It has been three and a half years since the United Nations (UN) adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In July, South Africa will be among the 51 countries that will table voluntary national reviews of their progress towards addressing the SDGs at the 2019 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to be convened by the UN Economic and Social Council.
With the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, having identified capacity building, collaboration, and engagement with government and industry as areas for the university to contribute to achieving the SDGs, several SDG-focused initiatives involving Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII) associate units are underway at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
UCT’s link to the SDG process goes back as far as 2012 when PII member Professor Haroon Bhorat, director of the Development Policy Research Unit at the School of Economics, provided critical research support to this global process. During this time (and while on sabbatical), he served at the United Nations Development Programme in New York City as head of research to the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons to the Post-2015 MDG Agenda. This panel was appointed by the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General to advise on the global development framework beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and comprised three presidents and other dignitaries from around the globe, including UCT Chancellor, Graça Machel.
A key mandate of the High-Level Panel (HLP) was to ensure open and inclusive consultations with civil society, the private sector, academia and research institutions from all regions in addition to the UN system. Bhorat’s role was to ensure the HLP was guided by a strong empirical evidence base by coordinating, managing and undertaking analytical work around the research streams that fed into the report that crafted the post-MDG framework – this ultimately led to the 2030 Agenda and related SDGs.
“The Millennium Development Goals were incredibly important for the global fight for social and economic development, production, addressing poverty and inequality.”
“The MDGs were incredibly important for the global fight for social and economic development, production, addressing poverty and inequality, and so forth,” says Bhorat. “But it was clear that the MDGs couldn’t just be rinsed and repeated by extending the goals for another period.”
While the MDGs process was criticised for a lack of consultation, the HLP earned praise from the UN Secretary-General for its inclusive and extensive consultations. “Whether the global donor community, foreign embassies that had development agencies, or tapping into regional research networks – we consulted a lot. One approach was to test initial ideas with the research-based Global Development Network at a workshop in Delhi and which was attended by one of the Panel members.”
The consultation process was complemented by commissioning research papers on broad themes such as the economy and jobs, migration, inequality, poverty, gender, climate change and institutions, to name but a few, to help inform the final framework for the SDGs.
“The whole process took around nine months to a year – it was intense,” Bhorat recalls. “A particular challenge for the High-Level Panel was to give voice to the rigour of research, on the one hand, versus what was understood as lobbying by various groups to ensure their interests were included in the SDGs – which in turn was going to be linked to funding – on the other hand.”
Some of the areas that generated plenty of discussion were migration, the labour market and inequality. “Countries particularly from the global north had questions about what the goals would say about migration; so, for example the Swedish government hosted a workshop with relevant European ministries where the High-Level Panel presented forming views on migration.”
“A particular challenge for the High-Level Panel was to give voice to the rigour of research, on the one hand, versus what was understood as lobbying by various groups to ensure their interests were included in the SDGs – which in turn was going to be linked to funding – on the other hand.”
Discussions on reducing inequalities – which were not addressed by the MDGs – also caused “unease”, says Bhorat, “as the reality is that economic growth will always lead to inequality, to some form of maldistribution”. Hence, a concern was that, if a goal is purely focused on inequality, it could disincentivise those who are productive. In its report, the HLP identified inequality as one of the cross-cutting themes closely tied to the ‘leave no-one behind’ principle of the 2030 Agenda. Further, Goal 10 of the SDGs explicitly aims to reduce inequalities within and between countries.
The role of research in setting the post-MDG agenda can well be illustrated by discussions concerned with the labour market and creating employment in particular. “If you set a jobs target, you could send the wrong signal for governments to create large numbers of public sector jobs. Also, it would be ill-advised to use unemployment as a target because the real problem in many low-income countries is the working poor rather than unemployment. We had to do real innovative analytical work to get that message across.”
The graphic presentation (below) of 2011 data on the global working poor compared to the global unemployed illustrates this message clearly. Today, Goal 8 of the SDGs focues on the need for creating ‘decent work and economic growth’, and with many of the global targets of this goal addressing the plight of the working poor.