The United States, United Kingdom, and a handful of allied powers have blocked agreement on a draft declaration that advocates the need to accelerate progress on a set of critical development goals at a major summit at the United Nations headquarters next month, according to several diplomatic sources.
The Biden administration objected to a series of key provisions in the draft, including calls to reform the international financial system and establish a multibillion-dollar development stimulus plan, insisting that such matters be addressed within financial institutions and multilateral banks, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, according to those sources. The U.S has maintained that it is committed to reform of the international financial system, but that it has concerns with how it is handled in the draft.
The move has thrown a spanner into high-level diplomatic talks over the fate of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which will mark their midpoint in September amid growing doubts they will be achieved. The negotiations, which are led by Qatar and Ireland, have largely been placed on pause and will not resume until later this month or early next, when delegates gather in New York for a marathon session aimed at reaching a deal before world leaders gather in New York for the 18-19 September summit.
World leaders will meet at the Turtle Bay neighborhood in Manhattan later next month on the sidelines of the annual U.N General Assembly to express support for the development goals, established in 2015 in an effort to end poverty and hunger and dramatically improve the standard of living for the majority of the world population by 2030.
They are expected to adopt a declaration that acknowledges backsliding in the global effort to achieve the goals and that underscores the need to accelerate the effort to achieve them over the next 15 years. But the U.S and its partners balked over a section of the declaration, subtitled “Call to action — turning our world towards 2030,” that spells out specific steps to accomplish that.
“The achievement of the SDGs is in peril,” the draft declaration states. “At the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda, we are alarmed that the progress on most SDGs is either moving much too slowly or has regressed below the 2015 baseline.
“Millions of people [that] have fallen into poverty, hunger and malnutrition are becoming more prevalent, humanitarian needs are rising, and impacts of climate change are more pronounced,” it added. “This has led to increased inequality exacerbated by weakened international solidarity and a shortfall of trust to jointly overcome these crises.”
The negotiations in New York are playing out against a backdrop of rising frustration at the U.N, particularly among lower-income countries, over what they see as the unfairness of an international financial system that has failed to shield them from the combined forces of the pandemic, climate change, and indebtedness.
Buffeted by the lingering economic effects of the pandemic, rising debt loads, and the ravages of an increasingly violent climate, the world has largely fallen short on most of the targets, fueling concerns about the prospects of achieving advances on a range of goals.
“Halfway to the 2030 deadline, the Sustainable Development Goals are drifting further away by the day,” U.N Secretary-General António Guterres said in June at a Paris summit on international finance hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron. “Even the most fundamental goals on hunger and poverty have gone into reverse after a decade of progress.”
Last month, Qatar and Ireland, the two lead negotiators known as co-facilitators, circulated a draft declaration in the hope of securing consensus backing in the 193-member General Assembly. But the U.S, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the U.K invoked a procedure — known as breaking silence — that effectively sent the draft back to the negotiating table. An independent think tank, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, previously reported that silence had been broken on the draft, but did not reveal who or why they had done so. The nonprofit — which has been closely tracking the talks — also posted a copy of an early draft of the declaration.
India also invoked the no-silence procedure on an unrelated matter. New Delhi had proposed including a reference in the declaration to the Group of 20 major economies 2023 Action Plan on Accelerating Progress on the SDGs, which was agreed in June in Varanasi, India. But the proposal was rejected after the Group of 77 and China — which traditionally opposes any references to G20 activities — raised objections.
The Western group and Japan registered concern over the weakening of language on gender rights from previous high-level agreements, as well as the absence of any mention of the international commitment, struck at the landmark Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris, capping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. A proposal to include the climate provision prompted other delegations to add additional climate proposals, fueling concerns by the top negotiators that the climate section would become too large and unwieldy, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the negotiations. It was therefore dropped.
Proposals from some Western countries to underscore the importance of upholding sexual and reproductive health rights and combating sexual and gender-based violence were rejected at the insistence of a bloc of Muslim countries, triggering protests from the U.S and other Western governments.
But the most contentious issue, according to diplomats, was the question of financing for development.
The U.S raised concern over several provisions dealing with the reform of the financial system, including a call to overhaul the international financial architecture, creating new, expanded debt relief for vulnerable countries, and urging multilateral development banks to mobilize additional financing.
The U.S also expressed concern in negotiations about provisions in the draft that called for future allocations of special drawing rights for countries most in need, and that welcomed an initiative by the U.N. secretary-general to try to close the gap in SDG funding through a $500-billion-a-year SDG investment stimulus for sustainable development and climate action.
Among other things, the stimulus would convert short-term, high-interest borrowing into long-term debt at lower interest rates and expand contingency funding to countries in need.
A U.S State Department spokesperson declined to comment on “details of the ongoing negotiations,” but said that “generally speaking we are working constructively with all parties to get a product that reflects the needs of the moment.”
“The United States recognises that we need bold action to address the global challenges that confront us – ones that threaten to set back our progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” the spokesperson said. “That is why one of our top priorities has been to work with a broad coalition in the international financial institutions to evolve Multilateral Development Banks so that they can address global challenges with the speed and scale required.”
“The SDG Summit will present an opportunity to mark the beginning of a new, re-invigorated phase toward achieving the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” the spokesperson added.
The Total Official Support for Sustainable Development task force secretariat tracks the sources going to SDGs. We spoke with them to understand their methodology and looked into the data to see where the money is going.
The U.S decision to block the adoption of the declaration does not necessarily constitute a wholesale rejection of the initiatives being advanced, but it reflects a certain anxiety that the pace of demands for reform is moving too swiftly, according to a non-U.S Western diplomat.
The stalemate follows a behind-the-scenes dispute over the role of the UN — and its 193 members — in global discussions over the reform of the international financial system, with the U.S and other Western members preferring that debate remains in the hands of the world’s industrial powers in the G20 and G7, or the governing boards of the World Bank, the IMF, and other international financial institutions.
During negotiations, the U.S and its partners argued for putting off discussion on special drawing rights, and financial reform more broadly, until the World Bank Group and the IMF’s meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, in October.
Guterres, his deputy Amina Mohammed, and other key leaders from the global south, including Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, have advocated for a stronger role for the UN in such deliberations.
In May, Guterres published a far-reaching initiative for the reform of the global financial architecture, which was established at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, after World War II.
“I have called for a new Bretton Woods moment — a moment for governments to come together, re-examine and re-configure the global financial architecture for the 21st century,” Guterres said during the Paris summit on financing. “It is clear that the international financial architecture has failed in its mission to provide a global safety net.”
“The global financial architecture is outdated, dysfunctional, and unjust.”
Mottley is also leading an initiative — called the Bridgetown Agenda — that calls for a wholesale reinvention of the Bretton Woods institutions, which were created before many countries in the global south existed. She has also called for reform of the Group of 7 and Group of 20 industrial powers, citing the lack of representation from any country from Africa or its diaspora.
“Global problems like the climate crisis show us that we simply cannot address modern issues with institutions, which were created for a very different world nearly 80 years ago,” Mottley said at the Paris summit. “What is required of us now is an absolute transformation and not a reform of our institutions,” she said.