Interview with Ambassador Michael Gerber on sustainable development after 2015

Article, 03.04.2013

«The world needs a binding frame of reference for sustainable development»

On 5 April 2013, the countdown for the Millennium Development Goals begins, signalling 1000 days until the final deadline expires in 2015. What will happen after that? This is a question that is already the focus of intense interest amongst the international community, and Michael Gerber is actively engaged in the process of finding a new development framework. As Special Representative for Global Sustainable Development Post-2015 and a member of the SDC, he is formulating Switzerland’s position and will also represent it in international bodies. We asked him what goals the international community and Switzerland have set.

«It means a lot to me to represent Switzerland in this important process of defining a new, comprehensive development agenda», says Michael Gerber. In October 2012, he was appointed Special Representative by the Federal Council with the rank of ambassador and given the task of formulating Switzerland’s position and representing it in international bodies. He will hold this title until the international process is concluded, probably in 2015. Until then he can look forward to lots of travelling to international conferences and consultations that will pave the way for the replacement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

New development framework: A priority for Switzerland
«The agenda to find a successor for MDGs and develop SDGs will shape international cooperation far beyond 2015», says Gerber. «Any new global development agenda will have universal applicability that will also oblige countries such as Switzerland to achieve the goals set for sustainable development.»

Finding a replacement for the MDGs is of great importance to Switzerland. Both internationally and within Switzerland there is “an astonishingly broad consensus on the need for a superordinate and binding frame of reference for sustainable development that will enable the world community to jointly master global challenges“.

Gerber, born in 1971, studied Political Philosophy, History and Ethnology at the University of Bern. After joining the SDC in 2002, he completed the Postgraduate Course in Developing Countries at the ETH Zurich in parallel with his work. Up until his appointment as Special Representative, he was Head of the SDC Analysis and Policy Section.

Michael Gerber, how will the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) differ from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?
On the one hand, the goals for sustainable development will follow on from the MDGs, i.e. they will build on the experience gained in their implementation and the lessons learned. On the other, they will be based on the precepts of the Rio Declaration 2012 (UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20), and continue to define ’development’ in the same way as for the MDGs. Whilst the MDGs primarily focus on social issues such as poverty, hunger, health and education in developing countries, SDGs will seek to strike a balance between all three dimensions of sustainable development, namely the economic, environmental and the social, and will be applicable for all countries.

At the end of 2015 the final deadline for MDGs expires, and not all of them will have been achieved by then. Critics will argue that SDGs will simply replace MDGs that have missed their targets. How do you respond to this criticism?
This criticism would be justified if a situation were to arise in which missed goals and the reasons for failing to meet targets were simply to fall into oblivion. However, this situation should not occur. Internationally there is a great deal of support for continuing with, and even intensifying, commitments in areas and regions in which MDGs could not be achieved. Switzerland is firstly seeking to ensure that as many MDGs in as many regions as possible can be achieved by the end of 2015, and secondly that a new development agenda will place the emphasis on just those areas where the implementation of the MDGs did not lead to the desired results.

Why is this post-2015 agenda important for Switzerland?
The agenda for the creation of a new global development framework will have a profound influence on future international cooperation in all areas. Until nowSwitzerland has aligned its international cooperation to the MDGs and also been a consistent advocate of concrete sustainability goals. Switzerland's approach is characterised by good contacts and effective cooperation with developing countries: this positions it well to play a significant role building bridges between developing, emerging and industrialized countries in this important process. And lastly, but not least importantly, the universal character of the new development agenda will oblige Switzerland itself to achieve the goals set for sustainable development.

What role does Switzerland play in formulating the SDGs?
From the very beginning Switzerland has been strongly committed to the post-2015 UN development agenda, for example in its support for the global consultation process.In 2 of the 11 thematic consultations (water and population dynamics) it has even taken on an active coordination role. Since the Rio Conference 2012, it has strongly advocated the setting of concrete SDGs, and is working towards this as part of the open UN working group where it shares a seat with Germany and France. At federal level, the Federal Council's decision of 17 October 2012 entrusted the SDC with the task of coordinating the process at national level, and representing Switzerland in international negotiations. An Interdepartmental Task Force has been set up to formulate Switzerland's position which is consulting widely to take account of the views of other interested parties in Switzerland.

What goals has Switzerland set for the SDGs?
Switzerland wants to be a bridge-builder and to help ensure that all countries back the new development agenda. It is also trying to incorporate its own concerns related to sustainable development into the new agenda. For instance, Switzerland wants to make sure that the agenda is based on the principles of respect for human rights, equality and sustainable use of limited natural resources. Switzerland also wants to include the reduction of poverty and injustice, environmental protection, the resolution of conflicts, and state fragility as central aspects of the development framework. And, Switzerland considers it important that the new goals are action and results oriented, measurable and easy to communicate.

What role can Swiss citizens play in this process?
All sections of the population are invited to express their views and to participate in formulating Switzerland's position. They can do this, for example, via our web-platform or by taking part in the regular consultation meetings organized by the SDC.

Officially, the political process to formulate the new development goals gets underway with a meeting in September 2013 of the UN General Assembly. However, there already appears to be plenty going on. What will happen before this meeting in September?
The UN has been conducting global consultations and surveys, e.g. via its web platform, since autumn 2012. The results of this will be incorporated into the report of the High-level Panel set up by General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon that will be published at the end of May 2013. This report should provide a frame of reference for the entire agenda. In addition, the open working group began its work on the SDGs in March 2013 with amandate to draw up concrete proposals by autumn 2014.

And what will happen after the meeting in September?
There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this. The main focus of the high-level meeting in September will be to evaluate the experience gained with MDGs, to apply the lessons learned to the period after 2015, and to link the two processes (replacement of MDGs and creation of SDGs) in order to create a comprehensive development framework by 2015. Nonetheless, how the process and accompanying negotiations will look after 2013 is still an open question.

With 193 UN Member States whose political goals and approaches to development policy are often very different, the potential for conflict is quite high. Where do you see possible sticking points in the SDG process?
It is certainly true that negotiations will not prove easy. Firstly due to the new balance of power: developing and emerging countries play a key role in today's world and will tenaciously defend their interests, for example with regard to the use of resources. Developing countries are (thankfully) also gaining in confidence and will work towards creating concrete commitments that industrialized nations also have to meet. On top of this, questions about how to finance concrete measures to implement the development agenda will generate plenty of debate.

However, at present there is an astonishingly broad consensus that the world needs a superordinate and binding frame of reference for sustainable development, if it is to master the global challenges it faces. This willingness should be seen as an opportunity to help overcome the divides that existbetween countriesin other negotiating areas.