Goodbye post-2015, welcome Agenda 2030

8 min read

It’s now three weeks since the historic adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With the dust settled and the noise lowered, Ross Bailey, WaterAid’s Global Campaigns Manager, reflects on what comes next.

Why? How? What?

WaterAid has worked on the 2030 Agenda process (formerly known as “post-2015”) for several reasons. On one level, it has been an opportunity to raise the profile of access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the world’s poorest; WASH was sorely neglected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and, although the water target was nominally met, this meant little for the poorest and most marginalised people. The Agenda 2030 process also offered the opportunity to ensure that the siloed thinking of the MDGs was challenged – water and sanitation is now being talked of as an issue of extreme poverty, not only as an environmental resource (and contaminant) to be managed. We hope it will support and strengthen monitoring and accountability for WASH, providing opportunities for our colleagues and partners around the world to encourage an acceleration of progress.

So it was with excitement that colleagues from WaterAid attended the summit. A small group of WaterAid staff from Nigeria, Liberia, the UK and the USA attended the gathering of member states, which was the largest this century: nearly 150 heads of state and government came together to adopt the framework. The Pope's visit added further weight to the event.

WaterAid at the Sustainable Development Summit

WaterAid’s engagement was threefold. First, we supported the mission of Japan and France to organise an event that looked at the link between access to WASH and quality health care. Earlier this year, WaterAid collaborated with WHO on the launch of a report which revealed the devastating fact that nearly 40% of health-care facilities in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to water. The event’s keynote speakers, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Princess Sarah Zeid, spoke passionately about the need to address these issues holistically. We were also delighted to hear the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tell delegates that the event has inspired him to consider this as a theme for next year’s G7 meeting. For more information read the event report.

Second, we supported the missions of the Netherlands, South Africa, Bangladesh and Hungary to hold an event looking at the issue of inequalities in WASH access. A key theme of the summit was 'no one left behind', and this event challenged member states, key agencies and multilateral organisations such as the World Bank to answer how they would achieve this. One of the key answers came from Sara Jay at the World Bank, who said that if we want to drive really transformative change, we need to “stop investing in just fixing pipes and start investing in fixing the institutions that fix pipes”.

WaterAid is working with partners across the WASH sector (both in government and NGOs) to identify and agree what it will take to do this. 

Third, our colleagues took part in several other side events to discuss and highlight the importance of integrated approaches to achieving sustainable development. Prime among these was the appearance of our Chief Executive Barbara Frost, who spoke alongside Paul Polman, Chief Executive of Unilever, on the importance of hygiene to health and wellbeing. We were delighted that the keynote speech at this event was by the Indian ambassador to the UN, given India’s role on the Inter-Agency Expert Group. The event centred around a collective will to ensure that hygiene does not drop off the radar of member states in the 2030 Agenda.

But it wasn’t all serious. We worked with the Global Poverty Project on this year’s Global Citizen Festival and couldn’t hide our delight to see the President of the World Bank talking WASH with the world’s most famous talking bird. Not words you get to type too regularly.

So what does it all mean?

Member states are now grappling with the implication of having agreed the framework.

The Global Goals reflect a step forward for WASH; we now have a clear goal that asserts the importance of water and sanitation, neglected and forgotten issues such as hygiene and open defecation are now visible, and the framework is built on principles of tackling inequalities and delivering development holistically. It fully recognises that there is no gender equality while women spend their days gathering water, or nutrition security where diarrhoea from dirty water leaches nutrients out of children’s bodies.

At the same time, the 2030 Agenda is far from perfect. WaterAid has serious concerns about the Follow up and Review section in particular. The lowest common denominator was agreed here, and we hope the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) – responsible for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda – and civil society action, can improve this in time.

Making it work at a country level

In some countries, the adoption of the goals into national planning is well underway. Colombia and Denmark are prime examples. Sweden has announced a cross-government and civil society panel that would identify solutions and ensure an integrated approach. In particular, the new era of universal responsibility is evident. The MDG era of rich and poor countries is disappearing. Avinash Kumar from WaterAid India has tackled what this means for India.

Looking at the implications for WASH, it is going to take a while to separate the noise from the signal. No major announcements were made in New York on WASH – unlike on some other areas, such as child survival, with the launch of the new global strategy for women and children. Several member states called for a Head of State-led panel to guide progress on Goal 6, which will be an important development to track.

Measuring progress

As ever, it’s what was going on in the background that may be more interesting. The summit took place a month before the second meeting of the Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG indicators (IAEG). Although the name is a bit out of date, the group still has a pivotal role because it will decide how the goals are measured.

WaterAid has raised concern that the target focused on hygiene is not being given sufficient attention, and that hygiene is being omitted from the discussion. Equally, it is unclear whether member states will be ambitious with their measurement of universal health coverage and go beyond traditional medical interventions to include environmental considerations such as WASH. Over the next few months, we’ll be pressing members of the IAEG to live up to the ambition of the framework.

We also now want to see how the HLPF will turn out. Established in 2013 as a successor to the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Forum is expected to be the body that oversees the 2030 Agenda. If member states are to hold each other to their promises made last month, this will be the place to do it. Ideas are circulating that the four-year cycle of the HLPF means that we will cover four goals each year. In which case 2017 might be the next moment when member states discuss Goal 6 in earnest. If this is the situation, we will work to ensure they don’t forget it in the meantime.

To this end, WaterAid was very pleased to work with UN Water and UNICEF to leave a little reminder in the UN building during the summit – see what we did.

Words into actions

A plethora of articles and blogs have already been written on the subject of what will be needed to 'implement' the SDGs. Some of the best are Elizabeth Stuart's '5 things needed to turn the SDG's into reality' and Duncan Green's 'Hello SDGs, what's your theory of change?'

The starting point has to be that the Global Goals need to catalyse efforts, not replicate them; where countries have existing national plans that involve civil society and are funded and well supported, the 2030 Agenda should merely act as a catalyst and provide new energy. Where countries do not have effective, costed national plans to deliver universal access, WaterAid will work with the government to ensure discussion of the Global Goals includes consultation with civil society and ensures full reference to core components of Goal 6 – universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene in households and extra-household environments like schools and health centres.

The process of joint sector reviews will be an important way to achieve this. Another may be the development of new sustainable development strategies as called for in the ‘Follow up and Review’ section of Agenda 2030. No two countries are likely to look exactly the same, and it will be important not to confuse a universal, norm-setting agenda with a single one-size-fits-all framework. One platform through which member states can work together, especially on target 6.1 and 6.2, is the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Partnership. The SWA partnership was only created in 2010 (nearly two thirds of the way through the MDG era) but it has gained momentum since and will hold high-level meetings in 2016. We hope this will be a forum for ministers responsible for WASH (and financing WASH) to show what has been achieved in the first year of the 2030 Agenda era.

One chapter ends, another begins

For many working on the process to agree what the 2030 Agenda should look like, this is the end of an era. While many are taking a rightly cautious approach to new initiatives such as the Global Goals, from a WASH perspective at least we hope that the agreement can inject new energy into tackling the massive problem of a world in which 2.3 billion don’t have access to basic sanitation.

One final reflection on this author’s part – in 2013, a series of global consultations were launched on topics that member states and UN agencies wanted to discuss as part of the sustainable development agenda. Water and sanitation was not initially included, and only added after concerns were raised by several WASH sector organisations. Three years later, 191 member states have agreed it as a dedicated area for all countries to make progress on.

Ross Bailey tweets as @rossb82