Universality and the SDGs- what’s good for the goose

What’s Good for the Goose: Universality and the SDGs

McLeod Group Blog, June 1, 2015:  John Sinclair

Universality – the idea that certain norms should apply to all countries alike – is a crucial feature of many aspects of international life, from the United Nations Charter to the Declarations of Human Rights. Still, the idea that wealthy nations should be submitted to the same standards as poor ones can be a surprisingly touchy political subject. The latest example is the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs are the successors to those simple, easy-to-understand Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire at the end of 2015. The MDGs centred on core social issues: poverty, basic education, maternal health and child mortality – simple, but seriously lacking in their comprehensiveness.

In September 2015 global leaders, including a hesitant Mr. Harper, will sign off on the UN’s Post-2015 Agenda. The centrepiece will be the SDGs, which apply to everybody, wherever they live. Unlike the MDGs, they are not targets designed by rich donors for poor recipients.

Universality in the SDGs has strength as a statement of solidarity, of rich with poor, of donor sharing with recipient. However, universality is not without its technical complications – for example, how can the same health target be used for Chad and Canada, yet still be a challenge for both? For some in Canada, universality has also become sensitive politically. To put it crudely: ‘How dare the UN try to judge us, a G7 country?’

In a globalized world, we need a universal agenda. The SDGs are that agenda, framed against three dimensions of sustainability – social, economic and environmental. They embrace a universe of challenges: ending extreme poverty; water for all; safe and sustainable cities; promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, with justice for all.

The new ‘universal’ targets will be voluntary. Each UN member-country will set its own targets for each SDG. This is a kind of global democracy at work. It also reflects the frustration of the less developed countries, who feel they were set up for failure by the old MDGs, which ‘imposed’ impossible targets. This humiliation was compounded by the failure of donors to deliver the financial and technical support needed by the poorest to reach those goals.

What does this all mean to Canada? As universal targets, the SDGs concern ordinary Canadians as much as Brazilians – safe births, cities without pollution and justice for everybody. Of course, solidarity involves effort, such as new funding for a neglected Statistics Canada to help collect more comprehensive data at home.

Instead, by refusing to engage actively, we have had little impact on the specifics of setting international goals, and the Harper government has had many moments of angst about the idea of universality, insisting that such rules simply cannot apply to a country like Canada. Conservative ministers say they have had enough already of busybody UN special rapporteurs coming to Canada and daring to tell us that we neglect, sometimes abuse, our indigenous people or our prison populations. In 2012, Minister Jason Kenney didn’t mince words in response to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food’s concern with hunger in Canada, stating: ‘Canada is one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world. We believe that the UN should focus on development in that the UN should focus on development in countries where people are starving’. We see another example of this evasive attitude towards universality in the Harper government’s refusal to set meaningful Canadian climate-change targets ahead of this year’s UN environment summit.

The same government pontificates on the importance of accountability in multilateral fora, insisting upon tough reporting regimes for developing countries. However, when it comes to Canadians, the government seems to say that international goals are not applicable to us.

Universality is seen in Europe and even in the US as a positive thing, as an act of global solidarity, as well as an opportunity to promote international goals by acting first at home. Universality should also be seen by our blinkered government as a helpful mechanism to encourage emerging economies to share global roles that Western countries have assumed for decades – the provision of development assistance, for example. Solidarity with old OECD colleagues is not enough. As Canadians, we should worry that our government’s egocentric behaviour regarding the SDGs will leave it evading some of its shared responsibility for tackling global poverty, and at the same time discouraging others from doing so.

Not least, ordinary Canadians have to be puzzled as to why a wealthy society such as ours would not wish to accept bold international targets that might also do some good for our own most vulnerable citizens.

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What’s Good for the Goose: Universality and the SDGs

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