Capturing the “can do” spirit of the Sustainable Development Summit

Deputy Director, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

Malala Yousafzai at the UN summit ©Jemal Countess/Getty Images North America/AFP

The adoption of the post-2015 Agenda for Development at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York 25-27 September will be an important driver of the OECD’s work for the next decade and beyond. 

UN summits can be fraught affairs, but this latest summit went remarkably smoothly. For starters, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) had been painstakingly prepared over a long period before finally being agreed in August, so there was no need for continued late-night horse-trading at the event. Moreover, many world leaders were present at the summit, including the Pope, so there was clear political will for a comprehensive agenda to address extreme poverty and exclusion in all countries, rich and poor, and in a way that would be sustainable for our planet.

Three achievements stand out in my view. First, gender: for once everyone at the New York summit was outraged that women and girls do not have equal rights and opportunities. As Hillary Clinton reminded us at the UN Conference on Women in 1995, women’s rights are human rights. This year, Pakistan’s renowned young Nobel laureat Malala Yousafzai set the scene for a summit that really delivered on putting women front and centre in sustainable development. The gender experts and advocates did not disappoint either. Having been at that Beijing conference 20 years ago, I look forward to seeing the world finally deliver on gender equality.

The second strong impression I had was that the SDGs are a job for everyone. And this summit drew more representatives from more groups than I have seen at any other UN gathering. The private sector’s role in delivering the SDGs is fully accepted too, and it was encouraging to see how seriously private businesses, social enterprises and private philanthropic foundations took their roles and how much they are willing to be held to account.

Third, at this summit we got serious about data–both the need for timely, accurate, accessible and open data to track progress and guide policy decisions, and the urgency of bringing in the full range of data providers and users, from big data and data geeks, through official statisticians to the primary health care worker with a mobile phone. If we get the data right, the SDGs will be more achievable than ever before–and without the need for unhelpful bureaucracy. It will be complicated, but (as with gender) there was a great deal of enthusiasm and a “can do” spirit.

But while this UN summit went smoothly, a couple of issues bothered me. One was the lack of voice expressed by poor and marginalised groups. Although the summit was about forging a universal agenda and involved so many partners, the conversation was still dominated by relatively wealthy governments, businesses and civil society groups, all with a concern to “do” sustainable development on behalf of the poorest. Maybe this is inevitable at such high-level gatherings, but for the SDGs to succeed, the actual roll-out of the post-2015 agenda will have to take place from the bottom up and involve the poorest citizens. “Leave no one behind” must be more than the tag line of the conference.

Second, the three pillars of the sustainable development agenda–the Pope might call them a “trinity” of economic, social, environmental factors–were not addressed as an indivisible whole. There was too much focus on single issues or sectors, with little discussion of how to restructure the way we value resources or grow our economies while protecting the planet. Yet this is urgent, since we must resist the temptation to rebuild the global economy in its old mode if we are to address fossil fuel use or ensure refugees are treated as people rather than as numbers.

These warnings aside, the UN summit was a major step forward. But the next step will be the hardest one: we now have to implement the post-2015 agenda. The SDGs will soon run into difficulty if we can’t quickly agree on things like the indicators to use to measure and monitor progress, and show progress towards a universal agenda. OECD has a lot to offer here (see article on data).

We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. While it is heartening to see so many new partners engaged in the SDGs, all of this has to come together at the country and village level in a landscape which the poorest citizens can also navigate. There is a long history of incoherence and high transaction costs blunting development efforts, but we can avoid such errors by adhering to the sound set of development principles agreed at Busan, Korea, in 2011 which led to the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. Let’s bear these lessons in mind as we work to maximise the impact of all our efforts.

For an overview paper, “Beyond the Millennium Development Goals: Towards an OECD contribution to the post-2015 agenda”, and a checklist of the 11 elements, including gender, data and policy coherence, which the OECD believes are crucial for a successful post-2015 development agenda, visit See also

©OECD Observer No 303, September 2015

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