Toilets, agriculture, sexual and reproductive health, smart cities – a lot can be packed into two days as we found out as participants to the European Development Days (EDD) 2016 in Brussels – one of the major events in Europe on international cooperation and development. Some even call it the EU’s “Davos of development”. “This event is all about connecting, for circulating ideas and for discussing how to turn them into reality; because development is first and foremost about people, and people’s lives,” Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission said during her address to the audience at the opening ceremony of the EDD. Indeed, the 10th Year of the EDD was one of talks, debates, skill building and interactive sessions – fuelled by coffee and a lot of networking and informal discussions. The EDD also featured a “Global Village” showcasing 64 projects from around the world (on development, health, agriculture, networks, etc.)! Anniversary celebrations aside, EDD16 was also one of the first major international fora bringing together participants from over 140 countries to address the path ahead towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda.
Sustainable Development Goals in Action: Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future – the theme for this year’s EDD, put the focus of the conference squarely on the 17 (!) SDGs. People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership – the 5 Ps of the preamble of the United Nation’s 2030 agenda, formed the overall ‘framework’ for EDD16’s rather heavy agenda. And indeed – for those used to attending conferences which focus quasi-exclusively on health – attending an event which brought together the multiple facets of development and people’s well-being was a refreshing experience. It also gave us a chance to attend and contribute to discussions on sectors outside of health, but which impact health directly and indirectly.
Still, we made sure to attend a few of the sessions on health; naturally, most focused on health within the context of the SDGs – with policies, governance and of course, ‘partnerships’ as the dominant themes. Gender, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health featured in an interesting session on Challenging the Influence of Religion and Universal Access to Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights – which focused on the challenges in bringing about deeper social change set against the sociocultural context. This was a session with experiences shared by the panelists and the audience alike! The “all-female, all Asian” panel might have pleased the likes of Owen Barder and Ilona Kickbusch, but it also somewhat represented the huge challenges facing access to sexual and reproductive health around the world. Change will be impossible without engaging men in the dialogue –with the panel thus unintentionally symbolic of reality. One of our favorites was the session Time to Think Urban: The Challenge of Building Smart, Sustainable Cities – which had a debate-style discussion format. The session’s introductory remarks focused on urbanization – current trends, the future of urbanization as well as ongoing work (towards the preferred future); then the debate moved on to the – in our opinion critical – discussions on integration and making urban spaces more livable. It’s all nice and lovely to build ‘smart’ and/or ‘resilient’ cities, but one would also like to live in a ‘livable’ city, first and foremost. Not everybody wants to spend (like Elon Musk) his final days on Mars.
What can we learn from such a high-profile event? Well, as is often the case with major frameworks, after years of debates on the definition of the goals and the rationale to pick one rather than the other, hours spent on appropriate wording, the development world is now gradually shifting its attention to more practical considerations – more precisely how to implement these SDGs – 17 goals, 167 targets (and don’t even get us started on the indicators!). To be fair, even if you don’t suffer from vertigo, like one of us does, it’s hard not to feel a bit dizzy in the face of such a challenge! If one was to compare with one of the other mega-events that happened over the last month, more specifically the 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, the task of addressing 17 goals in 14 years felt like less over there – perhaps because the focus was largely on one SDG? And yet, with the WHA69 discussions still fresh, one can’t help but draw some parallels between the two events, especially the focus on partnerships, and the focus on the ‘key’ role of the private sector.
In the end, the conclusions of many of these sessions did not look unfamiliar: we need quality education, good governance, empowerment, quality health care, etc. One word was missing though: accountability. How come that such a powerful concept was left out? Well, that’s up to you to judge. Another key issue, that comes as a prerequisite for any progress towards the SDGs: the resources – or to be more precise, the issue of “ever-shrinking” financial commitment to health and development, in line with the dark trend towards an ‘ever more diverging’ European Union. True, NGOs like Oxfam tried to open this Pandora’s Box and brought up the issue of constrained financing (fair taxation for sustainable development for example), but financing for SDGs largely remained at the margins of the discussions. One could perhaps be a little more precise here: a new ‘dogma’ is gradually emerging on the (according to “the development powers that be”) necessary shift towards deeper engagement with the private sector and a strong focus on SDG 17: partnership, often equated to Public-Private-Partnerships. With ‘Leveraging’ and ‘blending’ as some of the preferred buzzwords in this brave new SDG world.
This answer seems quite unsatisfactory to us. There is a key issue to be addressed here, that will decide whether the SDGs will be transformative or not: is everyone going to bring their fair share to the table? And let’s not believe in charitable actions conducted under the mantra “Corporate Social Responsibility”. This is about raising sufficient funds via progressive taxes, for which a democratically elected government is held accountable. Can we imagine – as Eva Joly, European Deputy and 2012-green party’s candidate for the French presidential election rightly pointed out – that we can make any progress towards SDGs while in today’s world, Low-Income Countries receive only 1% of the revenues generated by oil extraction on their territory – a figure to be compared to 69% of the oil revenues collected by the Norwegian government.
At a time when diseases such as Ebola and Zika go beyond boundaries; when war and political unrest have created one of the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent times, we would perhaps do well to remember that all-encompassing goals and partnerships to achieve them are all very nice; but perhaps what the world really needs, is a definitive, concerted effort to actually commit to improving the well-being of people.