*: i.e., the annual rate at which each country is closing the gap between its current economic disparity score and the best expected anywhere for the year 2030.

-In the next 12 years, rather than looking at the ‘means of implementation’ of the SDGs, the international community is confronted with concerning itself with the ‘means of appropriation’ of the SDGs long-term development aspirations of developing countries and their communities. This inevitably maintains an outdated, untenable, fragile and undemocratic economic order. Indeed, real progress in financing for development requires something money cannot buy. (Stefano Prato)

Our only possibility of disparity reduction is broadening the constituencies that will demand a change to the politics of all-encompassing development

-Let us move beyond the cuddly rhetoric of ‘leaving no one behind’! (Kate Donald)

1. To begin with, let me ask you: Is the SDGs groundbreaking acknowledgement by the-community-of-all-nations that inequality –and not just poverty and absolute deprivation– is a core development issue so far a success? Hardly. What we really see instead is a disconnect between grandiose commitments on the one hand, and political and financial muscle on the other –and this is troubling considering that, of all the SDGs, Goal 10 (Reduced Inequalities) will arguably require the most profound and lasting changes to the business-as-usual economic and development model. With such a predicament, fulfilling human rights (HR) standards and deploying HR tools can and will prove essential since they can indeed help in more objectively defining and addressing the problems at hand. What we have to ponder is that there is a very real danger that SDG10 on inequalities will be undermined or reinterpreted by those who are wary of the redistribution required. For instance, the absence of the right of workers to organize and to join a trade union is strongly correlated with increasing economic inequality. Also, on the redistributive imperative, public services are a crucial equalizer in that services must be economically accessible to all at the point of delivery –which must, for example, put user fees and privatization in the no-no category. Tax policies have their own distributive impact: if regressive, they cancel out the equalizing potential of public spending. Human rights mechanisms do thus offer the indispensible avenues for accountability for the Goal 10 commitments!

2. Actually, current domestic and international tax systems benefit big corporations at the expense of people, exacerbating inequality and undermining HR. Corporate tax abuses importantly threaten the achievement of Agenda 2030 (the SDGs) as a whole. The SDGs, adopted by 193 nations in 2015, do not explicitly mention the need for redistribution. But fiscal policy can only really reduce inequality if it is redistributive, with progressive taxes and with social spending directed towards those rendered poor. Corporate tax abuses do not happen in a political vacuum, and the legal loopholes corporations use to evade taxes do not spring up independently. The largest corporations have a huge amount of political power, and they, therefore, play a major role in pushing for tax loopholes, tax incentives, financial secrecy regimes and other tax-related policies that benefit them. But by its nature, corporate influence is usually denied or concealed. Human rights arguments are increasingly being brought to bear in efforts by Group of 77 (G77) countries and by public interest civil society groups who push for more equitable tax policy governance at the international level. The question is: To what avail? The goal of reducing inequality within and between countries simply cannot be solved by market-based solutions; it requires transforming power relations and resource distribution to stand any chance of success. Therein lies the real challenge. (Kate Donald)

3. And then there are other assorted problems

• The Bretton Woods institutions policies are incompatible with the social priorities of the SDGs. Period. The IMF does not even walk an honest talk on poverty and inequality. Neoliberalism is far from dead. It pervades even the UN agencies.** Obviously, social policies alone will not be sufficient for changing entrenched economic policies, but they rightly keep trying to change the power relations in society and, if pursued in a coherent (and decisive political) way, they point to the inconsistencies that characterize current policies. If they can be promoted in parallel with economic and ecological proposals, they will indeed be able to contribute to a better world. All this implies many other power relations are at play as well. Right-wing governments are not willing to introduce the emancipatory, empowering and transformative systems needed, especially in the emerging authoritarian context. Therefore, social and economic rights must be used as the major focus by all progressive forces, in the same way they were used in successful past social struggles. (Francine Mestrum)
**: Talking about the rights of workers as per above, take, for example, the ILO: Despite good intentions, there is little chance that the ILO can ever impose its views, as long as neoliberal policies are in place. Social protection floors could be a progress for people, but they will not, by a long stretch, bring about real social transformation. Their claim to universalism is more than somewhat ambiguous. These floors will not change the system.
• Furthermore, the G7 as a group has become a paper tiger when ‘certain members’ veto anything but the lowest common denominator. The domestic implementation of their collective commitments is not ensured over successive presidencies. G7 members see Agenda 2030 as a program for the poorer countries; they avoid implementing this Agenda in their own countries. (adapted from Adolf Kloke-Lesch) At best, they use a salami tactic: slicing off a little of the SDGs at a time… [Is this a case of United Nations/Divided World?].
• An even more glaring problem with the SDGs is that they are pushing an agenda carefully calibrated to avoid upsetting the world’s dictators, kleptocrats, and this century’s worst human rights offenders. Search the 17 SDGs and you will fail to find a single mention of the word ‘democracy’. Out of thousands of words of text, ‘human rights’ is mentioned merely once (and not as its own category, but as a secondary bullet point). Critically important terms like ‘anti-corruption’, ‘civil liberties’, ‘freedom of expression’, ‘press freedom’, independent judiciary’, ‘separation of powers’, ‘free and fair elections’ and ‘civil society’ are also absent. In other words, the basic freedoms that underpin and advance human development are missing from the SDGs equation. Since the SDGs do not require political reform, they are a big hit with wannabe life presidents and authoritarian despots. Today, maintaining the status-quo is not an option. Until we collectively focus on the true building blocks of democracy, abusive leaders and dictators will continue to be feted at glitzy conferences, pat each other on the back with a wink and a nod, and maintain a brutal level of repression against their own people. What is more, the repression will continue to proliferate under a faulty and counterproductive guise of ‘development’. It is time to change course. (Jeffrey Smith and Alex Gladstein)
• By failing to include either a stand-alone goal or specific targets in each of the goals on private sector regulation, the SDGs reinforce the assumption that there are automatic positive synergies between private sector activities and development. (Corina Rodriguez)
• Agenda 2030 with its goal on food security is seen by some as a conceptual framework retained to actually sideline the centrality of the right to nutrition (…that is not even mentioned in the SDGs document!) and the visions of agro-ecology and food sovereignty embraced and demanded by peasants and their social movements the world over. (Stefano Prato)
• It is clear that most partnerships abundantly called-for in the SDGs freely allow the participation of the private sector,*** especially big corporations. In the absence of a clear framework to avoid undue influence, these partnerships are used to pursue corporate interests while projecting themselves as initiatives for the achievement of SDGs. Since SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) does not contain any safeguards against undue influence from the corporate sector in implementing the goals it is important to advocate for a UN regulatory framework. (K. M. Gopakumar)
***: In discussions at the UN about achieving the SDGs Agenda 2030, it has become de rigueur to highlight the role of the private sector. It is often introduced as the ‘discovery’ of the idea that private sector investment and financing is indispensable to achieving Agenda 2030. For developed country diplomats and their associated experts this new celebrity treatment appears to be an article of faith, at least during negotiations on economic matters in the UN. These diplomats are foisting a misleading exaggeration that is technically harmful to development policymaking and to Agenda 2030. The scaling up of public-private partnerships (PPPs) is the new development silver bullet attached to this idea and happens to be very helpful to the propping up needed by developed country financial sectors to gainfully invest idle capital. PPPs are as old as development, but the new models have seen the risks and costs of failing projects falling on the public sector. The incidence of failures is disquieting. So, rather than devote their limited resources to torturous ways to subsidize and seduce the private sector to take risks on the UN’s Agenda 2030, governments in developing countries must recapture their policy space to regulate and direct private sector resources to the true service of sustainable development. (Manuel Montes)

Why is there the belief that there is a significant overlap between public and private interests, despite the glaring evidence to the contrary? (Stefano Prato)

4. There is no such a thing as the worn private sector slogan that says: ‘we are making the business case for sustainable development’. The much repeated slogan basically identifies the unlocking of private finance and action as the fundamental key to the implementation of the SDGs. No surprise then that there are ongoing attempts to introduce investors’ rights as having the same hierarchy as human rights –and this is done through trade and investment agreements that further limit the development policy space of countries rendered poor. As mind-boggling as this may be, at times, the states’ desires to cede the public sphere to the private sector seems larger than the desire of the private sector to seize it. (!) Of course, this creates a very weak negotiation context where the attempts to seduce the private sector tend to result in the actual seduction of the state. (Stefano Prato)

5. We must understand here: The fundamental role of the state is that of redrawing the lines that have generated today’s gap between what is legal and what is sustainable and, additionally, what advances claim holders’ rights. Expecting that this gap would be filled by voluntary initiatives of the private sector is an abdication of the states’ responsibility to regulate in the public interest. It is also a fairy tale. (S. Prato)

6. So, you see? It is the daily power politics at play that brings about the profound consequences of purportedly consensus-based-processes in Agenda 2030 where ‘minus-one’ or ‘minus-some’ arrangements quite systematically water down decisions or propose actions that the-you-know-who know cannot be pursued. This translates into the fact that, as countries rendered poor are pressured to advance the national implementation of Agenda 2030, systemic structural obstacles continue to limit the policy and fiscal space of these countries to advance their own development actions.

And then there is the High Level Political Forum overseeing the SDGs

7. The SDGs High-level Political Forum tries to bring-in relevant HR accountability mechanisms, but mandates none. (Barbara Adams) The HLPF was set up to review national and global progress on the goals every year. It is thus actually beset by a weak mandate to exact HR standards that are eminently far-reaching and legally binding. Just keep in mind: The HR framework the HLPF is supposed to enforce is diametrically opposed to ideologies and policies gaining the upper hand in the US and many other rich countries applying, for instance, austerity measures that weaken state support for public services (for example, Brazil), or applying weaken labor and corporate deregulation, and/or tax policies favoring the wealthiest individuals and richest countries (for example, the US). (adapted from Kate Donald)

And one more point: While the SDGs call to ‘leave no one behind’ is aspirationally significant, the targets and indicators retained are neither exhaustive nor do they present a true transformative potential

8. Through the SDGs, the victims of HR violations tend to be treated as mere-objects-to-be-monitored instead of as subjects-who-are-to-have-a-say in defining what should be monitored and how –or, for that matter, having a say in the policy interventions designed with the data collected on them. In fact, the SDGs do neither include indicators that monitor popular participation, governance, accountability and policy coherence with HR, nor do they correlate the myriad factors that affect the realization of HR. Indicators now on the table neglect to integrate the HR approach, downplay the legal obligations brought on by HR standards and promote a dangerous shift towards ‘multistakeholderism’**** over promoting claim holders as the protagonists. In fact, the SDGs release the state as the main duty bearer in upholding HR obligations. The implementation of the SDGs thus risks promoting corporate-led-development-schemes, as well as focusing on data-based indicators that do not include those most affected by HR violations in assessing progress or, better, denouncing the root causes of the situation at hand. The endless focus on hard data collection skews the reality on the ground rather than assessing the structural causes of HR violations such as inequality, poverty, preventable ill-health and malnutrition. What is clear is that neither are peoples’ priorities and needs being reflected, nor is the true situation on the ground reflected. (adapted from the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition)
****: The proponents of privatization, of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and of multistakeholder platforms use current trends to present the private sector as the most efficient way to provide the necessary means for implementing the SDGs. But many studies and experiences by affected communities have shown that privatization and PPPs involve disproportionate risks and costs for people and the public purse. PPPs can even exacerbate inequalities, decrease equitable access to essential services and jeopardize the fulfillment of HR. Therefore, it is high time to counter these trends, reclaim public policy space and take bold measures to strengthen public finance, regulate or reject PPPs and weaken the grip of corporate power on people’s lives. In short, to ‘put people over profit’. These are indispensable prerequisites to achieve the SDGs and to turn the vision of the transformation of our world, as proclaimed in the title of Agenda 2030, into reality. (Civil society groups reclaim policies for the public, www.2030spotlight.org)

9. An example suffices here. The SDG3 indicators (health) are only capturing a partial measure of the impact that SDG3 may have on people’s right to health entitlements and duty-bearers’ corresponding obligations. The indicators are simply not providing all the information necessary to show that people’s health rights are (or are not) being respected and protected. If more women experience childbirth with a skilled attendant, in accordance with SDG indicator 3.1.2, but the attendant does not treat women with respect, or does not provide quality care, then this is not HR progress despite the indicator improving. There is neither an indicator that captures the HR meaning of participation and empowerment of people/patients to engage with the health system nor do the indicators reflect understandings of HR obligations as legal obligations. The fact that health financing should be at least 5% of GDP and 15% of the total government budget ought also be an indicator necessary for HR monitoring and review and, therefore, for accountability. (Carmel Williams and Paul Hunt)

10. Bottom line here, the most pressing question is whether Agenda 2030 will be implemented in ways that are universal and integrated, and that protect and even extend HR, or whether its implementation will be reduced to a set of bankable projects and leased out to businesses and the corporate sector. Much depends on how progress will be measured. Will it be measured against the yardsticks of HR and sustainability or against a pick-and-choose-menu of indicators celebrating dubious success on some measures and ignoring other? (B. Adams, Karen Judd)

11. Let us face it

• All the above, calls for prompt action to defend the integrity and to restore the claim-holder-centeredness of public policy spaces against their progressive ‘stakeholderization’. (S. Prato)
• Human rights issues have remained peripheral, if not completely unaddressed, in the follow-up and review process of Agenda 2030. This translates into the persistence of systemic structural obstacles for developing countries to advance any meaningful development progress. (S. Prato)
• Unfortunately, so far, the experience of implementation of Agenda 2030 documented in national reports looks more like a path to new set-backs, and potentially new disasters, rather than an innovative formula to make the ambitious commitments of the Agenda a reality. (Roberto Bissio)

Claudio Schuftan. Ho Chi Minh City
Your comments are welcome at schuftan@gmail.com
All readers can be found in www.claudioschuftan.com

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