Strengthening Global Governance Activity and Reaching the SDG Goals


Targeting ‘Global Governance’

Global governance is a framework of institutions, rules, norms, and procedures that facilitate collective action and co-operation among countries and other actors. The actors include international financial institutions, international nongovernmental institutions, multinational corporations, and civil society. Global governance spans a wide range of issues, including economic development, human rights, peace and security, climate change and environmental protection, and technology and innovation. It provides strategic direction and harnesses collective energy to address common transnational challenges. Thus, it consists of treaties and multilateral organisations, as well as networks of collaborative processes, relationships, guidelines, and monitoring mechanisms. Examples of global governance institutions include the UN system, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the UNFCCC, and the HLPF

The need to facilitate collective action between states and non-state actors comes from the internationalisation of social and economic concerns, such that states are no longer able to address the issues in their boundaries alone. Globally, we face widening inequality and a looming climate crisis, which call for responses from states that are still recovering from a global pandemic. This is also happening in a time when poverty and exclusion continue to be fundamental challenges, and a debt crisis threatens the states most affected by this. Global tensions and conflict represent growing disorder in the international system. Therefore, collective solutions between actors at various scales are required. Global governance is a constantly expanding and changing arena, as emerging issues shape relations between states and bring non-state actors into the international space. 

Strengthening Global Governance for Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development has featured in one way or another on the global governance agenda since 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. The conference acknowledged the relationship between humans and the environment, and agreed on collective action to prevent environmental degradation. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission’s report, Our Common Future, was published. The report defined sustainable development as we typically understand it today of “[meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, also known as the Earth Summit, highlighted how social, economic, and environmental issues are interrelated and how gains in one area requires sustained actions in all three areas. The result of the Earth Summit was a broad agenda for international action and cooperation on environmental and development issues, Agenda 21, and the Rio Declaration, which laid out 27 principles for sustainable development, including the sovereignty over resources, the right to development, and environmental protection. The Commission on Sustainable Development was created at the Earth Summit and was responsible for reviewing progress on the implementation of the commitments under Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration.

In 2000, the world entered a new century, and decision-makers considered how to make the world a better place for children. This perspective shaped some of the decisions at the UN Millenium Summit, where world leaders committed to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty under the Millenium Declaration. This eventually became the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), which were a series of time-bound targets with a deadline of 2015. While most of the targets that made up the MDGs were derived from past UN conferences and international norms and laws, the Declaration was the first ever global strategy with quantifiable targets that was agreed upon by all UN Member states and the world’s leading development institutions. Its significance was that  these Goals provided a common framework for the international community with regards to development cooperation: countries could plan their social and economic development that shared a common language with donor assistance, and the targets could be used to promote global awareness and political accountability. In this sense, the MDGs represented a kind of grand bargain where developing states committed to focusing on the MDGs, and advanced economies would provide financial assistance.

In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as the Rio+20 Conference, focused on securing renewed political commitment to sustainable development, cementing it as central to all future development. At the conclusion of the conference, Member States launched a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals. The aim was to build on the momentum generated by the MDGs and establish a new global development agenda beyond 2015. The process included consultations with civil society organisations, scientists, academics, the private sectors, and citizens around the world. Homi Kharas was appointed as Lead Author and Executive Secretary of the High-level Panel (HLP) of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (For a review of the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs view the video chapter for our e-Journal, Global Summitry here at GSP with our colleague Homi Kharas). The UN General Assembly Open Working Group then proposed a document containing 17 goals for consideration and approval by the General Assembly in September. Also coming out of the Rio+20 Conference was the creation of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which would serve as the main review mechanism for the post-2015 development agenda.

The UN Sustainable Development Summit in 2015 saw Member States adopt Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda was framed by the UN as a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” and provided a roadmap for ending poverty and inequality, protecting the planet, maintaining peace, and tackling climate change and environmental degradation. The structure of the SDGs are regarded as a bottom-up, country-driven, and stakeholder-orientated form of governance, granting states freedom in interpreting and implementing the goal. The HLPF meets annually to review progress on Agenda 2030 to meet the SDGs. While the UN has focused its efforts for sustainable development under Agenda 2030, the broader global community has adopted the specific SDGs to guide their work on sustainable development. The MDGs and SDGs marked an evolution of global governance by adopting a “governance through goals approach” that was more flexible than a rules-based approach, while still making reference to international law. Setting up the SDGs as a soft law instrument rather than hard law enabled broad consensus over complex issues that was often difficult to establish with international law, and emphasised the cooperation of state and nonstate actors at all political levels in developing effective solutions. 

In September 2023, the SDG Summit was held. This is the first of the ‘Two Summits’ called by the UN that are focused on creating conditions in the multilateral system to realise a sustainable future. The SDG Summit marked the half-way point to the deadline for achieving Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Highlights of this Summit included renewed calls for the reform of the international financial architecture. These renewed calls were built to improve developing countries’ access to finance, which included establish an effective debt relied mechanism, and implementing a more just income-based criteria to assess country’s eligibility for financing. Food security, climate change, and social protection were also highlighted as critical issues that required urgent action.”

In 2024, the UN will hold the Summit of the Future: Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow. The origins of the Summit of the Future begins at the conclusion of a high-level meeting on the 75th anniversary of the UN in September 2020. Here, world leaders pledged to advance a vision of strengthened international cooperation in service of the planet and people for current and future generations. Member States called upon the Secretary-General to outline a pathway to strengthen and increase the effectiveness of international cooperation. The report, Our Common Agenda, was the response to this call and proposes actions to advance the commitments made at the meeting on the UN’s 75th anniversary. The Report called for a renewal of trust and solidarity at all levels, and a case for rethinking political, economic, and social systems to address gaps in global governance.

The Summit of the Future builds on the Report and intends to: reaffirm the UN Charter, reinvigorate multilateralism, boost implementation of existing commitments, agree on solutions to new challenges, and restore trust. The Summit will culminate in an action-orientated document, called “A Pact for the Future”, which will outline the necessary critical improvements to international cooperation and demonstrate that it can be effective in addressing current and future challenges. The Summit of the Future aims to build on the 2023 SDG Summit by creating conditions where the SDGs can be more readily achieved. 

Landmark Agreements on Global Governance for Sustainable Development

The Millennium Development Goals:

The MDGs laid out eight targets:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

Global efforts to achieve the MDGs focused on women and children’s health, and combatting disease, as they were easier to influence and measure compared to targets related to reducing extreme poverty and hunger and promoting environmental sustainability. Success in achieving the MDGs was highly uneven, with some countries making substantial progress on achieving the goals, while others would fall short. For example, reductions on global poverty was mainly as a result of the rapid growth of a handful of countries in Asia, such as China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Other regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa experienced much slower gains on poverty reduction. Furthermore, the targets on universal education and environmental sustainability were not reached. The MDGs were criticised for being too narrowly focused and overlooking the multidimensional nature of poverty. Additionally, environmental considerations were not centrally integrated into the goals with stronger linkages between social, economic, and environmental issues. 

Nonetheless, the progress that was made towards achieving the MDGs was deemed significant. Since 1990, more than one billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty, child mortality was halved, and the number of out of school children also dropped by more than half. HIV/AIDS infections also decreased by almost 40 percent. Organisations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (The Global Fund) were established to better coordinate efforts. The targets that made up the MDGs demonstrated how measurable goals enabled better coordination of resources by allowing for progress to be tracked and strategies to be adjusted accordingly. The progress created by the MDGs and the use of goal-setting do drive development cooperation created momentum for the development of a new set of targets post MDGs. 

The Sustainable Development Goals:

The SDGs represent an “action-oriented, concise, and easy to communicate” goals that would drive the global sustainable development agenda. The SDGs are underlined by the “triple bottom line” of human wellbeing that aims for economic development, environmental sustainability, and social inclusion. Where the MDGs tended to be targets for developing countries that advanced economies were encouraged to support, the SDGs implicate all member states equally and are focused on ensuring global wellbeing for the current and future generations 

The SDGs consist of seventeen targets:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development

The first six SDGs build on the MDGs. SDG 7 to SDG 10 target the root causes of poverty and inequality, and the linkages between economic, social, and environmental factors of sustainable development. SDG 11 to SDG 15 concern the impacts humans have on the natural environment, and its subsequent effects on social and economic development. SDG 16 and SDG 17 focus on creating an enabling environment to achieve sustainable development. The SDGs serve as a “big tent” that reflect the priorities of all countries, increasing the number of goals to account for the priorities of middle income states, states experiencing conflict and violence, and broader environmental concerns. 

One of the successes of the SDGs has been in serving as the common language when speaking about development, and is used across society beyond states – businesses, sub-national entities, humanitarian organisations and international institutions. Progress towards achieving the SDGs themselves has, so far, been uneven, while the COVID-19 pandemic undermined years of progress in addressing hunger, poverty, healthcare, education, and gender equality. One UN report, co-ordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation, examined the impact of climate change and extreme weather on the goals and found that only 15 percent of the SDGs are on track. 

While the global pandemic dealt a blow to progress on the SDGs, it came at a time of waning global solidarity and rising nationalism, which has instilled a sense of distrust in global governance. The pandemic underlined the necessity of working together, which is a lesson to be taken into implementing the SDGs and getting back on track to realising 2030 Agenda. Implementing the SDGs also aids post-pandemic rebuilding, as they focus government efforts on specific targets needed to promote recovery and the development of resilient societies

Recent geopolitical tensions have created uncertainty in the global community, and this has generated capital flight that negatively impacted various developing countries. Sustainable development has also been deprioritised on the global agenda in light of geopolitical conflict. Given the slow progress on realising the SDGs, additional action has been urged at the global level through the forthcoming ‘Summit of the Future’. The Summit aims to make improvements to international cooperation to better support the implementation of the SDGs and respond effectively to future challenges. 

The Two Summits

The UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) – A review mechanism for the SDGs:

The HLPF was established under the outcome document of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. It serves as the central platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, thus facilitating system-wide coherence and coordination of sustainable development policies. All UN Member States are part of the HLPF. At the HLPF, high-level government representatives and stakeholders come together to evaluate and share recommendations for the current progress of the SDGs and future actions towards realising Agenda 2030. The HLPF replaced the Commission on Sustainable Development which had met annually from 1993 and was responsible for following up on commitments made at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit). The objectives of the HLPF are laid out in UN General Assembly Resolutions 66/288 and 67/290, which state that the forum shall:

  1. provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations for sustainable development;
  2. enhance integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development [economic, social, environmental] in a holistic and cross-sectoral manner at all levels;
  3. provide a dynamic platform for regular dialogue and for stocktaking and agenda-setting to advance sustainable development;
  4. have a focused, dynamic and action-oriented agenda, ensuring the appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges;
  5. follow up and review progress in the implementation of sustainable development commitments contained in Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, the Barbados Programme of Action, the Mauritius Strategy, The Future We Want and, as appropriate, relevant outcomes of other United Nations summits and conferences, including the outcome of the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries as well as their respective means of implementation;
  6. encourage high-level system-wide participation of United Nations agencies, funds and programmes and invite to participate, as appropriate, other relevant multilateral financial and trade institutions and treaty bodies, within their respective mandates and in accordance with United Nations rules and provisions;
  7. improve cooperation and coordination within the United Nations system on sustainable development programs and policies;
  8. promote transparency and implementation by further enhancing the consultative role and participation of major groups and other relevant stakeholders at the international level in order to better make use of their expertise, while retaining the intergovernmental nature of discussions;
  9. promote the sharing of best practices and experiences relating to the implementation of sustainable development and, on a voluntary basis, facilitate sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned;
  10. strengthen the science-policy interface through review of documentation, bringing together dispersed information and assessments, including in the form of a global sustainable development report, building on existing assessments;
  11. enhance evidence-based decision-making at all levels and contribute to strengthening ongoing capacity-building for data collection and analysis in developing countries; and
  12. promote system-wide coherence and coordination of sustainable development policies.

The HLPF holds two types of meetings. Every year, the HLPF meets under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The meetings consist of thematic and SDG Reviews, Voluntary National Reviews, and culminates in a Negotiated Ministerial Declaration. The 2030 Agenda encourages member states to conduct regular reviews of  progress towards achieving the SDGs at the national and sub-national level. The Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) are presented at the HLPF to facilitate the sharing of experiences with a view of accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The presentation of VNRs are also intended to strengthen policies and institutions of governments, and to mobilise multi-stakeholder support and partnerships to implement the SDGs. Currently, forty-one countries have expressed interest in carrying out VNRs at the HLPF. The HLPF has open channels for stakeholder engagement with nonstate actors, who are known as Major Groups and Other Stakeholders (MGoS), and can participate in implementation of the SDGs, through projects, initiatives, advocacy, knowledge-sharing, and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda. 

Every four years the HLPF convenes as an SDG Summit and meets at the level of Heads of State and Government under the auspices of the UN General Assembly. This Summit consists of dialogues and culminates in a Negotiated Political Declaration. The last meeting, as noted above, was held in 2023. At this Summit, which took place at the halfway point in the timeline for achieving the SDGs, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a “global rescue plan” for the SDGs. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, and increasingly visible impacts of climate change have compromised sustainable development efforts. The UN Secretary-General’s annual report that was released earlier in the year estimated that only about 12% of the SDGs are on track, while nearly 50% of the targets are moderately or severely off track, and around 30% of the targets have stagnated or regressed below the 2015 baseline. Getting back on track to meet the SDGs requires an increased efforts from states. Notable issues at the Summit included calls for the reform of the international financial architecture, addressing the critical challenges of food security and climate change, and prioritizing gender equality and a “leave no one behind” approach. The Political Declaration highlighted how the SDGs were already off track prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and states needed to renew their commitment to multilateralism to “find new ways of working together and to ensure that multilateral institutions keep pace with the rapid changes taking place”. The Declaration also highlighted the Summit of the Future in 2024 as an “important opportunity to, inter alia, accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs”. 

The Summit of the Future:

The stated purpose of the Summit of the Future is to “strengthen international cooperation so it delivers fully and fairly on existing agreements, while responding effectively to new threats and opportunities for present and future generations. In so doing, restore trust in multilateralism and in each other”. Shaping the agenda of the Summit of the Future will be the 12 commitments that were contained in the UN’s 75th anniversary Declaration that kickstarted the process leading up to the Summit in September 2024. These 12 commitments also guided the proposals in the Our Common Agenda report:

  1. Leave no one behind;
  2. Protect our planet;
  3. Promote peace and prevent conflicts;
  4. Abide by international law and ensure justice;
  5. Place women and girls at the center;
  6. Build trust;
  7. Improve digital cooperation;
  8. Upgrade the UN;
  9. Ensure sustainable financing;
  10. Boost partnerships;
  11. Listen to and work with youth; and
  12. Be prepared.

The Report contained proposals in response to the 12 commitments and made recommendations across four broad areas: 

  1. A renewal of the social contract, anchored in human rights, to rebuild trust and social cohesion;
  2. A focus on the future, through a deepening of solidarity with the world’s young people and future generations;
  3. Urgent action to protect and deliver global commons and global public goods through a more networked, inclusive and effective multilateralism;
  4. An upgraded UN that is fit for a new era and can offer more relevant, system-wide, multilateral and multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges of the 21st century.

Overseeing the preparatory process of the Summit, which consists of intergovernmental consultations, negotiations for the outcome document, and engagement for stakeholders will be representatives from Germany and Namibia, Antje Leendertse and Neville Melvin Gertze.

In preparation for the Summit, the Secretary-General appointed a High-level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) to provide suggestions on ways to improve governance of key issues of global concern that can support Member State deliberations at the Summit. A key suggestion by the HLAB is the evolution of global governance towards a more networked system that distributed decision-making to better harness the efforts of a large number of different actors. The Report by the HLAB outlined ten principles for effective multilateralism: people-centered, representative, transparent, equitable, networked, resourced, mission-focused, flexible, accountable, and future oriented. These principles are integrated into “six transformative shifts” that would advance the evolution of global governance: 

  1. Rebuild trust in multilateralism through inclusion and accountability.
  2. Deliver for people and planet by regaining balance with nature and providing clean energy for all.
  3. Ensure sustainable finance that delivers for all.
  4. Support a just digital transition that unlocks the value of data and protects against digital harms.
  5. Empower equitable, effective collective security arrangements.
  6. Strengthen governance for current and emerging transnational risks.

Additionally, the Secretary-General issued policy briefs that provided more details on certain proposals in the Our Common Agenda report. The policy briefs, informed by the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, analysed the proposals’ impacts on the implementation of the SDGs, with gender equality as a cross-cutting theme. These briefs cover topics such as managing global shocks, the meaningful inclusion of young people, building statistical and data capacities, an open and secure digital future, a global financial system that works for all, and a new agenda for peace. 

The scope of the Summit of the Future will cover the following areas: 

  1. Sustainable development and financing for development;
  2. International peace and security;
  3. Science, technology and innovation and digital cooperation;
  4. Youth and future generations;
  5. Transforming global governance;

Renewed Global Governance Efforts Towards Achieving the SDGs

The Global Summitry Project (GSP) has discussed what the future of international cooperation may look like, with one of the suggestions being that cooperation may move away from a multilateral approach to state participation and moving to a more ‘plurilateral’ approach. “Plurilateralism” entails, initially, smaller groups of states and substate and nonstate actors. It promotes action by “Coalitions of the Willing”. This approach relies on efforts to advance global governance with discrete groups that then can attract a larger representation and that also recognises that nonstate and substate actors have roles in driving action towards achieving the SDGs. This is a view that is shared by the UN in its lessons taken from the MDGs to improving the SDGs. Other experts have proposed reforms for global governance that includes closer collaboration between the UN and the G20, upgrading the UN Peacebuilding Commission to a Peacebuilding Council, the creation of an International Artificial Intelligence Agency, an Earth Stewardship Council to manage the global commons, and repurposing the multilateral development banks (MDBs) for international finance reform. These kinds of global governance innovations can hopefully address needed improvements in the UN system, and capitalise on the opportunity provided by the Summit to advance changes in global governance.  

The Pact for the Future: Zero Draft, the starting point for deliberations for the final outcome document for the Summit of the Future, has been released and compiles inputs from Member States and Major Groups and other Stakeholders. It also builds on the political declaration released at the SDG Summit. Further consultations will take place in February and into May at the UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi. The Summit of the Future is a unique opportunity to put sustainable development back on the global governance agenda and refocus collective efforts. However, many of the ambitions have been proposals that have been raised for years, with little success. The question remains open on what might come out of the Summit of the Future, given this inertia.  

Global governance has evolved over time. The limitation of states to address issues in their borders, as well as their unwillingness to commit greater action, has created pathways for new actors to fill these gaps, and widened the network of global governance for sustainable development. However, the world system was built on the primacy of national sovereignty, and the current institutions that drive global governance preserve this norm. This means that national governments remain at the heart of global governance and the efforts to achieve the SDGs. International institutions may be cheerleaders of certain global goals but, ultimately, state action is needed. This explains why present geopolitical issues are a major concern for all states as they detract from collective efforts. In this current moment, a refocusing of state interests on a common agenda, and evolving global governance through the reform of existing institutions, is sorely needed if we are to truly realise the SDGs. 

This Introduction was prepared by Deanndre You-Jieh Chen, a holder of a Master’s Degree from the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. It was completed in February 2024.

Strengthening the G20 — the G20 and the plurilateral leadership within

The G20 and the plurilateral leadership within it present a credible focal point to both mobilize global governance actions and to manage global geopolitical tensions so that one facilitates the other.

Strengthening the G20 is a key focal point for the China-West Dialogue, an inclusive dialogue of thought leaders from China, Canada, Chile, Europe, the UK, Japan, Korea, and the United States seeking to define and bring forward alternative frameworks for China-West relations. The G20 serves as an ideal platform that can lead in building trust, cooperation, and in creating a common discourse for tackling some of the world’s most pressing global governance issues. To avoid contributing to toxic China-US bilateral relations, the initiative calls on G20 leaders and senior officials consider:

(1) advancing plurilateral dynamics to generate inclusive and effective global leadership;

(2) the potential mobilizing impact of focusing public and parliamentary attention on month-to-month G20 actions rather than focusing on just the annual two-day summit;

(3) empowering G20 ministers with various portfolios to use the G20 platform to drive global actions and agendas;

(4) following the example of the successful history of G20 ministers of finance since 1997, encouraging   innovation by other G20 ministers to use, strengthen and create institutional support for their global efforts;

(5) selectively include security issues, and foreign ministers, in G20 processes to provide a way to pluralize and multilateralize the management of geopolitical tensions;

(6) charging senior political advisers and Sherpas of G20 countries to connect G20 agendas to public concerns and to prioritize G20 communications for ordinary people; and

(7) creating a G20 secretariat to assure consistency and follow-through to ensure that G20 commitments are fulfilled, and plans implemented.

A collection of articles written by some of GSP's policy experts!