GVI BLOG SERIES: How to co-create a values-driven UN/global system? BLOG VI – Participation in the SDGs

International public participatory processes as seen through the MDG versus the SDG processes: Lessons learned and applied or missed opportunity?

By Otto Spijkers, September 2018, member of the Global Vision Institute Board of Directors 

The following is the second blog on values and participation as part of GVI’s 10 Solutions on “How to co-create a values driven UN/global system?”.  It examines the experiences of the preparatory processes for the Sustainable Development Goals compared to that of the Milliennium Development Goals, and lessons that can be drawn from that comparison. GVI poses questions to gain insights from Otto’s perspective as an expert on “The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law”


What are some alternative models or elements thereof to bring about more inclusive international participation, deliberation, decision-making and action at the global level via the UN and similar bodies?

Let’s focus on the drafting process of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is worth focussing on, because this process can basically be seen – and studied – as a giant laboratory of global public participation. Almost every participatory model you can imagine was used.

This is a major difference compared with the drafting process of the Millennium Development Goals, in which only very few people had any meaningful participation. I can therefore be brief about the MDG drafting process. In the early 1990s, an impressive number of world conferences on various global challenges took place, all within the UN framework. They resulted in aspirational declarations, a consensus on what was most important and what needed to be done to face the challenge. The most influential is probably the Declaration on Environment and Development, adopted at the end of the World Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. And everybody also knows the Vienna Declaration of the World Conference on Human Rights, that took place one year later. Less known is the World Summit for Social Development, which took place in Copenhagen in 1995. Of all the world conferences, the latter probably had the most direct influence on the MDGs.

The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was the first to suggest making a “summary” of all these declarations of the 1990s.  The DAC consists of a handful of rich States, known for being relatively generous when it comes to providing official development aid. They came up with a list of commitments, and if one compares this DAC-list with the MDGs, the resemblance is remarkable. The UN did not think it was a good idea to adopt a list of goals prepared by this exclusive group of countries. And thus, it organized a summit, the Millennium Summit, where the UN’s Millennium Declaration was made. This Declaration did not contain a list of goals, and thus they needed to be extracted therefrom. The extraction of the goals from the declaration was very much based, once again, on the work of the DAC. In fact, if you compare the list of DAC-goals and the MDGs, it is clear that the latter are more derived from the work of DAC than from the UN’s Millennium Declaration.

When drafting the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN wanted to do better, in terms of global public participation. Briefly summarised, the opportunities for global public participation fall into three categories:

  • The UN Secretary-General led initiatives, including the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP), the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), and the UN Global Compact (UNGC).
  • The intergovernmental Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), which ultimately drafted the SDGs.
  • The United Nations Development Group (UNDG) led the so-called “Global Conversation” which provided input into above-mentioned processes.

I will focus on the third category. One consultation which was part of the “Global Conversation” was the MyWorld survey; an online survey through which all the world’s citizens were invited to rank certain global issues on what they believed was most urgent (http://www.myworld2015.org/). Interestingly, combating climate change ended up at the very bottom of the list. I guess it is not always a good idea to listen to the world’s citizens!

But this was not the only effort to seek the peoples’ opinion. The consultations invited participants through television, radio, newspapers, online advertisements, webcasts, blogs, press releases, YouTube, email, face-to-face surveying and the use of local networks and moderators. This variety in outreach was continued into methods of opinion collection, with dedicated websites, social media outlets, individual interviews, group workshops, paper MyWorld ballots, mobile phone surveys, photography competitions, roundtables and other surveys, from open questions to multi-choice selections.

The organizer of the process – the UN – was clearly very enthusiastic and ambitious, but the response of the world’s citizens was much less enthusiastic and ambitious. In its reports, the UN maintains its enthusiasm, and does not openly address the problem of a lack of interest in participating. That is unfortunate, I think. I still believe that the SDGs process represents the true birth of global public participation in global decision-making. The lack of interest might be because this is “new”; we have never done this before. And thus, some people might be a bit hesitant and sceptical. Let’s hope we do better next time.

A more radical solution is to stop asking people to bring their opinion and ideas to the UN. Instead, the UN can go to the people and take their opinion and ideas from them. This can be done even without their awareness. For example, UN Global Pulse is currently experimenting with ‘mining’ publicly available data, such as Twitter ‘tweets’, to identify priorities and interests of the people. If this method is developed further – and I am sure it will be – it might raise privacy concerns. And it focuses on the ideas of people active on social media, which is not (yet?) the entire world population.

What are your views on the inclusiveness of the debates on the global value of ‘social progress and development’ when viewed in light of recent challenges, and the SDG’s commitment to ‘leave no one behind?

The United Nations Charter gives the UN a general mandate to realize the value of social progress and development. No general definition or description of the value of social progress and development was ever adopted by the deliberative organ of the United Nations, the General Assembly. So, we must deduce a general definition from the many many resolutions on development adopted by the Assembly since 1945 – more than on any other topic of international concern.

The Assembly’s meetings have been as inclusive as is realistically possible, with most States represented there. Of course, participation has always been restricted to States. The fact that all States had a role in the discussions from the beginning – at least since the decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s – had as consequence that the fundamental aspects of the existing economic order have been criticized in the Assembly since the beginning. This inclusiveness also had an impact on the allocation of responsibilities.

So how has the United Nations, and especially the General Assembly, interpreted and implemented its task to promote “higher standards of living, full employment, […] conditions of economic and social progress and development, solutions of international economic, social, health, and related problems and international cultural and educational cooperation” (quote from the UN Charter)? And how about inclusiveness, leaving no-one behind? That was your question, I believe.

Well… The many declarations adopted by the General Assembly on social progress and development contain various strategies and action plans which respond to various threats to the achievement of the value of social progress and development. They all stress the primary responsibility of States for their own development, and then urge States to assist each other. The plans did not aim to put in place a global welfare system; instead the aim was to help developing States to obtain their share of the goods themselves.

But what happens if States cannot get their share of the goods themselves, and become increasingly marginalized despite international assistance? What if they cannot even provide the most basic services to their own population? What if they are in immediate need of aid? In that case, the United Nations cannot merely stand aside and watch. Therefore, it has adopted various plans specifically aimed at providing immediate aid for immediate emergencies such as natural disasters.

In short, there is no lack of declarations and resolutions on the value of social progress and development, but the impact of these resolutions on actual State behaviour, and on the flow of ideas within the academic community, differs significantly per resolution. Some of the declarations and action plans have been ignored, but others, such as the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order and the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, did play a major role in the evolution of ideas. These resolutions did not serve as blueprints for global economic policy, but they did greatly influence the (scholarly) debate on global reform.

Two other influential Assembly resolutions on development are – and here we return to where we started this interview – the Millennium Declaration and the SDG Declaration, both of which have been influential in setting and monitoring targets for development. And here too, various commitments relate to inclusiveness, or ‘leave no one behind’, as you put it.

Otto Spijkers is a Lecturer of Public International Law at Utrecht University, Senior Research Associate with the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea, and researcher with the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law, and researcher with the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law. He is a member of the Committee on the Role of International Law in Sustainable Natural Resource Management for Development of the International Law Association, and guest lecturer for amnesty International The Hague.

Otto was a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta, the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, Xiamen University’s China International Water Law Programme (China), the China Institute for Boundary and Ocean Studies of Wuhan University (China), the Law School of the East China University of Political Science and Law (ECUPL) in Shanghai (China), the Università degli Studi di Salerno (Italy), and the Association pour la promotion des droits de l’homme en Afrique centrale (APDHAC) of the Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale (Yaoundé, Cameroon).  Previously, he was a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at the University of Leiden. His doctoral dissertation, entitled “The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law”,  was published with Intersentia in 2011.


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