Development goals: the tough task of drafting world’s wish-list

Ireland’s UN ambassador helping to broker new global aims among 193 nations

David Donoghue: “It’s to get away from this idea that there is one part of the world, which has somehow got it right, in effect telling the rest of the world what to do.”

David Donoghue: “It’s to get away from this idea that there is one part of the world, which has somehow got it right, in effect telling the rest of the world what to do.”


This year is a big deal for the United Nations. Not only are there high hopes for a landmark deal on tackling climate change at a conference in Paris this winter, but talks are progressing on a sweeping set of global objectives known as the Sustainable Development Goals to be unveiled in September.

Leading those negotiations are Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s permanent representative to the UN, and Dubliner David Donoghue, Ireland’s own representative in New York. The new goals, or the SDGs, make up a 15-year plan replacing the Millennium Development Goals that expire this year. Those goals centred largely on social issues.

The new objectives go further, aiming to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and create sustainable economic growth for all. It is effectively a wish-list for the planet, to be ticked by 193 nations by 2030. No pressure then.

Sitting in a 19th-floor boardroom in Ireland’s mission to the UN on the east side of Manhattan, Donoghue laughs and considers his words carefully when asked about co-chairing the negotiations.

“It has been challenge, at times enjoyable, other times less so,” he says, “but so far, so good. We have had about six months of monthly sessions where we have gone through each of the components of what will be the agreement.”

The challenges are obvious. Where there were eight Millennium Development Goals, the new framework has 17 goals and 169 targets. The old goals were essentially the rich world telling the developing world what they should do and offering them financial support to do it. They were more or less written on the back of an envelope by some UN officials.

The new goals are being negotiated among all 193 UN member countries, making this process more universal and Donoghue’s task highly complex.

“It’s to get away from this idea that there is one part of the world, which has somehow got it right, in effect telling the rest of the world what to do,” he says.

Donoghue stresses that the goals are politically, not legally, binding, which means countries will not be sanctioned if they fail to meet them. “The worst there would be is political embarrassment because there will systematic monitoring at global, regional and national levels.”

The goals go beyond traditional development issues such as health and education and deal with human rights, creating peaceful and inclusive societies, and building sustainable cities – a key issue given that 80 per cent of the world’s poor live in cities.

Illustrating the scale of the challenge ahead, a UN report released on Monday says that about 800 million people still live in extreme poverty and suffer from hunger, despite the Millennium Development Goals being the most groundbreaking anti-poverty campaign in history.

So why have 17 goals this time when not all eight goals were fully achieved last time? Donoghue – a former ambassador to Russia, Austria and Germany and a one-time director general of Ireland’s development agency, Irish Aid – admits 17 is “a slightly awkward number” but says it was important to have political buy-in from as many countries as possible. “If you were to tamper with the 17 in any way, too many countries will be afraid that the whole thing might unravel,” he says.

A more immediate obstacle is the cost of financing them. On Monday, Donoghue will attend the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa where countries will have to put their money where their mouths are. The World Bank has set a target in this area succinctly in a report published in April called From Billions to Trillions.

Donoghue acknowledges that the talks on financing have been “difficult.” A working document has yet to be finalised and he warns that if the poorest countries leave Ethiopia disappointed, it could lead to difficulties in his negotiations.

“They may try to use our remaining negotiations to go back to the table on issues where they felt that they came up a bit short,” he said.

If there is a positive outcome in Addis, it will boost Donoghue’s talks which are due to conclude at the end of the month. Either way, the stage is set for a public declaration of the goals by world leaders at the 70th session of the UN general assembly in September.

Donoghue clearly understands the weight on his shoulders, citing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s assertion that these negotiations “are about the future of humanity and the planet”.

The payback for Ireland’s role in these important steps is a stronger hand when canvassing for election as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council in 2021-22.