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Reflections on the UN General Assembly 2013, Looking Towards the Post-2015 Development Agenda

FRIDAY FILE - The 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) ended with renewed commitment to anti-poverty targets and agreement to adopt new development goals in 2015.

By Alejandra Scampini

Women's rights advocates, along with diverse civil society organizations, critically engaged in debates calling for structural transformation that puts human rights and sustainability at the centre of the new development agenda.

The 68th session of the UN GA that took place in New York 23-27 September 2013 was the first international inter-governmental process related to the Post 2015 Development Agenda and was intended to set out the formal process for governments to be involved in negotiations around the new development agenda, which have to date been led by the United Nations.

It provided an opportunity to learn about the Post 2015 Development Agenda and how the acceleration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), intersects with the ongoing development of the Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which was the key outcome from Rio+20 - The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). The letter submitted by the Co chairs of the OWG offered an overview of the group’s progress since March 2013. The OWG is still in education and consultation mode, a phase that will end in February 2014. Their report should be submitted to the UNGA in September 2014, with the big set-piece at the UNGA in September 2015. It is a critical process that has focused on the need to put poverty eradication at the centre of the proposal for sustainable development goals. The challenge for this group remains - how to develop goals that are built from ground up to fit all and serve all purposes[i].

Two events were in the spotlight - the meeting of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development[ii], and the Special event Towards Achieving the MDGs. AWID worked together with the Post 2015 Women’s Coalition (WC) and Women’s Major Group (WMG), using these spaces to share feminist analysis, assessments and proposals on sustainable development with UN agencies, governments, donors, civil society and other relevant stakeholders. AWID, as part of the WC and WMG, insisted that any new development agenda should be grounded on the fundamental principles of human rights.

Civil society participation

There were some opportunities for women’s and human rights activists to meet, strategize and bring the voices of people to the forefront. The Campaign for People’s Goals, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Centre for Women’s Global Leadership(CWGL), IBON and AWID organised a People’s General Assembly (PGA) that took place in a public park on September 21st. The assembly highlighted the call for human rights and development justice and profiled the voices of grassroots activists, including feminists, garment workers and trade unionists from the Global South.

The WMG and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) organised an event titled "Strengthening Gender Justice And Human Rights To Achieve Sustainable Development" bringing together women's rights activists from around the world to share their perspectives and recommendations for a post-2015 agenda. The speakers, largely from the Global South, shared analysis and key recommendations for the Post 2015 sustainable development agenda. Civil society, Foundations and philanthropic organizations also convened during the GA week in a side event[iii] to discuss accountability and innovation, and how organizations can work together to have a greater impact. It provided an opportunity for civil society to voice some of their concerns with the donor community. A strategy meeting organized by the Feminist Task Force and Baha’i International Community in collaboration with the Post 2015 Women’s Coalition, to take stock of the GA, included the participation of representatives of UN-NGLS and UN Women and was an important moment for bringing governments together to listen to civil society.

Much rhetoric but little action

While women’s groups used every opportunity to put their demands and critiques on the table[iv] there is still much to be done to address the structural and systemic issues that will provide the basis for an inclusive, transformative and sustainable development framework. Debates continue to focus on economic growth, measuring progress using inappropriate indicators, and are mainly happening among governments and the private sector, with serious limitations for civil society (CS) to enter official debates and lack of clear and transparent mechanisms to ensure CS interventions and meaningful participation.

There was much rhetoric on advancing a transformative agenda, in consultations at the GA, including on the centrality of gender equality in the new development agenda. Yet, a closer look at government’s interventions in the outcome document of the Special Event on the MDGs indicates that references to transformation and gender are merely ‘lip service’ with little in the way of implementation strategies.

Reactions from women’s rights groups

The Outcome Document points to a desire by some governments to move forward on the MDGs and provides an opportunity to map government support for CSOs demands. However, women’s rights advocates and organisations - including AWID and members of the WMG - highlight six major concerns:

  • The outcome document does not reflect strong affirmation for women’s human rights and a standalone gender equality goal, as well as gender equality as a cross-cutting issue in the post 2015 development agenda.
  • The document only includes ‘passing references’ to applying a human rights framework for the new development agenda and there is need to be more ambitious. Any new global development paradigm must be rights-based, holistic, inclusive, equitable, gender-just, people-centered and universal.
  • There is need for a far more coherent and stronger articulation between acceleration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), evolution of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other multilateral processes, such as forthcoming Financing for Development Conference, special sessions of the priority areas of the PGA, Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, G8 and G20, etc.
  • The lack of concrete mechanisms and resources for implementation - both for accelerating the achievement of the MDGs, and for the Post 2015 Development Agenda and SDG processes - continues to be a major concern.
  • It is important to continue pushing for meaningful, inclusive and transparent intergovernmental processes that include civil society and feminist movements at all stages.
  • A final push is urgently needed to achieve the MDGs, particularly goals three and five focused on gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights as well as women's human rights.

Entry points for women’s rights advocates to influence this agenda

A clear observation by women’s groups was the shrinking space for women’s rights advocates and organisations in spaces like these and the difficulties in ‘getting inside’. Women’s rights activists need to be more visible in the different tracks of negotiations inside the UN. It is important to continue advocacy with UN Women and UN Non-governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS), while also working with other UN agencies. It is also crucial for women’s groups to develop strategies to strengthen their political capacity to influence these processes beyond following what happens at the UN.

The Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing is one of the key areas that is taking shape, where issues of financing for development will be discussed. The first session was held in late August 2013, and the second session will take place in December 2013. However, this has so far been a very closed space (only 30 members) for most governments, and there are no mechanisms, as yet, for CSO participation. This raises questions about the accountability mechanisms in place to ensure that the promises at Rio+20 are fulfilled.

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is another key entry point for advocacy, with upcoming sessions in November and December.

Debates and negotiations regarding the Post-2015 Development Agenda will take place until the next UNGA in September 2014. Yet, clarity on how the different processes - HLPF, SDGs and Post MDGs - fit together needs to be better articulated. The HLPF will meet again in December, and Post 2015 debates will go into a second phase of consultations at regional and national levels.

For women’s rights and feminist groups these processes should also be linked to the 20-year commemorations of key UN conferences where women’s rights were clearly articulated and advanced, including Vienna+20, Cairo+20 and Beijing+20 and the follow up Conference on Financing for Development. It will be important to understand how these all fit together, instead of competing with one another, and to plan effective and focused advocacy while also making sure women participate meaningfully in decision-making.

Looking forward

It is essential that the Post 2015 development framework is able to bridge the gap between an environmental and a development agenda putting human rights at the center of development goals.

There are a number of key review conferences coming up and it is important to keep pushing to interconnect and bring all these agendas together in the post-2015 framework. For women’s rights activists, the Beijing+20 review will be key to pushing for greater implementation at the country, regional and global levels and to connect the unfinished commitments of Beijing to the post-2015 agenda.

Mapping member states and regional blocs that can be potential allies to women’s demands is necessary and implies speaking to new groups and actors that are at the centre of decision-making processes. It is also essential to continue looking for alternative means for advocacy and participation, using the media more effectively and bringing the voices of grassroots activists that are still mainly excluded from negotiation processes.


[ii] This group replaced the former Commission on Sustainable Development

[iii] Organized by the Ford Foundation, the European Foundation Centre, the Rockefeller Foundation, UNDP, WINGS and OECD netFWD.

[iv] See for example the AWID in-depth analysis to the High Level Panel Report and our response to the report of the UN Secretary General. See also the report prepared by UN-NGLS as a result of regional consultations with civil society. The report and the discussions that followed were considered key by many delegates and this is a key advocacy resource for CSOs moving forward.