.N. bid to reshape the planet along largely socialist or progressive lines.

That is the idea, anyway. According to critics of the notion, the exercise amounts to more of a grab-bag of often meaningless and hard to measure social and economic objectives, held together largely through their argued relationship to the concept of “sustainability,” a term that has not yet been very precisely defined.

“They are a very big container of verbal fudge,” argues William Easterly, a former World Bank economist and co-director of New York University’s Development Research Institute, who is a longstanding critic of “top-down” government and U.N.-led efforts to lift the world’s billions of poor people out of misery. “It sounds really good, but it’s really a substitute for doing things that actually help poor people.”

The main effect of the goal-making exercise, he argues, is “to create a campaign for the U.N. to get more funding and more political power. But it’s hard to imagine people getting very enthusiastic about that.”

To the multiple anonymous authors of a six-page current working version of the goals, known as a “zero draft,” the aim is simple, however:  As they put it in the document’s preamble: “we strive for a world that is just, equitable and inclusive, and we commit to work together to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection and thereby to benefit all.”


They affirm simultaneously that “poverty eradication is the greatest challenge facing the world today,” and that “climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” and present the sustainable development goals, or SDGs, as they are known in U.N. parlance, as a series of slogan-objectives that are supposed to bind solutions to those two challenges together.

Whatever else the SDGs prove to be, they are the culmination of one of the largest, bulkiest and most extensive bureaucratic exercises the U.N. has undertaken.

The “zero draft” is the most concrete outcome to emerge so far  from an opaque U.N. process of negotiation centered on an “open working group” of 30 governments, including the Obama Administration, that have been huddled over the exercise since January 2013. The group ends  its final scheduled session—the 13th—on Friday July 18.

Their efforts were supplemented by inputs from what the U.N. calls “major groups” of civil society, meaning industrial and labor associations, as well as thousands of non-government organizations—that is, activists of all kinds—whose participation in U.N. deliberations has grown enormously in the past decade.

Coordinating all of the efforts is a “comprehensive cross-agency Technical Support Team,” which turns out to the representatives of some 40 U.N. agencies, funds, programs, and other institutions, which are helping to orchestrate the effort and will also subsequently help implement it at “global, regional, sub-regional and country levels.”

In other words, the U.N. is operating at the center of the exercise as chief cheerleader, referee of the outcomes, custodian of standards for measuring its subsequent success, and, in many countries around the world, chief tutor in the implementation of what the U.N. calls an “integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development”—whatever those ultimately turn out to be.

This massive winnowing exercise was preceded by another standard U.N. exercise, the year-long deliberations of a “high level panel of eminent persons on the post-2015 development agenda”—a selection of international figures chosen by the U.N. itself—to create guidelines for the goal-making of the SDGs.

In the case of the U.S., the high-level panelist was John Podesta, then head of the liberal Washington think tank Center for American Progress, and currently the man at the center of President Barack Obama’s “phone and pen” effort to impose his political agenda through aggressive bureaucratic regulation.

Still to come in the SDG process are a variety of options for how to finance the entire groundbreaking planetary change agenda. These are currently being chewed over by an Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing. These in turn are nominated by governments that make up the 30-member “open working group.”

As things now stand, the financial experts include representatives from such countries as Iran,  China, Britain, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa—not to mention Cuba, Libya, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Estonia—but there is no expert from the U.S.

These documents, and a flock of subsidiary reports, will be bundled together by Ban Ki-moon in a hefty “synthesis report” to be presented as part of the hoopla.

Taken together, the goals—so far, there are 17 of them, but in the “zero draft” each contains proposed sub-goals that make the total more like a smorgasbord 145-- are intended as the rallying cry at a climate summit meeting called  by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for September 23 in New York City, where the entire exercise will be formally presented, and where the goals will formally be presented for eventual approval by the U.N. General Assembly.

The meeting, in turn, is supposed to be followed by a year of international negotiation leading among other things to a new global climate treaty, to be announced in Paris at yet another summit in September 2015, and taking effect in 2020.

The sum of the processes would bind all 193 U.N. members, including the U.S., to a “universal sustainable development agenda” with the SDGs as signpost highlights, along with new targets for carbon emissions to replace the now-defunct Kyoto Protocol. Whether—and with what—the Protocol will be replaced is still very much an open issue, as defections from the Protocol, which the U.S. never ratified, had already undermined it severely.

The SDGs are further intended to replace the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, an eight-point U.N. program of mostly anti-poverty measures that was endorsed in 2000 and is slated to expire in 2015. The MDGS have had, at best,  spotty success.

Most of the gains achieved by the goals so far—such as a 50 percent cut in the number of people around the world living below the extreme-poverty guidepost of $1.25 per day—owe much to the massive improvement in standards of living in India and China over the period since  the MDGs were introduced.

Nonetheless, notes NYU’s Easterly, “where the U.N. goals were successful was in raising the profile of the U.N.”

The new SDGs are intended to be much more ambitious than their predecessors—and cover a lot more social, economic and environmental ground. Much of it, as the “zero draft” authors make clear in their preamble, is also linked to  a huge and turgid flow of U.N.-directed environmental and economic conferences and their outcome documents, which date back to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and extend through the Rio + 20 summit of 2012, which explicitly called for the new goals.

All of that documentation adds further freight to the relatively simple slogans of the SDGs.

The plans behind the slogans include such highly detailed programs as the 1992 summit’s Agenda 21 (a document that details a myriad of outcomes for  global environmental management) and a further elaboration on Agenda 21 created five years later; the numbingly named Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (a 2002 event); along with many, many more, including The Future We Want, the concluding manifesto of the Rio + 20 summit.

Compared to that flood tide of documents, the current “zero draft” of SDGs is relatively simple—which was the main point. The problem, however, notes Brett Schaefer, an expert on the U.N. and its finances at the conservative Heritage Foundation, is that simplicity and coherence are not the same thing.

The SDG roster is, he says, “simply a list of objectives that groups want to achieve,” he told Fox News. “There is nothing here that logically sticks together in an overall strategy. They are a series of arbitrary objectives with no real rhyme or reason behind them.”

In some case, he adds, they are also immeasurable, and even in a few cases unknowable.

“How do you decide when you have ended ‘all forms of discrimination against women and girls?’” Schaefer asked. “And how do you end by 2030 ‘the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases’? We’ve been trying for decades now. Where is the starting point for cutting world levels of violence in half?”

The “zero draft” also contains fundamental contradictions, he notes; for example, between ending world hunger by 2030 and “assuring that all people have access to adequate, affordable safe and nutritious food all year round,” and the phasing out of “all forms of agricultural support subsidies”—which will cause food prices to rise.

“Ultimately,” Schaefer argues, “this is based on a narcissistic delusion, that by deciding on goals, the U.N. can catalyze achievement.” The same problem held with the previous millennium development goals, he added: “The MDGs did not lead to economic development. Economic development lead to the MDGs.”

Such criticism, however, will do nothing to derail the bulky and labyrinthine SDG process that will go public in September—the combined effort of innumerable bureaucrats, planners, special interest groups, governments invested in the process and attendant hangers-on who have been toiling for years to make it happen.

Where it goes next will depend on the various governments that take over the subsequent negotiating process  to turn the SDGs into national policy. For Americans, that means it will depend on the very supportive Obama Administration.

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell

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