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Accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals: A Lost Opportunity?

  • Kate Donald and Sally-Anne Way

On August 2, 2015, after three long years of intergovernmental negotiations and consultations and some tense final moments, all UN member states finally endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016. The question of accountability—or, more precisely, the question of how governments will be held to account for implementing the commitments made in this new agenda—was a critical point of contention throughout the negotiations, resulting in a significant watering down of initial proposals by the end of the process.

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1 The United Nations, “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” UN document A/RES/70/1, adopted by the General Assembly on September 25, 2015.

2 See Marianne Beisheim, “Reviewing the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and Partnerships,” SWP Research Paper, January 2015, p. 9.

3 Gauri suggests that the incentives for meeting the MDGs were, and could only have been, “very low powered” with no consequences for failure or success since it was not a legally binding instrument. See Varun Gauri, “MDGs That Nudge: The Millennium Development Goals, Popular Mobilization, and the Post-2015 Development Framework,” Policy Research Working Paper No. 6282, World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2012.

4 In relation to the “politics of accountability,” it is significant that, while MDG monitoring was not explicitly prescribed in the Millennium Declaration or the MDG framework, national reporting did emerge in practice and systematic reports and annual statistical reports are available from 2005 onward. This suggests that accountability modalities were “invented” post facto, which highlights how slippages are common between the text and practice (both positive and negative). For a discussion of MDG monitoring methodologies, see Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Joshua Greenstein, “Accountability and MDGs: Methodology for Measuring Government Performance for Global Goals,” UNICEF Working Paper, June 2011.

5 See CESR and OHCHR, Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda (New York: United Nations, 2013); and Richard Black and Howard White, eds., Targeting Development: Critical Perspectives on the Millennium Development Goals (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2004), p.17.

6 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Press Release, “Unmet Commitments, Inadequate Resources, Lack of Accountability Hampering Achievement of MDGs,” SG/SM/12789, March 16, 2010.

7 See CESR and OHCHR, Who Will Be Accountable?

8 Ibid. Also see, e.g., Social Watch, Angkor Wat Declaration (2005), For a response to early critiques, see Alston, Philip, “Ships Passing in the Night: The Current State of the Human Rights and Development Debate Seen Through the Lens of the Millennium Development Goals,” Human Rights Quarterly 27, no. 3 (2005), pp. 814–25.

9 See, for example, “Open Letter to the Secretary General: The Post-2015 Agenda Won't Deliver without Human Rights at the Core,” Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus (cross-constituency coalition of development, environment, trade union, feminist, and human rights organizations worldwide), September 29, 2014,

10 See, for example, CESR and OHCHR, Who Will Be Accountable?, as well as proposals by Beyond 2015, “Recommendations from Beyond 2015 on the Accountability, Monitoring and Review Framework for the Post-2015 Agenda,”; the TAP Network, “People-Centered Post-2015 Review and Accountability with Transparency and Citizen Participation at its Core,”; the “Women's Major Group Recommendations for Accountability, Monitoring, and Review of the Post-2015 Agenda,”; and the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus, “The Post-2015 Agenda Won't Deliver without Human Rights at the Core,”

11 See OHCHR, Statement of the High Commissioner, “Looking Back at History: Building the Post-2015 Agenda on the Foundation of Human Rights,” UN Trusteeship Chamber, December 13, 2013; and OHCHR, First Open Letter from the High Commissioner for Human Rights on “Human Rights in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” June 6, 2013,

12 See OHCHR, “Key Messages on Accountability and the Post-2015 Agenda,” May 2015,; and CESR, Amnesty International, Center for Reproductive Rights, and Human Rights Watch, “Accountability for the Post-2015 Agenda: A Proposal for A Robust Global Review Mechanism,” (2015),

13 See, for example, Marianne Beisheim, “The Future HLPF Review: Criteria and Ideas for its Institutional Design,” SWP Working Paper FG 8 / No. 01, March 2014.

14 Governments discussed the accountability framework in most detail during the May 2015 meeting of the intergovernmental negotiations. Records of government statements can be found at

15 See, for example, Sabá Loftus, “Public-Private Partnerships: Benefiting or Hindering International Development?,”; “Rights before Profit: Recommendations on Corporate Accountability” (drafted by the co-convenors of the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus),; and the NGO Mining Working Group, “Transforming Our World by 2030: A New Agenda for Global Action,”

16 Synthesis Report of the UN Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda, “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet,” UN document A/69/700, December 4, 2014.

17 See the Righting Finance Initiative, “Statement on Co-Creating New Partnerships for Financing Sustainable Development,” Helsinki, Finland, April 3–4, 2014,

18 Blue Planet Project, “Statement on Private Sector Participation in the Implementation of Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda,” July 10, 2015,

19 See OHCHR, Second Open Letter from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, on “Human Rights and the Final Draft Outcome Document for the Post-2015 Development Agenda’, July 27, 2015,”

20 See, e.g., UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, “Assessment of MDG8 and Lessons Learnt,” Thematic Think Piece, January 2013,

21 The “group of friends” (the “Group of 7”) was a group of seven countries, an interesting alliance of Egypt, Liechtenstein, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of Korea, and Switzerland, that put forward proposals for the HLPF. See the “Group of 7 Statement on Follow up and Review” at the fifth meeting of intergovernmental negotiations in May 2015:

22 See the statements of Brazil (, India (, and the Group of 77 and China ( on the occasion of the sixth (Follow-Up and Review) intergovernmental negotiation session from June 22–25, 2015.

23 See the UN, “Transforming Our World,” para. 72–91.

24 The UN Secretary-General published his recommendations in February 2016, but these do not go very far in encouraging governments to be more ambitious. See the Report of the Secretary-General, “Critical Milestones towards Coherent, Efficient and Inclusive Follow-Up and Review at the Global Level,” UN document A/70/684, January 15, 2016,

25 The global list of indicators to underpin the targets is still being developed. Indicators will be a crucial determinant of accountability, but there are already worrying signs that the indicators chosen could undercut the ambition and intention of the targets themselves. Some states are insisting that there should only be 100 indicators total for 169 targets (many of which have multiple components), which would have a very distorting effect on the implementation and monitoring of this Agenda.

26 See CESR and OHCHR, Who Will Be Accountable?, p. 70.

27 In June 2013 the UN Human Rights Council called on all states to develop National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights. Several countries have now done so, and the process is underway in many others.

28 See the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), “Realizing Rights Through the SDGs: The Role of National Human Rights Institutions,” CESR and DIHR (2015);

29 See UNDP, “Reflections on Social Accountability: Catalyzing Democratic Governance to Accelerate Progress towards the Millennium Development Goals,” July 2013; and the End Poverty 2015 Millennium Campaign, “MDGs Success Stories from Asia and the Pacific,” United Nations (2010),

30 See CESR and Christian Aid, “A Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution: Human Rights Policy Brief,” May 2014.

31 See, for example, Civicus' DataShift project, as discussed by Jack Cornforth and Kate Higgins in “How Can Civil Society Collaborate to Bolster SDG Monitoring?” August 13, 2015,

32 Landmark cases in Latin America, India, and South Africa have had a direct effect on social and economic policies in recent years and similar strategic litigation could be possible in the SDG context. See CESR and OHCHR, Who Will Be Accountable?, pp. 39–42.

33 See the Report of the Secretary-General, “Critical Milestones Towards Coherent, Efficient and Inclusive Follow-Up and Review at the Global Level.”

34 For one proposal of how to manage these constraints, see Beisheim, “Reviewing the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals,” pp. 28–31.

35 See Beisheim, “Reviewing the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals,” p. 15.

36 See, for example, the work of the Special Rapporteur on the right to water, especially reports A/65/254 and A/67/270, and the Joint Statement of the Treaty Body Chairpersons on Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, June 26, 2015.

37 See the list of indicator proposals from the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators as of August 11, 2015, (under Target 5.1, p. 32).

38 This may be particularly necessary for those goals that do not have an obvious anchor in an existing institution, commission or agency, such as Goal 10 on inequalities.

39 See Paul Hunt, “SDGs and the Importance of Formal Independent Review: An Opportunity for Health to Lead the Way,” Health and Human Rights Journal blog, September 2, 2015,

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Ethics & International Affairs
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  • EISSN: 1747-7093
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