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Agenda 2030: repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results?


The great physicist Albert Einstein is reported to have once said “insanity is making the same mistakes and expecting different results.” While the veracity of the quote is unclear, its message certainly rings true in the field of sustainable development, as the international community seems determined to continue with a “business as usual” approach despite the fact it clearly hasn’t worked in the past.

Soon after the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon in September 2015, civil society organizations warned that the weakness of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) as the principal forum for accountability might well scupper progress entirely. While CESR and others also recognized that the HLPF could have the potential to become a meaningful space for SDG accountability – and thus to incentivise the radical policy choices necessary – it would have to be strengthened in various respects. Disappointingly, the latest meeting of the Forum, which drew to a close in New York last week, thwarted hopes for the time being, at least.

The voluntary national reviews, at which member states report on their progress towards the SDGs, seemed more like PR exercises than spaces for genuine reflection and learning. Civil society groups were mostly sidelined from the official talks, although hundreds of their representatives travelled to New York seeking to hold their governments accountable, and held vibrant side-events exchanging ideas, critiques and proposals for more inclusive, transformative SDG implementation. For example, CESR and partners from Latin America and Africa held an event focusing on fiscal policy for gender justice, while also partnering with OHCHR and UNDP to examine the role human rights mechanisms could play in SDG accountability.  Several civil society coalitions and groups produced excellent, exhaustive “shadow” reports on country performance (for example in India and Brazil), or took a global view as in the Spotlight on Sustainable Development Reportwhich analyzed structural obstacles to SDG implementation goal by goal. In her contribution to the Spotlight report, CESR’s Kate Donald highlighted corporate tax abuse and corporate influence over fiscal policy as a major threat to SDG progress, especially Goal 10.
However, these reports were given no official status or space, and dialogue among member states largely avoided the thorny issues that civil society highlighted, such as lackluster financing and regressive taxation regimes. And in a worrying echo of the dynamics that have hindered development efforts in previous decades, most of the national reviews took a siloed approach to assessing progress – treating each goal as separate rather than as part of a system – and avoided tackling crossborder challenges such as illicit financial flows, tax havens, pollution and climate change – all of which have a determinative impact on development progress.
Many of these issues are unpacked in detail in a new CESR briefing focused specifically on the issue of accountability for women’s rights in the context of the SDGs. Seeking Accountability for women’s rights through the Sustainable Development Goals, which was authored by CESR board member and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Magdalena Sepúlveda, argues that the deficiencies of the HLPF highlight the need to use other complementary accountability mechanisms to effectively monitor compliance with the women’s rights commitments of the SDGs.

When Agenda 2030 was agreed upon two years ago, there was a great deal of fanfare over the promise of a better, more just future for all people. Two years later the honeymoon has passed and familiar dysfunctions have returned to the discourse of global development. The international community has stumbled badly on the first stretch of this journey, but there is still a long road to be travelled and it is imperative that governments and other powerful actors do everything necessary to get back on track.

Before he passed away in 1955, Albert Einstein also reminded us that “we are the architects of our own destiny.”  With this in mind, those in a position to influence the progress of the SDGs would do well to ask themselves what kind of a house they are building and whether it will still be standing for future generations.