As every climate conference goes by without meaningful resolutions—and with this year’s, in Paris, already labelled a likely flop—one would be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that international consensus for saving the planet is impossible.

Yet, amid the gloom that followed last year’s conference in Lima, there was a salutory reminder that compromise and a shared vision for the future is possible. Last September, the United Nations unanimously endorsed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the post-2015 development agenda at its General Assembly in New York. The moment is certainly etched in the memories of all those who were present and who participated for two years in the work of the Open Working Group (OWG)—the large, inclusive, multi-stakeholder group tasked with developing SDGs for consideration by the UN. Though not legally binding, the agreement will now be “the main basis for the post-2015 intergovernmental process,” as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put it.

It would be very misleading to single out one factor behind this success. A perfect concert needs many inputs: good instruments, skilled musicians, and the right stage. Similarly, a policy-making endeavour needs to harness its component parts.

The goals agreed upon by the OWG in July 2014 reflect the inputs of over 190 member states, who gave their input in many ways: by wording, editing and endorsing texts, creating platforms for the discussion of special issues, bringing in stakeholders, and giving support to their concerns. They worked in groups of states, and with their own national stakeholders. They argued their corners relentlessly, but they brought with them a spirit of compromise.

States decided to open up the process widely, even at the cost of increasing their own workload considerably. Academic and expert institutions were invited to join, while non-governmental stakeholders and civil society groups were given regular access to the work. At times, delegates were making their points before a keen and diverse crowd of critics, supporters, and observers, making the discussions, quite literally, a piece of performance art.

Yet, the most crucial step to reaching compromise came from preparations that took place before the delegates gathered. The working groups took the truly unprecedented decision to benefit together from a long learning process, before debating future tasks. And, they did so patiently and thoroughly, devoting well over one year to more than 30 topics of global concern. This evidence-based approach saw delegations listen together as diverse groups of academics laid out the facts.

Through this approach, the usual political divides became less apparent. ‘Science,’ as opposed to ‘my expert’ and ‘your expert,’ gave evidence to ‘Politics.’ Scientific evidence was challenged and debated, and a common foundation laid—a diagnosis of the ailing world accepted by all. Now, development of the best plan for therapy could start.

The two co-chairs accepted the challenge to lead not the states, but the process of designing this therapy. They took full responsibility to ‘enforce’ the common agreement about the methodology of the OWG, to keep it on track, to keep it moving, and to keep it open. Internal rules for the co-chairs’ teams were straightforward: neutrality, availability, predictability, transparency, respect for the ownership of the member states of the process, and adherence to the Rio+20 mandate. The team met everyone who approached us, government or NGO, group or individual, and we attended every event to which we were invited. With the invaluable assistance of the experts of the UN secretariat, the team recorded and screened all opinions received, written or verbal. Reflected in the co-chairs’ reports is first, the initial evidence, then, the forming of conclusions reported back to the Group, and finally, the reception of criticisms. The co-chairs noted the evolution of opinions and proposals, sampled the mood of the room, and relentlessly offered improved texts. After two years, a complex system of goals and targets was endorsed by acclamation, in consensus, by the diverse crowd called the international community.

Incremental, manifold, patient, parallel, repetitive, and consequent inputs gradually and slowly built up a structure that proved ambitious, attractive, and resilient. May Paris benefit from the experience!


János Zlinszky

János Zlinszky served as a senior scientific adviser to the Co-chair of the UN Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals. He is also the former Head of Department for Strategy and Research...

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