The Idea of Universality in the Sustainable Development Goals

| June 2015
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With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) due to “expire” in 2015, interstate negotiations are underway at the United Nations on a post-2015 development framework, with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at its center. For the last year an Open Working Group, comprising thirty states and state “troikas,” has been working toward an initial draft of the goals. The outcome document, outlining seventeen goals and many subsidiary targets, was released in July 2014, to form the basis for a further year of negotiation. The “principle of universality” has been widely characterized as a foundational value of the goals. This article investigates this principle, and its implications for the structure and substance of the SDGs.

The idea of universally applicable goals is present in both the outcome document of the 2012 Rio Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) that mandated the negotiations on the goals and the introduction to the current draft of the goals. This marks a departure from the MDGs, which are widely viewed as focusing on extreme poverty and thus as being directed toward poor countries. Nevertheless, despite an apparent “emerging consensus that the post-2015 agenda should be universal,” there is less agreement over what universality means, and how this demand should be reflected in the framework. In its most basic form, universality might seem simply a matter of the scope of the resulting framework. Actors have, however, employed and extended the idea in various ways. For example, it has been a vehicle for  arguments for or against different goals, or for specific levels of commitment within goal areas. At the same time, the SDGs acknowledge differences between states by allowing for differentiation at the country level.

This article seeks to trace and clarify what the principle of universality should be thought to mean, what its implications are, and how it might be reconciled with country-level difference. The first of these issues is conceptual, while the second and third issues are more substantive. They ask how universality frames, constrains, and orients the goals, and how the need for differentiation should be interpreted and realized. Through my analysis, three distinct (though related) senses of universality emerge. I term these “universality of application,” “universality of content,” and “universal but differentiated responsibilities.”

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Category: Article, Issue 29.2

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