Sustainable Development Goals: how deeply embedded is peace?

This post is written by Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes, International Alert.This piece first appeared on the International Alert blog.

The ‘zero draft’ of the Sustainable Development Agenda –  whose main elements are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) –  was published by the UN this week. Entitled Transforming our world by 2030: A new agenda for global action, it contains seven pages of introduction, 17 SDGs accompanied by a still staggeringly long list of 169 targets (including around 20 that have been slightly revised, compared with the previous version), and a short section on “Follow-up and review”.

I’ve written before about this panoply of goals and targets, and will simply reiterate here – while unashamedly mixing metaphors – that I see this Christmas tree of 169 coloured lights and baubles as a glass at least half full. That’s because it is so much better than the narrow and overly technical Millennium Development Goals that the SDGs will replace, come January 2016, and because from a peacebuilder’s perspective, it contains much that we have wished and argued for.

Looking at the this latest draft, I welcome the retention (there had been fears in some quarters that it would be dropped or massively diluted) of goal 16: promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Peace is gained and maintained by people living in fair and well-governed societies that allow and encourage economic mobility and opportunity, access to justice, participatory and responsive governance, widespread social welfare and well-being, and that keep people safe. So it is good to see all these elements visible in the draft.

As to the “Follow-up and review” section, I am first of all very happy that this is not entitled ‘implementation’, as I don’t think this framework has enough of a genuine mandate for that, at least not yet. I live in the UK, but I have yet to hear any of my country’s politicians debating how the UK will meet these ‘universal targets’ to which it is about to sign us up, nor whether we will need to effect new legislation or government policy to come into line with them. And the situation is much the same elsewhere.

So it is quite right, that what promises to be a useful international 2030 agenda should be reviewed nationally from time to time – and ideally in line with electoral cycles, where they exist – so people in different contexts can debate and decide which of the 169 targets are most important for them. Normally, I would expect these debates to be difficult to resolve – because prioritisation among political options is hard, by nature, and especially in a context of limited resources. By informing such debates, the SDGs can make a contribution to governance beyond any specifically ‘good governance initiatives’ that they engender here or there.

So, very much a glass half full, from my perspective. Indeed, what is emerging from the (suitably) long drawn-out SDG gestation process seems far more in line with what International Alert was proposing as far back as 2010, that we probably dreamed at the time would be possible. However – and you sensed a however, right? – I do have a substantial concern about the place of peace in the high-level rhetoric of the document.

The agenda is (perhaps subliminally) marginalising the need to focus the collective global mind and energy on building and sustaining peace over the next 15 years. Not only does peace appear right at the end of the list of the goals – indeed, it is the last substantive goal in the list – but it is entirely missing from the 2030 vision contained in paragraph 15 of the agenda:

“In the goals and targets which we have agreed, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want. A world, for example, of safe and nutritious food; of affordable drinking water; of universal access to basic education; of physical, mental and social well-being. A world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity; of justice and equality; of respect for race and ethnicity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A just, equitable, tolerant and inclusive world. And one in which humanity lives in complete harmony with nature.”

Now, I would be the first person to claim that simply including the word ‘peace’ is too easy, and to advocate for the components of a just peace to be made explicit. From this perspective, the draft vision has a huge amount to recommend it. It reflects most of the elements in the fourth paragraph of this blog post. But surely, in a document grandly entitled Transforming our world by 2030: A new agenda for global action, we would expect to find an explicit reference to our desire for a more peaceful world? I mean, look around at the world of today: at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Myanmar, India, Central African Republic, Palestine, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, the Philippines and elsewhere where armed conflicts remain unresolved – not to speak of the countless locations in apparently more stable and peaceful countries, where neither the state nor society has yet figured out how to bring peace to neighbourhoods and cities.

Yes, peace does get mentioned in the Introduction, but it needs to be more visible and central to the vision – as it was in the Millennium Declaration. So if there were just one thing I would recommend the drafters change, it would be to amend their paragraph 15, as follows:

“In the goals and targets which we have agreed, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want. A world, for example, of safe and nutritious food; of affordable drinking water; of universal access to basic education; of physical, mental and social well-being. A world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity; of justice and equality; of respect for race and ethnicity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A well-governed, just, equitable, tolerant, inclusive and peaceful world. And one in which humanity lives in complete harmony with nature.”

Read this post at international-alert.org

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