by Martin Viljoen

A re-evaluation of the MDGs

Experts meet to discuss new goals beyond the MDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals are set to replace the Millennium Development Goals
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At the Rio+20 Conference in Brazil last year, it was agreed that it was necessary to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are meant to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) beyond their 2015 target date.

The MDGs – an ambitious programme to promote development across the globe – were agreed to by world leaders in 2000. They set specific targets on poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, environmental stability, HIV/Aids reduction, and a global partnership for development.

At the time, the MDGs were considered achievable by 2015, but progress so far has been mixed. United Nations reviews have shown that some regions of the developing world have done well, notably strong-growth countries such as China and India. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa seem to be struggling with some of the MDGs.

At the Global MDG Conference in Colombia last month (27-28 February 2013), UN Development Programme (UNDP) head Helen Clark said: “There has undoubtedly been progress on many of the indicators targeted by the MDGs, but there are also the goals and targets where too little progress has been made – for example on maternal mortality reduction, universal access to reproductive health, and improved sanitation.”

Against the backdrop of the post-2015 development agenda currently taking shape, a 30-member working group of the UN General Assembly has now been tasked with preparing proposals on new SDGs.

In its Rio+20 Outcome Document, the UN said the SDGs “should be action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities.”

The Expert Group Meeting taking place in New York on 20 and 21 March 2013 has been convened by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (Undesa), which considers it “crucial that the best available research informs the development of goals, targets and indicators at global, regional and national levels.”

Undesa said the “multidimensional nature of sustainable development lends itself to a multidisciplinary approach, which draws on the findings and insights of the natural and social sciences alike.” Hence the International Council for Science and the International Social Science Council, as well as members of “leading scientific assessment efforts” are participating in the two-day meeting.

Professor Mark Swilling will be a keynote speaker on the first day of the meeting in a session on “Sustainability threats, irreversible events, societal impacts and responses”. He is a global expert on sustainable development, with more than 50 academic articles and four books to his name. He also serves on the International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Stellenbosch is the only South African university participating in the meeting. prof. Swilling said, “SU is considered the leading university on the African continent when it comes to broad-based sustainability research concerned with matters that go beyond the more narrow carbon agenda.”

At SU, Swilling is co-ordinator of the Sustainable Development Programme of the School of Public Leadership, project leader of the TsamaHub, and academic director of the Sustainability Institute.

The TsamaHub serves as a focal point at SU for studies in transdisciplinarity, sustainability and complexity. It forms part of SU’s HOPE Project, a university-wide initiative through which the institution is using academic excellence and cutting-edge research to promote human development.

Speaking ahead of the New York meeting, Prof. Swilling said initiatives such as the MDGs and SDGs matter because they create a “rallying point” for policy formulation and social movement mobilisation.

He said the main point he will be making is that “that the next industrial revolution will be about a transition to a greener low carbon economy that will create a vast number of opportunities for employment and investment in activities that restore rather than destroy natural resources.”

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