Remarks by Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens, U.S. Representative to ECOSOC, for the US/Canada/Israel Team, 9th Session of the SDG Open Working Group, on Member States Responses to Co-Chairs' Focus Areas Document

Ambassador Elizabeth Cousens
U.S. Representative to the UN Economic and Social Council 
New York, NY
March 4, 2014


First, let me express our sincere thanks to the Co-Chairs for both of the papers you produced since our last session. You made a good-faith effort to include a diversity of perspectives, and we believe both the summary and the Focus Areas document will be important foundations for our work going forward.

From here, we will of course need to prioritize and refine. As you rightly said, we cannot do everything.

We want to emphasize the point made yesterday by Pakistan that we now need to move from “discussion to analysis.” We will need to debate goals, and targets in particular, based on evidence and analysis about how they will drive action and achieve results.

We should especially prioritize goals and targets that can have the most transformative and enduring impact, especially for the most vulnerable. We need to give particular attention to goals and targets that focus on persistent impediments to development and should not prematurely exclude issues that do not command immediate agreement if there is a well-founded and substantive basis for their consideration.

Let me go straight to substance.

First, we strongly support a framework that prioritizes the “unfinished business” of the MDGs – that means attention to poverty, health, education, food security and nutrition, and water and sanitation, among other issues. With 1.2 billion people still living in extreme poverty and an unprecedented potential to lift them out of it, we believe -- like Benin, Brazil, and many others who spoke yesterday -- that extreme poverty and the factors most relevant to combating it should be a central focus.

Tackling the unfinished business of the MDGs also means improving on the MDGs. We need more emphasis on outcomes – for example, focusing on the quality of education received rather than the “input” of getting kids in school – and greater effort to be holistic – for example, as Bangladesh called for yesterday with respect to water.

Second, we share the view of many that our agenda needs to prioritize job-rich, inclusive, and sustained economic growth. Several of the Co-Chairs’ Focus Areas address these interlinked issues. We see considerable scope to consolidate these issues with strong targets in areas like infrastructure; sound national policies; institutional environments that favor investment and entrepreneurship; an open, rules-based, non-discriminatory multilateral trading system; job opportunities especially for women and youth; and the protection of fundamental labor rights.

Third, to have significant and lasting impact, we need to prioritize widely recognized development bottlenecks, some of which were either overlooked or insufficiently treated by the MDGs or have since grown in importance. These include the equality and empowerment of women, on which Maldives and Uganda spoke especially eloquently yesterday; sustainable energy for all; and management of ecosystems. We also welcome the inclusion of oceans and seas, which has tremendous transformative potential across all dimensions of sustainable development.

As we have said in previous statements, focusing on known bottlenecks importantly includes peaceful and safe societies and open and accountable institutions. Sustained attention to each of these areas would have among the most transformative and enduring impacts on development prospects, and each deserves consideration as potential goal in its own right.

There is no doubt that the most intractable and extreme poverty is found predominantly, and increasingly, in societies affected by conflict and violence – if we are serious about “leaving no one behind,” peaceful and safe societies need to be prominent in our agenda, as a number of colleagues said yesterday.

The rule of law, and open and accountable institutions, in turn, is deeply transformative as well as possibly the most universal demand for which all of our citizens clamor and where many countries here – Indonesia, Tanzania, India, Brazil, and many others - have embarked on governance innovations from which we all can benefit.

We appreciate the many colleagues yesterday who acknowledged the centrality of these issues to sustainable development. We also heard many say that these issues are better treated as “enablers” than as goals. But if we take enablers off the table, then we won’t have much to say about many issues, including education, health, infrastructure, jobs, economic growth, or means of implementation. The issue isn’t whether an issue is an enabler but whether one can envision a set of actions in that area that would have deep, meaningful, and lasting impact.

Let me also note a few missing areas, not exhaustive: stunting and wasting could be a powerful potential target under food security and nutrition; early and forced marriage should be considered in relation to women’s equality and empowerment; secondary education for girls should be emphasized, since this is when girls tend to drop out of the educational system; and labor rights and standards should be better reflected in any approach to jobs. Reproductive rights are also missing. We recognize divergent views on this point, but at this stage and for purposes of further deliberation, the strength, substance, and a number of voices on this issue argue for its incorporation.

Let me next say a few things about how we might approach prioritization, particularly through well-chosen and crafted targets.

First, we should not duplicate goals or targets that are the subject of robust effort in other processes and we need to focus on what would be truly additional and impactful for the Open Working Group to recommend.

Climate change is the obvious example. We have all acknowledged the need to embed climate change in our development agenda as a matter of urgency, but we should not repeat targets that are the subject of negotiations elsewhere. Instead, we can identify target areas related to disaster risk reduction, climate-smart agriculture, energy, or forests that could have significant traction on climate change consistent with, but not duplicating, other efforts.

Similarly, sustainable consumption and production targets that are already the subject of the 10-year Framework don’t need to be revisited here, and many of our targets are likely to address SCP in some fashion.

Targets in general should be selected in part by the degree to which they can advance one or more goal areas and we should focus on outcomes rather than inputs where possible. For example, a target on excess mortality from non-communicable disease would be more powerful than a target on the healthy lifestyles required to reach that objective.

Since it wouldn’t be the Open Working Group without Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), let me clarify our position for the record on this point. We take a very practical approach and do not think CBDR gets us very far in this context. How would CBDR apply to universal health coverage? Or lifelong learning opportunities, higher secondary education retention rates for girls, labor standards or sound macroeconomic policies? CBDR has its place, and it’s a principle with which we agree in certain contexts, but we do not see it as having broad relevance or practical effect for our development agenda. CBDR is not short-hand for equality or fair treatment, and it does not help us prioritize the most vulnerable or craft strategies to address their vulnerability – which we believe should be our focus.

Let me next speak to Means of Implementation – obviously essential to our enterprise. We have two points.

First, Means of Implementation relates to the broader discussion we need to have about a renewed global partnership, whether that is in the form of a successor to MDG 8 or something else. This obviously relates to finance, with which our group is not tasked, so we will need to reflect on the best way to elaborate this basket of issues in the context of our own mandate that doesn’t preempt later deliberations.

To be practical, that larger conversation should focus on how to craft a new framework for partnership that can mobilize the much wider spectrum of resources today than fifteen years ago - new actors, new citizen engagement, new technologies, new investments, fresh ideas.

In this context, we were very glad to hear Nauru on behalf of AOSIS emphasize the “data revolution” and to hear Nigeria similarly emphasize this point, which reflects the new development terrain we are in.

When it comes to specific goals, means of implementation are obviously crucial, but the question is how to address them in this process? We are very skeptical that an effort to elaborate specific means of implementation under specific goals is either possible or desirable.

Yes, we will need to know that there is a credible path to implementation for specific goals and targets. But we should not preempt or prejudge elaboration of means that will more productively happen elsewhere – with the full spectrum of partners needed in specific areas.

Countries will need the scope to craft their own policies and strategies to reach particular goals and targets, and approaches and methods will constantly improve and evolve. We will need partnerships (in the plural) and forms of international cooperation that will differ widely across issues -- different ministries will be involved, different constituencies, different actors. Evidence about policy implementation in every sphere tells us that flexibility, adaptation, and evidence-driven learning is crucial, and we will need an approach that can be adapted as our individual and collective knowledge grows.

Prescribing these issues from a New York conference room is likely to be too prescriptive in all the wrong ways and forestall the innovation and actions that are truly needed.

One final point to respond to some interventions yesterday that raised the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity. We want to be very clear. For us, the foundation of our work, our common purpose, and the measure of our ultimate success is universal human rights and the life of dignity for all that we have pledged to advance. “All” does not mean some. All means all. All means that every individual on this planet is born with a fundamental right to be free from the indignities of extreme poverty and from discrimination, persecution, violence, and intolerance. No aspect of a person’s identity – whether race, religion, class, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity -- can be an exception.

In closing, we know that we have quite a lot of work ahead of us, and we look forward to working together in our common endeavor. Thank you.