Believe it or not, there are times in history when it’s felt like the whole world was working in step, looking ahead towards a single mission. Moments in which evidence, the need for collective answers, and the political will of the majority align to set the stage of a united vision of how we want our world and humanity to be.
The year 2015 was one of those, with governments hammering out a flurry of agreements, and armies of diplomats from the world over exchanging ideas and engaging in late-night wrangling over commas and synonyms. Every single United Nations (UN) agency was elbowing its way to the front of the line to push their priorities. And civil society from all corners of the world were struggling to make their voices heard and express the needs of Global Citizens.
That was 2015, and I was there. A diplomat from El Salvador, here to tell you my side of the story.
If you happen to be a global policy geek, an enthusiast of international development, or indeed a Global Citizen, then the acronym “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals, a.k.a. the UN Global Goals) is likely familiar. If you’ve never heard of the Global Goals, now is as good a time as any to get acquainted with the 17 goals established by world leaders in 2015 that have been designed to change your life (yes, yours).
You would be forgiven for thinking that the adoption of the Global Goals was the only exciting (yes, truly exciting) thing that happened in the exhilarating UN world that year. There were however some other pearls of collective wisdom that saw the light in 2015. If you don't believe me, just google “Sendai Framework for Action” (where the term “Build Back Better” is used), and “Paris Agreement”(of course, that’s one you’ll likely know already if you’ve been reading up on climate change or been following November’s UN Climate Change Conference COP26). All these documents agreed by world leaders complement one another and no one should make the mistake of looking at them in isolation.
You would also be forgiven for going to the other extreme, thinking that the Global Goals back in 2015 was just one more in the long queue of documents produced at the UN. Far from it. In spite of the current challenges to multilateralism (meaning multiple countries working together) — lack of financing and political will to implement, plus the damages of the pandemic — what is written in that document is nothing short of revolutionary. I am not joking. You should read the Global Goals over (strong) coffee and think about how achieving each one of them would improve your life, your neighborhood, your city, your country, and the world at large.
If you come from the so-called “Global South” (or “developing world” as some still refer to it) and are old enough to remember life before smartphones, then you probably remember another set of three unpretentious letters: MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), the mother of the current Global Goals. The MDGs focused on goals such as eradicating hunger, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria, among other things.
I was back home at the time, and I remember how billboards and signs suddenly sprang up next to any development project site, any vaccination center, any ribbon-cutting ceremony highlighting we had 15 years (until 2015) to run the marathon of development. If on the other hand, you happen to be from the so-called “Global North” (or “developed world” as some still call it) then you probably didn't hear much of the MDGs. Why should you have? You already lived in a development paradise and were in no need of the UN telling you what to improve to achieve well-being, right? Well, you are wrong.
I will spare you all the boring details about all the reports, preparatory meetings, data, statistics, and such that led the world — around 2012 but with roots stemming from the 90s — to realize that in spite of the successes of the implementation of the MDGs (of which there were many), development and more importantly, sustainable development, was more complex than we had foreseen, for different reasons. Other people would mention other lessons learned through the MDGs, but please indulge me in listing these three, which I personally deem important:
- Sustainable development is not a stage you arrive at, and then you can sit comfortably afterwards. Sustainable development is a constant effort.
- Sustainable development is universal as it is not solely for the “Global South'' to pursue. Every country has room for improvement even when societies in these “Global South” regions need international support and finance to move ahead.
- Sustainable development is not just about health and education (even though they are essential). The MDGs were focused on ending poverty and were hugely successful, but poverty is a system of entrenched social, cultural, and political inequality and a manifestation of deprivation of human rights. There was therefore a need to go beyond traditional “development”, to think about other dimensions of poverty.
So we took these lessons and built on them, including those new dimensions as we laid out the Global Goals.
One of these new dimensions is that all 17 of the Global Goals are not there “just because” — they actually reinforce each other. I still remember the Colombian negotiator (I won't mention her name) who back in 2013 blew everyone away by presenting a first blueprint of the Global Goals, not as a bunch of connected silos, but as a jenga tower or a lego wall: each piece sustains the whole. You remove one and the ensemble wobbles, if not crumbles.
The most revolutionary new dimension of all, however, is that besides the three big social, economic, and environmental areas, the Global Goals also recognize equity and justice for all as part of the whole. This is Global Goal 16.
So, you can think of sustainable development as laid out by the Global Goals, as a recipe for a delicious sounding dish: “A Better Life for All”.
Of course, the actual name of the recipe would be a little longer: “A better life for all in the world without breaking the planet”. Or, if you want to be true to the entire less thrilling sounding name of the recipe, then we would say “a better life for all the growing number of us who are alive now in the world, and those who will be born later, regardless of their conditions, within planetary boundaries”.
And it is here, when you look at the entire name of the recipe of this mouth-watering delicacy and stop oversimplifying things, that you realize that this can not be achieved (or “cooked” if you can indulge my analogy a little longer) without the heat and flame of equity and justice for all. Yes, sustainable development is not gazpacho. It has to be served piping hot.
Every single one of the 17 Global Goals and 169 targets within them (we needed a lot of coffee back then to come out with all that), every single word in the whole document of the Global Goals is there because someone pushed for it to be there.
Global Goal 16 — for peace, justice, and strong institutions — is no exception, and even when its inclusion within the Global Goals has many hundreds of actors to thank, countries like mine at the time were also a force behind it, for obvious reasons.
Look at Global Goal 16 and you can boil down its bombastic name to three main elements (remember, every single word was painstakingly negotiated and fought over for it to stay there): 1. Societies that are peaceful and inclusive, 2. Justice for all, 3. Effective, Accountable, and Inclusive Institutions (which is diplomatic jargon for “states that truly serve their populations”).
Countries like mine knew it, as one of the big lessons from the MDGs. How can you achieve sustainable development if people are afraid to go out due to social violence? How can you do that, if people can't have access to justice when they have been denied access to good public services? How can you provide good education, health, and reduce poverty when your streets are awash with illicit small weapons? How can citizens hold their governments accountable when corruption is rampant and public money — and international financing — are syphoned off for the benefit of the tiny elite? How can the best intentioned government do this when the state does not even exercise control over its own territory, or when the population is trapped and divided in a civil war or conflict?
If you happen to live in a part of the world where these questions don't keep you up at night, count yourself lucky and please do not take these precious things for granted.
So, different specific targets were devised both within Goal 16 and across the entire agenda, to ensure that the benefits of implementing all other Global Goals would truly arrive to the most vulnerable. Without this, the overly repeated mantra of “leaving no one behind” would simply be a lie.
There are two little secrets revealed by Goal 16 (pause for suspense). The first, the reason for Goal 16’s existence, is that sustainable development cannot be achieved without its mirror, human rights.
The second has to do with the perceived difference between sustainable development and human rights and is one many governments love to use in those sleepless nights of negotiation: portraying things as “development” deflects responsibility, prioritizes collective action (cooperation and financing) over individual (read: state’s) responsibility, and is a rather top-down approach (i.e. the state gives something to people).
Framing the same concept as a “human right”, on the other hand, does not allow for buck passing, is not dependent on international cooperation (you are entitled to a right just because you are human, not because your government has resources), and is a rather bottom-up approach (the right-holder, you, is entitled to it and the state is accountable for it).
Most of the Global Goals can also be read through the code of social, economic, and cultural rights. Goal 16 however, when seen through a prism of human rights, is different, in that it is best understood through the code of civil and political rights, which makes many a government cringe. Goal 16 is the best example of how human rights, sustainable development, and peace and security are not three silos, but a virtuous continuum. The place where the three pillars of the United Nations meet.
Any effort by any state to push Goal 16 to the bottom of the pile and to sideline it in Global Goals discussions should also be analyzed keeping this in mind. The inclusion of Goal 16 was a political achievement that probably would not be possible in our current world of late 2021 and it must be preserved.
One more truth, the fact that the Global Goals have to be achieved together in tandem, is the cornerstone of this whole collective global effort. We see however compartmentalization, hierarchization, and unevenness in follow-up, and whereas we should all support the implementation of all Global Goals, we should not allow for Goal 16 to be seen as anything else than what it is meant to be: an essential part of the recipe, the element that glues the three dimensions of sustainable development together.
One of the most important current engines behind implementing Goal 16 is the “Pathfinders”, and I would like to introduce them to you.
The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies are a group of 39 UN member states, international organizations, global partnerships, civil society, and the private sector, who work to accelerate action to implement targets set in Goal 16.
In September 2017, the Pathfinders launched the Roadmap for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies (updated in 2019) and they aim to achieve measurable change against these targets in their countries by working at national and international levels. They also tackle the grand challenges of raising ambition, increasing political will, and setting a policy and learning agenda in three key areas: promoting justice for all, halving global violence, and tackling exclusion and inequality — namely, the spirit of Goal 16.
If your country is a member of the Pathfinders (you can find a full list here), please get interested in seeing what your government is doing — and what more it could do — to ensure that justice and equity are part of our global efforts to implement the whole Global Goals agenda.
If your country’s not a member, ask yourself why that may be and call on your government to take that step. The edifice of sustainable development could wobble, or crumble, if the essential piece of justice and equity is removed. This must be prevented.
When the Global Goals were finally adopted in September 2015, I had finished my diplomatic assignment at my mission to the UN in New York, and I had recently moved to Geneva.
I remember the thrill of that occasion seen from afar, as a collective success for the global community, as a success for my own country, and as a personal triumph, as many words that made it to the final cut, in Goal 16 too, were words I had fought for.
Six years later, many of us who were involved in that negotiation have mixed feelings about the way we have come so far, and the way that remains ahead. I continue to be however a glass-half-full optimist and I am inspired to see how much, however slowly, the Global Goals are translating into actual changes in daily life.
I continue to see, on the other hand, that those left behind continue to be excluded because of issues tackled under Goal 16, from social violence, to organized crime, to man-made conflicts, and humanitarian disasters, corruption, inequality, unresponsive states, discrimination, and lack of access to justice. The global community, the Pathfinders, you and me, must therefore continue to fight for Goal 16 to be at the forefront, as a crosscutting essential element of the whole agenda. The Task Force on Justice, which has inspired a global movement for people-centered justice, as well as Global Citizen’s work on equity and justice as part of its 2021 Recovery Plan for the World Campaign are both examples of work in this direction.
Sustainable development and within it, access to justice and equality, are not far away things, they concern you and all those around you. As a Global Citizen, please get informed. Please get interested. Please get involved. The Global Goals are about you after all. Own them.