08/06/2015 06:00 BST | Updated 06/06/2016 06:59 BST

The UN, Global Poverty and 'The Vision Thing'

This week, the United Nations gave us a sneak preview of a new global agreement to address poverty, inequality and climate change. The so-called "Zero Draft" document is the result of many months of discussions, but there still is a long way to go.

It's been said many times before, but it bears repeating: This year is an opportunity for significant change in the world.

The members of the United Nations are currently - under Irish leadership - negotiating a new global agreement on how best to tackle the most important problems of our time: hunger, inequality, disease, poverty and climate change.

After years of discussion, public consultation and behind-the-scenes negotiations, the "facilitators of the process, Kenya and Ireland, have now produced the first public document, or "Zero Draft" for this new global deal, which will be formally agreed in New York in September. The document promises 'a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity'.

It is not short on ambitious statements, setting goals that 'go beyond traditional development priorities' and that are 'universal' in nature, i.e. apply to all countries in the world. The draft statement is aiming for 'better governed and inclusive societies' and calling on governments 'to end hunger and poverty once and for all' by the year 2030.


The statement also highlights the 'deep interconnections' between the major global challenges of poverty, inequality, climate change, conflict and humanitarian crises. The 'enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power' are highlighted, with pledges that 'nobody will be left behind'. The draft goals include tackling gender inequality and addressing inequality within and between nations.

Great vision, little specificity

All this led NGOs to comment this week that the new set of development goals are "strong on vision, but weak on the methods to make them a reality."

The declaration is part of a bigger package being decided this year, made up of 1) a declaration; 2) a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets; 3) a set of agreements on their "means of implementation" and a global partnership for development (setting out how this new agreement will be financed); and 4) a framework for follow-up and review of implementation. And this means that, while there still is plenty to be negotiated about the text of the Goals, the critical decisions will be about the amount of ambition for the targets, and how to pay for their achievement.

The negotiations are currently focused on 17 goals and 169 targets, and in the coming months an 'Inter-Agency Expert Group (IAEG) on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators' will come up with a set of indicators to monitor progress towards the goals.

The discussions about how many indicators and how specific they should be promise to be very heated indeed. NGOs have pointed out that 'the strong push from several member states for only 100 global indicators to measure the 169 targets risks leading to weak or inadequate indicators that undermine effective monitoring.'

"The SDGs will have to compete for the attention of policy-makers and stakeholders whose daily work is awash with global and national priorities, commitments and initiatives." So unless the SDG targets and national action plans are brought into existing national legislation, policies and reporting mechanisms in each UN member state, progress is likely to be limited. And unless citizens are encouraged to demand the information they need to monitor progress, 'business as usual' politics is going to continue.

That is what made WaterAid's Margaret Batty remark: "Without these indicators, the sustainable development goals will not succeed in the goal of leaving no one behind."


Photo: Donncha O'Callaghan, Evanna Lynch and Minister Séan Sherlock join UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and his wife Yoo Soon-taek in Dublin for an SDG photo shoot. Photo: UN