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2030 Development Agenda Gets Adopted – Strong On Gender But Structural Obstacles Remain

After a three-year process, country representatives meeting in the basement of United Nations headquarters in New York adopted, in the late evening of Sunday 2 August, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to guide global development priorities for the next fifteen years.

The exhausting final session of negotiations kept the adrenaline high to the very last minute, with a lot of back and forth on crucial but predictable issues: climate change, human rights, the means of implementation and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). This principle derives from the 1992 Rio conference and recognizes historical differences in the contributions of developed and developing States to global environmental problems, and differences in their respective economic and technical capacity to tackle these problems.

There is cause for celebrating the commitments made for women and girls, as well as a sense of relief, as it became evident that prolonging the negotiating process would only result in a further watered down text. The feeling is bittersweet for those of us demanding transformational change. The 2030 agenda is weak on providing the financial and structural change needed to make this outcome document a reality.

In the end, the adopted document proposes a set of 17 goals and 169 targets, very similar to what the Open Working Group on SDGs put forward in an unprecedented consultation process, which included civil society groups and women’s rights activists and networks with formal participation via the Major Groups.

However, during the final 48 hours of negotiations, the United States and European Union applied nothing short of bully tactics to provoke “tweaks” in otherwise untouchable targets 2.5 and 15.6 dealing with sharing the benefits of genetic resources. Similar last minute negotiations on the recognition of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mandate to decide on commitments dealing with climate change, is a sign of complex battles to come at the December meeting in Paris to address this issue.

In an attempt to unpack our bittersweet sentiments, here is a preliminary analysis of the areas that are clear successes, the gaps and structural obstacles that remain unresolved or are problematically addressed in the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

The sweet

A win for women’s rights and feminist advocates is evident: gender equality and women’s empowerment is not only recognized as “a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets” (paragraph 20), but also as a stand-alone goal with specific targets (Goal 5).

This was by no means a given in the initial stages of negotiations on the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Even in this last session, some countries from the African and Arab groups contested references to long agreed commitments to women’s rights like the Beijing Platform for Action and the International Conference on Population and Development. Countries like Nigeria and United Arab Emirates showed extreme reluctance to recognize the importance of access to reproductive health-care until the very last days.

Nonetheless, the Women’s Major Group (WMG) kept applying pressure, through a colorful on-site and online campaign dubbed #WhatWomenWant, detailing key demands daily that gained the support of many government representatives to rally for gender equality, among other structural issues.

The gender equality language endured the storm and many recommendations by the WMG were taken up in the final document. Goal 5 speaks specifically to governments’ commitments to end discrimination and gender-based violence; eliminate child marriage and female genital mutilation; ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care services and education for all; protect women and girls' reproductive rights; eliminate gender disparities in schools and ensure equal access to education; provide education that promotes gender equality and human rights; expand women's economic opportunities and recognize their rights to resources; and reduce the burdens of unpaid care work on women and girls.

All of this represents a big leap compared to the minimal commitments on gender in the predecessor Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and give us powerful tools to work for implementation.

Another important aspect is the overall strong reference to human rights and non-discrimination in the outcome document, both in the preamble and in the text, though this did not pass without controversy (see below). The concept of universality is included as well as an effort to leave no one behind.

The principle of CBDR was ultimately recognized although not as strongly as activists hoped for. Yet, the outcome document is successful in establishing responsibilities for all countries in the world, including the rich and powerful, something that the MDGs failed to do.

There are also important recognitions on decent work and social protection and a new multi-stakeholder Technology Facilitation Mechanism (TFM) to provide technological development in support of achieving the SDGs. The latter was the only concrete new agreement coming out of the Third Financing for Development Conference (FfD3) held in Addis Ababa in July 2015 and a long standing demand from developing countries.

The bitter

While the commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment are very welcome, some frustrating debates took place in the last session that give cause for caution, for the co-optation and reduction of gender equality to its very minimal expression of equality between men and women.

The African and Arab Groups insisted on including the empowerment of women and girls after every use of the term ‘gender equality’. This was a red line that had to be dealt with for the document to reach consensus. The (not so) hidden agenda behind this was to avoid recognizing LGBTQI rights or give way to protecting people against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition, it was important to push back against simplistic understandings of women’s empowerment that solely focuses on women’s participation in the workforce and helping women become better consumers. There can be no women’s empowerment without rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights that guarantee bodily autonomy.

Similarly disappointing was the deletion of migrant status, ethnicity and age from paragraph 19 of the outcome document focusing on prohibited grounds of discrimination. Again, in the spirit of consensus, the preferred “other status” was maintained.

The Means of Implementation (MoI) section was a big stumbling block over the two-week negotiations. The 2030 Agenda did not advance at all from the weak Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA), the outcome document of FfD3, adopted last month, which failed to scale up public financing to fund the SDGs, nor provide the necessary changes in global governance, macroeconomic, financial, trade, tax, debt and monetary policies in favor of people and planet.

The Addis FfD3 outcome demonstrated the determination of the US and other rich countries to shift the burden of responsibility for financing sustainable development to developing countries and the private sector. Heated debates took place between the EU and US bloc on the one hand who wanted to replace all MoI goals with the AAAA, or have it fully annexed as the minimum.  The G77+China bloc, on the other hand, aimed to respect the MoI targets and have Addis only as complementary and supportive of the 2030 agenda. In the end the compromise was to pick and choose language from the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, which did not fully please either of the two blocs. The problem with this exercise is that there are problematic premises that end up perpetuating a neoliberal economic framework and enabling further corporate control of development agendas.

For instance, a paragraph on trade liberalization, calls on governments to “redouble their efforts to promptly conclude the negotiations on the Doha Development Agenda” as well as promote “meaningful trade liberalization”. In light of the gigantic trade agreements being hatched at the moment across the worlds largest economies granting stronger corporate control over the worlds resources and trade flows, this presents enormous risks for the realization of human rights, ecological, social and gender justice.

Further, the opportunity for transforming the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) was missed. The final draft merely acknowledges the need for IFIs to "continue to" respect the policy space of each country “consistent with IFIs organizational mandates” which are very much set by the developed countries anyway.

References to redistribution of wealth were deleted following pressure from the US, and there is problematic language stating that “domestic resources are, first and foremost, generated by economic growth”, not by wealth redistribution. This was definitely a missed opportunity to tap the wealth of the richest 1% to ensure development, and address the structural causes of inequalities.

Similarly disappointing, although predictable, is that the prominent role given to the private sector in funding and innovation is not matched by any binding accountability mechanism. While there are welcome references to “protecting labor rights and environmental and health standards” as well as references to the voluntary Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, these fall short of being powerful tools to stop corporate capture of development agendas.

The follow-up and review section of the 2030 agenda does not live to the accountability standards that many civil society organizations would have hoped for and is perhaps the weakest part.  Not only is it completely voluntary in nature, but it fails to recognize concrete ways to enable meaningful civil society participation in gathering data, follow-up and implementation.

What next

Heads of State will meet at the United Nations Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York to formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals amidst a spirit of celebration.

There is no doubt that this agenda presents potential and that it has been permeable to women’s rights activists and CSO demands in many respects. But, we must not forget what we came here for in the first place: to transform a deeply unjust global governance system that puts wealth and power in the hands of a tiny few to the detriment of people and planet. Without active (and feminist!) mobilization to resist the systemic obstacles ahead, including on trade, global finance, corporate capture, and redistribution, this process will not achieve gender justice and human rights for all. The true test for this agenda will be in the implementation, and how to translate words from New York into action in our lives, in the streets and within our communities to end impoverishment and transform all forms of oppression. This will take more than a document.