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Sustainability: à la carte?

10 March 2014
As the post-2015 agenda is about to be shape, the principle of universality appears like a game changer for sustainable development.

The clock is ticking increasingly loudly as we near the expiry date for the Millennium Development Goals. Those Goals were designed in the year 2000. They were supposed to sort the so-called developing world out by 2015, by tackling extreme poverty, education, healthcare and a whole host of other issues. While great progress has been made, we’re certainly not able to say that the job is done. Just to take one example, the MDGs have done little to address the engrained discrimination that half the world’s population – girls and women – suffers and which is holding back much greater progress for them, their families, their communities and their country. What’s more, we’re facing increasingly serious global challenges in a number of areas.

So all talk is now turning to what will follow the MDGs, to what we can do better this time around, post-2015. Sustainable development is the word of the moment. And some even dare talk of a transformational agenda. There is little doubt in our minds that we need one, but are global leaders up for that?

What is striking in all the talk of goals, targets and indicators for a post-2015 framework is that few people seem keen to address the ‘who’ question. To whom – or to which countries - will the framework apply? There seems to be general agreement that the richer North should no longer dictate to the poorer South, but is there agreement that the framework should be universal and apply to all countries? And yet, lack of agreement on ‘universality’ could pull the rug from under a comprehensive, transformational, future framework.

No one is saying that a universal framework will be easy to design. On the contrary. Countries are not all the same. They don’t have the same priorities, they are not at the same stage of development and they don’t follow the same path to progress. But universality is key to tackling issues like climate change, environmental degradation and repeated economic crises. So all countries, including EU Member States, should commit to a universal framework.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, there is no gain without (short-term) pain and considerable changes will need to be made to the way EU countries ‘do business’. But universality will be the game-changer if it is taken seriously.

An opt-in, opt-out, à la carte framework is a non-starter as it will send all the wrong messages and likely scupper international negotiations. Hence why it is so important that EU Member States – and other rich nations - commit clearly from the outset to a truly universal framework. And let’s face it, there are very few areas in which EU countries can honestly say they don’t need to make any improvements.

Let’s take gender equality as an example. We pride ourselves on having quite an open, equal society in much of Europe. Don’t we?

So how it is possible that in Europe in the twenty-first century there are still three men for every woman in national parliaments? Or that in one in two European countries there is not a single large, publicly-quoted company led by a woman.1 Or that gender gaps pervade almost every aspect of life – we could look to differences in earnings, working patterns or expectations with regards to care – compromising women’s (economic) independence throughout their lives.

What’s more, violence against women and girls knows no geographical boundaries, no ethnic differences, no class distinction and no age limits. It is estimated that one woman in five has been subjected to male domestic violence and that seven women die from it every day in Europe.

For this reason, MEP Mikael Gustafsson and Plan International are convinced that Europe, too, would benefit from universal, far-reaching post-2015 goals, including one on gender equality and women’s and girl’s empowerment. In addition to mainstreaming the issue in the other goals of the framework.

It is no longer possible to imagine a framework which is designed predominantly for implementation by developing countries, given the nature and scale of the global challenges the world is facing. Universal goals must pertain to all countries, and all countries must contribute to making progress on them in their own context.

Europe must not shy away from committing to a universal framework. Rather, it should lead by example and pave the way for all countries to face up to making sustainable change thanks to a comprehensive and transformational post-2015 agenda.

Editor's notes

By Mikael Gustafsson, Chairperson of the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee of the European Parliament, and Tanya Cox, Senior Advocacy Manager with Plan International’s EU Office and co-chair of the Beyond 2015 campaign’s European Task Force.

This article was first published in New Europe and El Pais