Summer 2016 (30.2) Essay

Accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals: A Lost Opportunity?

On August 2, 2015, after three long years of intergovernmental negotiations and consultations and some tense final moments, all UN member states finally endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016. The question of accountability—or, more precisely, the question of how governments will be held to account for implementing the commitments made in this new agenda—was a critical point of contention throughout the negotiations, resulting in a significant watering down of initial proposals by the end of the process.

This essay examines how the “politics of accountability” played out during the post-2015 negotiations and how this influenced the resulting compromise on what came to be called the “follow-up and review framework” in the final outcome document. We discuss some of the early proposals, which aimed to ensure that monitoring and accountability would be an integral element of the 2030 Agenda, in part in reaction to earlier concerns over the lack of strong accountability mechanisms in the MDG framework. We review how accountability was debated in the negotiations and what emerged in the final agreement, before highlighting some remaining opportunities for stakeholders to continue to shape and push for a more robust accountability framework. It is important to note at the outset that the concept of accountability had a loaded history in these intergovernmental negotiations. For developing countries, the experience of the Millennium Development Goals had left a somewhat bitter legacy. Many felt unfairly burdened by the efforts required of them to meet the MDGs, while wealthy countries were not obliged to act domestically nor held responsible for their commitments to provide resources to developing countries or to ensure a global policy environment conducive to development. The repercussions of this legacy were felt throughout the negotiation process of the SDGs in ways that were both constructive and obstructive. On the positive side, this experience unleashed a surprising demand among many parties at the negotiating table for universal development goals that would apply to all countries—rich and poor. On the negative side, there emerged a deep ambivalence and mistrust regarding the idea of accountability for the new goals and targets, and in particular to the idea of progress being judged by or against other countries.

Indeed, government commitments on accountability were watered down during the post–2015 negotiations in perhaps unsurprising ways, given the earlier Rio+20 negotiations in 2012, which also saw language on review processes progressively weakened. For many countries, the fear of “accountability” stemmed not necessarily from a rejection of the idea that a government should be accountable to its people per se (state-to-people accountability), but rather from a rejection of the idea of peer-to-peer, or state-to-state accountability, as evidenced, for example, by widespread resistance to a proposed global “peer-review” mechanism for the SDGs. Developing countries, in particular, feared that a peer-review mechanism would simply provide new avenues of conditionality and paternalistic finger-wagging from rich countries. Negotiations over the accountability framework were thus fated to be difficult from the start.

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