Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals

A transformational agenda for an insecure world

In this exclusive blog post, Routledge author Felix Dodds, discusses the development of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a forthcoming book that will tell the complete story.

On September 25, Heads of State met in New York and adopted the ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development' (UN, 2015). This had been a long process that started in Solo, Indonesia, in July 2011 when the governments of Colombia, Guatemala, Peru and UAE suggested that instead of replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with another set of development goals that would deal with impacts of policies, that a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’ should complement the MDGs. These SDGs should challenge the root causes and not the symptoms that they should be – not only for developing countries, but for all countries. They also shouldn’t just address development, but also sustainable development.

Stakeholders had the first attempt at identifying the SDGs took place just two months late at the September 2011 UN DPI NGO Conference Sustainable Societies Responsive Citizens. The stakeholders suggested 17 SDGs and associated targets as possible outcomes from Rio+20.

As momentum toward Rio+20 gained, the SDGs were seen as a possible outcome from the conference. In 2011 and 2012, the traditional development community fought hard against the replacement of the MDGs by the SDGs – some development NGOs continued the opposition until mid-way through 2014. As one of the architectsfor the SDGs Paula Caballero Director of Economic, Social and Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia pointed out often that ‘entrenched poverty is a universal agenda and it's linked to sustainable consumption and production. If we are really serious, we need a universal agenda rather than stop-gap paternalistic approaches to dealing with poverty. We need scientists to tell us what the thresholds of sustainable production and consumption are,’ (Caballero, 2014).

Although Rio+20 did not adopt the SDGs, it set in motion the process by which they would be adopted through the Sustainable Development Goals Open Working Group (SDG OWG). Readers if they are interested in how Rio+20 approached this and other issues such as the green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication; and the institutional framework for sustainable development should read the Routledge published book From ‘Rio+20 to the New Development Agenda by Dodds, Laguna and Thompson’.

The development of the SDGs was the most participatory policy process the UN has ever undertaken. Prior to the SDG OWG meetings in 2014, there had been over 120 national consultations organized by UNDP, 11 thematic consultations, a citizen online process which over 7 million people participated in and a High Level Panel of Eminent People chaired by the Presidents of Liberia and Indonesia and the Prime Minister of the UK. In addition to many stakeholder and multi-stakeholder meetings and reports all informing the SDG, OWG made up of 70 countries but only 30 seats at the table. This required a buddy system for many of the 30 seats creating some interesting combinations of countries such as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka or the Netherlands, Australia and the UK or Cyprus, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates or Iran (Islamic Republic of), Japan and Nepal. One of the advantages of this is that it took many countries out their political groupings and the result was some different thinking. This resulted in the agreement within the SDG OWG for 17 SDGs and 169 targets which ultimately were then endorsed a year later by Heads of State.

The story of how the SDGs came about and what influenced them and the role different countries, stakeholders and intergovernmental bodies played in the process will be part of a new Routledge book Negotiating the Sustainable Development Goals: A transformational agenda for an insecure world coming out in the late summer of 2016. The book will be written by Nikhil Seth (former Director of the UN Division on Sustainable Development – the secretariat for both Rio+20 and the SDG negotiations) Jimena Leiva Roesch (one of Guatemala negotiators) and myself. We hope it will help capture the astonishing story that is the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • From Rio+20 to a New Development Agenda

    Building a Bridge to a Sustainable Future, 1st Edition

    By Felix Dodds, Jorge Laguna-Celis, Liz Thompson

    Twenty years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, "The Earth Summit", the Rio+20 conference in 2012 brought life back to sustainable development by putting it at the centre of a new global development partnership, one in which sustainable development is the basis for…

    Paperback – 2014-01-20

  • Only One Earth

    The Long Road via Rio to Sustainable Development, 1st Edition

    By Felix Dodds, Michael Strauss, with Maurice F. Strong

    Forty years after the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the goal of sustainable development continues via the Rio+20 conference in 2012. This book will enable a broad readership to understand what has been achieved in the past forty years and what hasn’t. It shows the…

    Hardback – 2012-05-24

  • Biodiversity and Ecosystem Insecurity

    A Planet in Peril, 1st Edition

    Edited by Ahmed Djoghlaf, Felix Dodds

    Biodiversity and Ecosystem Insecurity provides an authoritative and comprehensive assessment of the threats presented to human security and well-being by the loss of ecosystems and biodiversity recently confirmed as one of the critical 'planetary boundaries' that has already been exceeded.…

    Paperback – 2011-04-22

  • Climate Change and Energy Insecurity

    The Challenge for Peace, Security and Development, 1st Edition

    Edited by Felix Dodds, Andrew Higham, Richard Sherman

    Climate change is now recognised as one of the greatest challenges facing the international community and when coupled with energy production and use - the most significant contributor to climate change - and the related security problems the double threat to international security and human…

    Paperback – 2009-10-23

  • Human and Environmental Security

    An Agenda for Change, 1st Edition

    Edited by Felix Dodds, Tim Pippard

    Security has tended to be seen as based on military force, yet this illusion is crumbling, literally and figuratively, before our eyes in the conflict zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. It is now clear that real human security, defined by the Commission on Human Security as 'protecting vital…

    Paperback – 2005-07-01

  • How to Lobby at Intergovernmental Meetings

    1st Edition

    By Michael Strauss

    Edited by Felix Dodds

    'Felix Dodds is the Milo Minderbinder of the stakeholder world!' Alex Kirby, BBC 'An invaluable tool for anyone wishing to understand and contribute effectively to the competition of good ideas that intergovernmental meetings should be' Paul Hohnen, former Strategic Director, Greenpeace…

    Paperback – 2004-03-01

  • Multi-stakeholder Processes for Governance and Sustainability

    Beyond Deadlock and Conflict, 1st Edition

    By Minu Hemmati, Jasmin Enayati, Jan McHarry

    Edited by Felix Dodds

    Governments, business, international bodies and local groups are turning to multi-stakeholder processes to find practical ways forward. This book explains how MSPs can be organized to deliver their potential for successful resolution of complex issues and for sustainable development. It includes…

    Paperback – 2002-01-01

  • Earth Summit 2002

    A New Deal, 2nd Edition

    Edited by Felix Dodds

    'As we start the preparations for the Earth Summit in 2002, 10 years from Rio and 30 years from Stockholm, we need to set targets and dates that are realistic to deliver the change that is needed. There will also need to be a debate on the international machinery to achieve what we want, and 2002…

    Paperback – 2001-12-01

Caballero, P. (2014) The Next Big Thing for Global Transition an interview on the Futurearth website:

Dodds, F., Laguna, F. and Thompson, E. (2014) From Rio+20 to the New Development Agenda, Routledge

United Nations (2015) Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, available on the website