The Next UNSG and the Sustainable Development Goals

Sep 24, 2015 · 8 min read


To: Candidates for UN Secretary-General
From: Center on International Cooperation, New York University
The Sustainable Development Goals
Date: 25 September 2015

Forget what you think you know

It’s a good bet that you’ve already played a role in negotiating or blessing the goals (past SGs have all been UN insiders or foreign ministers). If you’re not careful, this experience will mislead you.

  • … but some may get worse before they get better. The established ones — poverty, education and health — are driven by overall economic growth and have established partnerships to support them. But some of the new ones (inequality, violence) were on a worsening curve going into 2015. This is not the fault of the SDG process, but you may have to answer for why things are not only failing to improve, but actually getting worse.

Getting your own house in order

Your most immediate concern is the role of the UN itself in delivering the new agenda, with governments “underlin[ing] the important role and comparative advantage of an adequately resourced, relevant, coherent, efficient and effective UN system in supporting the achievement of the SDGs and sustainable development.” There’s much for you to think about in each of these areas.

  • Coherence. The new SG will inherit the results of the next quadrennial comprehensive policy review, which is due to be completed in December 2016 and is UN member states’ main chance to ensure the UN development system will be ‘fit for purpose’ in the post-2015 environment. The previous QCPR was not a success as member states tried to micromanage coherence into the system through a General Assembly resolution. This time there is talk of a more strategic QCPR, but you’ll be reliant on your predecessor to make that happen.
  • Efficiency and effectiveness. What results does the UN deliver as a development actor? Your guess is as good as mine. CIC research found that “a weak culture of self-evaluation in the UN development agencies combines with utter incoherence in donor-led evaluation work to result in a scattershot of episodic, non-comparable, project level evaluations that provide no basis for broader assessment of agency performance or country-by-country performance.” Without system-wide data on results, any analysis of efficiency and effectiveness is built on sand.
  • Resources. The MDGs saw a substantial growth in money funneled through the UN system. It spent $26bn on development in 2013 (13.5% of total development cooperation) compared with $16.2bn on peacekeeping, global norm and standard setting, policy and advocacy. But the UN is heavily dependent on a small number of countries (12 countries provide 88% of the cash for development) and donors have become increasingly prescriptive about how they want their money to be spent. This could significantly reduce the UN’s ability to respond to the challenges of the new agenda.

From the agenda to your agenda

So what should you do?

Start now. Don’t wait until 2017 to carve out a popular and distinctive position on delivery of the post-2015 agenda. It’s not going to be decisive to your campaign, but it will give you something to talk about in the informal dialogues the General Assembly is organizing. More importantly, however, it gives you time to set out a clear agenda well before the selection battle gets messy. As you emerge at the front of the pack in the latter half of 2016, those within the system will (okay, may) begin to align themselves to your lead.