The unlikely journey to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

This piece is written by Olav Kjørven, Director of Public Partnerships at UNICEF. It is the first in a series aimed at capturing the inside story of the negotiations for history’s most ambitious development agenda.


Over the last three to four years I have had the luck and privilege of being around at the United Nations just as this often derided septuagenarian global body took on the greatest challenge of our time: negotiating a new set of shared global goals to eliminate poverty and secure a more peaceful and healthy planet for coming generations. The objective couldn’t have been more necessary, nor more ambitious and difficult. Last September in New York, Heads of State and Government from 193 Member States signed off on the result, with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the center, built on the success of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but going much beyond them in scope and ambition. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. It’s an historic reset. If taken seriously, these goals will change the world for the better. However, when the effort was officially set in motion, at the Rio+20 Summit in the summer of 2012, it was a difficult birth.

Far from being an inspired and inspiring moment, the decision to develop SDGs was reached in the small hours of the night, in overtime, in an atmosphere of distrust, tension and bickering. Many participants had grave doubts about the decision; doubts about expanding on the poverty and social sector focus of the MDGs by bringing in environmental sustainability and economic development, or doubts that the endeavor could ever succeed, that the effort was almost doomed to drown in the quick sands of yet another complex process of negotiations at the UN. Just the thought of politically negotiating the next set of global goals and targets among 193 governments seemed exhausting, perilous, even naïve. After all, the MDGs, which just about everybody now agreed had been a success as a mobilizing framework for action, had been designed by experts before being announced by the then Secretary General, Kofi Annan. This, according to many, had produced a focused agenda, around which governments, agencies and civil society could coalesce. Why couldn’t UN Member States entrust the Secretary General and his experts to repeat the success of the MDG process, or at least develop a proposal that the membership could then consider and fine-tune?

Making matters even more complicated, the decision all but ignored the SG’s initiative taken before Rio+20 to establish a “High Level Panel of Eminent Persons” to develop a proposal for the successors to the MDGs, or the “post-2015” agenda. There was now a real risk that two separate processes would unfold, both with very uncertain and possibly very different outcomes. In short, it looked to many like another UN recipe for failure.
And yet, here we are, with a new set of global goals, a bit unwieldy in scope but brimming with ambition. How did we get here? Many could give an interesting account of it, filled with some solid doses of blood, sweat and tears, a few moments of euphoria and countless, endless meetings that seemingly went nowhere. Each story would be distinct from the next. Here’s mine and it is long.

Read Olav’s full piece here (PDF)

If you would like to send us your own stories of how the SDGs came to be agreed, or respond to any of the contributions in this series, please send us an email.

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