‘This is an Agenda of unprecedented scope and significance. It is accepted by all countries and is applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. These are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike.’ – Paragraph 5, The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
As we enter the third year of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is encouraging to see many countries developing their own national implementation and monitoring mechanisms. The national momentum across various geographies inspired me to reflect on the universality principle and its implications for the agenda’s vision to ‘end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change.’
The universality principle, outlined in Paragraph 5 of the agenda, is a significant shift from the preceding agenda, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which addressed the most pressing issues faced by developing and least developed countries. The principle asserts that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) apply to all countries because every country has progress to make in achieving the goals and targets set out by the agenda. Both developing and developed countries face challenges outlined in the SDGs (i.e. food security, resilient cities) and some challenges necessarily require international co-operation to address them (i.e. climate change, within and between inequality, international migration).
There are several implications of the universality principle. Firstly, it gives the agenda a degree of legitimacy in arguing that it is relevant to all actors. This is important given that the Sustainable Development Agenda is a voluntary agreement and not legally binding.
Secondly, universality emphasises the interdependent nature of the world today which makes it more plausible to hold different actors to account for the impact of their actions.
Finally, the universality principle signals a new world order where countries are not sharply divided between developed/North and developing/South but exist on a continuum across various issues. It also means progress towards sustainable development is not based on developing countries ‘catching up’ (unidirectional) with developed countries but all countries working in tandem to mitigate the drivers of existing inequalities (multidirectional).
The universality principle is theoretically sound but can be politically problematic in its application. On the one hand, it provides several possibilities for making progress towards a sustainable world. It connects territories to enable co-operation on the big collective action problems of the 21st century. It facilitates a new world order that allows actors to organise across geographies, across disciplines, and with other stakeholders.
On the other hand, there are political realities which make it difficult to advance the principle. The universality principle assumes a global orientation and preference towards interdependence, co-operation and prioritisation of collective interest. Development co-operation, however, remains a highly politicised area of international co-operation. The prevailing trends in international aid such as the merging of foreign policy and foreign aid objectives (securitisation of aid) foster a culture of competition which make it difficult to enable the level of interdependence which the universality principle advocates for.
The intersection between national politics and international politics is another challenge to enabling the principle of universality. National public engagement campaigns on the SDGs focus on raising awareness of the agenda with the assumption that awareness results in legitimacy of the agenda. Through my work creating public campaign initiatives, I have found that it is also important to address people’s existing perceptions of development co-operation and the country’s relationship with other countries. It is difficult to advocate for universality when a country’s foreign policy strategy and domestic politics prioritise independence, competition and self-interest over collective interest.
If I were to recommend ways to advance the universality principle, I would emphasise the following actions:
- At the international level, organise an annual forum on Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development (SDG 17.14) to be held at every High Level Political Forum. In doing so, countries learn from each other and they also create a dedicated political space to discuss the difficulties in aligning national and international priorities over long-term time periods.
- At the national level, host annual public surveys and multi-stakeholder forums to evaluate the existing narratives around international development and how they hinder/enable the universality principle. In the UK, for example, there exists competing narratives (consider this and this) which send mixed-messages about UK’s position and relationship with other countries in the context of global development.