The Pursuit of Universality

Written by Alvin Leong (LLM, JD), an energy and environmental policy consultant and fellow at the Pace Center for Environmental Legal Studies.  He can be contacted at

The intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently issued their outcome document containing proposals for 17 goals.[1]  Pursuant to paragraph 18 of the introduction (or chapeau), these goals are “global in nature and universally applicable” and at the same time “take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respect national policies and priorities.”[2]  Thus, the SDGs are intended to be both universal and differentiated.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been criticized for not being “universal” in the sense that virtually all the goals were the responsibility of developing countries to strive for and achieve, and only one goal, MDG 8 (Global Partnership for Development), placed responsibility on developed countries.  MDG 8 has, in turn, been criticized for being vague and lacking in means of implementation and has remained largely unimplemented.  In this view, “universality” means that all countries – both developed and developing – should have responsibilities, and in particular, given the historical context of the MDGs, developed countries should “take the lead” in the responsibilities for global development.

However, there is no internationally accepted definition of the term “universality” in global development.  During the OWG deliberations, there appeared very troubling signs that certain developed countries viewed “universality” in an inverted fashion so as to mean that the mention of special or differentiated treatment of developing countries would contravene “universality.”[3]  Extending this inverted view to its logical (and extreme) conclusion, “universality” would mean “equality” without any underpinnings of historical context and realities of resources and capacities.  This view is incompatible with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), and if taken seriously, would effectively eviscerate CBDR.

While certain developed countries take the view that CBDR is limited to the environmental dimension (based on the language of Rio Principle 7) and thus not broadly applicable to sustainable development,[4] the mandates contained in the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, and the outcome document of the OWG establish that differentiation within a universally applicable agenda is an overarching principle of the SDGs.[5] While these developed countries hold onto a formalistic (and legalistic) position on CBDR, the reality is that the international community has already committed, vis-à-vis the post-2015 development agenda and the SDGs, to a functional conception of differentiated responsibilities in resolving the common concerns of humanity – which is the essence of CBDR.  However, if “universality” were to evolve to mean “non-differentiation” as in the inverted view of “universality,” it would act as a subversion of the functional reality of differentiation contained in these intergovernmental mandates

Nevertheless, the deep conceptual question remains as to how to integrate this duality of universality and differentiation in a unitary framework.  Duality does not mean dichotomy (as in the inverted view).  A universal agenda can recognize that there are global development norms that are generally applicable to all countries (in this sense, all countries are equal or non-differentiated) and yet at the same time recognize that while all countries have responsibilities, different countries have differentiated responsibilities due to historical responsibilities and differing financial and other resources and capabilities (in this sense, based on principles of equity).  In essence, a truly universal agenda would require the integration of equality and justice (equity).  In human social organization, striving for one without the other has proven to be a fatally flawed approach.

Equality and justice are inextricably interlinked.  For example, a focus on unsustainable production in the South must be balanced by a focus on unsustainable consumption in the North, which is the driver of production.  Indeed, unsustainable production in the North has been largely outsourced to the South.  A truly universal approach should recognize these realities and seek to integrate the most comprehensive understandings of equality and justice.  A formalistically “equal” agenda that is not viewed as fundamentally fair will be considered functionally unequal.

Can the international community evolve a holistic conception of “universality” that would wisely guide transformative global development in the post-2015 era?  One suspects that the battle over the soul of universality is by no means over, and that conflicts over CBDR – which go to the heart of this duality of universality and differentiation – will continue as geopolitical landscapes continue to shift.  As the work streams of the post-2015 development agenda continue to flow to their ultimate conclusions, the international community would be well served by a considered consensus on “universality” that upholds the principles of equality and justice in building a framework of shared responsibilities for humanity’s shared destiny.

[1] See

[2] This language originates from paragraph 247 of The Future We Want, the outcome document of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20),

[3] See

[4] See

[5] As evidenced by paragraph 18 of the introduction (chapeau) of the OWG outcome document and paragraphs 246 and 247 of The Future We Want.

1 Comment on "The Pursuit of Universality"

  1. I agree with the argument about universality. There are many “developing countries” in rural America and in its inner city ghettos and in European countries as well. That is why a human rights base is essential to ensure that development and opportunities reach all. Governments are duty bearers and need to ensure they have programs to fulfill the rights of all, particularly the right to health. Without access to highest attainable standard of health (General comment 14), human beings cannot access educational and economic opportunities. That is the future I want, a future where nobody dies of preventable and treatable conditions due to lack of access to quality healthcare due to poverty or lack of insurance.

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