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While poverty-reduction is central to both human development and sustainable development, and while both view economic growth as a means rather than an end of development – thereby providing an alternative to mainstream, economistic perspectives that tend to treat economic growth synonymously with development – sustainable development places emphasis on meeting the needs of future generations by preserving the earth’s natural systems.More generally, it calls into question the anthropocentric bias of all development paradigms, including that of human development.“Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavour across such a broad and universal policy agenda,” the resolution states, with certainty.
Following the June 2012 summit of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) – popularly known as Rio 20 – the MDG-replacement process was conclusively merged with the UN’s sustainable development agenda.
The key outcome of Rio 20 was an agreement by member states to develop a set of aspirational sustainable development goals similar to the MDGs, and in January 2013, a 30-member Open Working Group (OWG) of the UNGA was tasked with preparing the requisite proposal.
A less stealthy approach might have led to stiff, even debilitating resistance from the international financial institutions and powerful developed country governments.
Even so, the MDGs’ undemocratic beginnings were always a target of criticism, and when it came to replacing the goals, the UN was careful to adopt a more open and inclusive process.
Rio 20 did not spell out the sustainable development goals, and nor, at the time of the event, were they being viewed as MDG successors.
At the end of 2013, however, the UN announced that the SDGs, under preparation by the OWG, would be used to replace the MDGs.
While this was a reasonable grievance, the narrow process adopted by the authors of the MDGs was quite sage given the political climate of the time.
In the 1990s, as Fukuda-Parr and Hulme point out, international development specialists were bitterly divided over the merits of structural adjustment and the Washington Consensus, with the World Bank and IMF pitted against NGOs, “with the UN caught in the middle” (2011: 24).
This dramatic jump in goals and targets from the MDGs to SDGs has provoked criticism, even ridicule. “On behalf of the peoples we serve, we have adopted a historic decision on a comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centered set of universal and transformative goals and targets,” their resolution states.
Is the UN’s confidence in the merits of its new agenda defensible?