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Posted on on May 29th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (





Third Session of the Open Working Group (OWG) of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).




22-24 May 2013 | UN Headquarters, New York, United States of America






The third session of the UN General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) took place from 22-24 May 2013, at UN Headquarters in New York. The meeting brought together OWG members, other member states, observers, representatives from UN agencies and Major Groups. The meeting was devoted to addressing the thematic issues of: (a) food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, desertification, land degradation and drought, and (b) water and sanitation. The OWG is co-chaired by Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya, and Csaba Körösi, Permanent Representative of Hungary.




Co-Chair Kamau opened the session on Monday morning highlighting that the issues for discussion are fundamental to human survival. He said the new development agenda must carry over and complete the unfinished business of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), stressing the need to maintain momentum, engagement and enthusiasm. Over the three days, participants heard keynote addresses, panel presentations and had the opportunity to engage in a dynamic interactive exchange of views on the two issue clusters on the agenda.




After summarizing the session on Friday afternoon, Co-Chair Körösi stressed the need for a common vision going forward aiming for transformational change to address poverty eradication and human development. He noted a positive atmosphere with participants exploring challenges, jointly identifying inter-linkages, and collectively determining and prioritizing issues.




The  Summary of this meeting is now available in PDF format


at  and in HTML format at











In June 2012, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development called for the UN General Assembly to develop a set of sustainable development goals that are limited in number, aspirational and easy to communicate, address all three dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced way, and are coherent with and integrated into the UN’s post-2015 development agenda. Establishing the Open Working Group to elaborate these goals and reaching agreement on its membership and draft programme of work required a serious effort, which left some observers concerned about the group’s ability to fulfill its daunting mandate. Now, as the OWG has shifted its focus to substantive issues, the process resembles a jigsaw puzzle as participants begin the process of turning over the pieces to see what they may hold for a future set of sustainable development goals and where they might best fit.



The third session of the OWG was many participants’ first experience in one of the UN’s newly remodeled conference rooms. The first morning held the air of a “jamboree,” in the words of a bemused Co-Chair Macharia Kamau, with many colleagues having just arrived from their capitals. But soon enough the initial glee gave way to focused effort as the three-day meeting got underway.



Expert panel presentations instigated in-depth attention to the selected themes. Throughout the meeting, however, some participants called for greater interactive exchanges and fewer long, prepared and official statements. Various delegates also called for a Co-Chairs’ summary of the meeting, concerned that an official report would put pressure on governments to develop official positions and ensure that their views were accurately reflected. They emphasized that they did not want the summary to become a negotiated document. At this point in the puzzle, delegates clearly wanted to examine all of the pieces, define the issues and engage in substantive interactive discussions.







The first cluster of issues—food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, desertification, land degradation and drought—highlighted inter-linkages between these issues. One delegate stressed that inter-linkages imply tradeoffs, noting that while food production can eliminate hunger, if done in a “business as usual” manner that gain could come with severe costs in other areas, such as land quality, water and fisheries management, biodiversity, pollution, and the rights and protections of people involved. Therefore, in order to achieve long-term, cross-sectoral and irreversible progress—which several delegations indicated is the essence of sustainable development—the SDGs must balance the three dimensions of sustainable development. Some delegations specifically emphasized the economic and structural causes of hunger, referring to agricultural subsidies, volatile food prices, and land privatization as needing further attention. Within this context, there was general support for the Rio+20 goal of a land degradation neutral world and the need for sustainable agriculture, but uncertainty remained as how to incorporate this into the SDGs.



With regard to the second cluster of issues, participants reiterated that water is at the core of sustainable development and that sanitation, in particular, represents unfinished business under the MDGs. The session’s expert panel on water and sanitation introduced the concept of “water security,” revealing a delicate issue for several countries. Despite assurances from panelists that they used the term to mean securing access to water and sanitation, concerns persisted that without an internationally agreed definition “water security” could be seen as support for the UN Security Council to include water issues on its agenda, thus making it a security issue rather than a development issue.



Implicit agreement was easier, however, on the need for focused investment and national policies for better access to water and sanitation. Participants seemed aligned around the idea that water and sanitation deserve specific attention in the SDGs.







A common theme during OWG-3 was the need to address cross-sectoral links in a way that promotes inter-ministerial cooperation at the national level as well as cooperation at the international level. This discussion will likely continue at upcoming OWG meetings. Other issues for continued discussion are the importance of building on the lessons learned from the MDGs, the drawbacks of the “siloed” approach, and continual “re-inventing of the wheel.”



Means of implementation will be a focus in subsequent sessions as well. In his closing remarks on Friday afternoon, Co-Chair Kamau urged delegates not to look at means of implementation in a vacuum or leave it until the December session (OWG-6), where it is a scheduled theme, but to consider it within each set of issues under discussion, and be specific on how to secure it.



As the meeting concluded, several participants were cautiously optimistic that this process had the potential to finally define and operationalize sustainable development. However, others warned that it is still early in the process and success is far from certain. While OWG-3 was a step in the right direction, there are still five more sessions ahead where participants will continue to examine and organize the puzzle pieces before negotiations begin and the SDG puzzle will be pieced together.



This analysis, taken from the summary issue of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin ©, is written and edited by Faye Leone, Kate Offerdahl and Hugh Wilkins, LL.M. The Editor is Pamela S. Chasek, Ph.D. <>. The Director of IISD Reporting Services is Langston James “Kimo” Goree VI <>. The Sustaining Donors of the Bulletin are the European Commission (DG-ENV), the Government of Canada (through CIDA), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), and the Government of Australia. General Support for the Bulletin during 2013 is provided by the Ministry of Environment of Sweden, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SWAN International, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the Japanese Ministry of Environment (through the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies – IGES), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Funding for translation of the Bulletin into French has been provided by the Government of France, the Belgium Walloon Region, Québec, and the International Organization of the Francophone (OIF and IEPF). The opinions expressed in the Bulletin are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IISD or other donors. Excerpts from the Bulletin may be used in non-commercial publications with appropriate academic citation. For information on the Bulletin, including requests to provide reporting services, contact the Director of IISD Reporting Services at <>, +1-646-536-7556 or 300 East 56th St., 11D, New York, NY 10022 USA.




Langston James “Kimo” Goree VI
Vice President, Reporting Services and United Nations Liaison
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)— United Nations Office
300 E 56th St. Apt. 11D – New York, NY 10022  USA
Direct Line: +1 973 273 5860 Mobile phone (new!): +12128107701 Skype: kimogoree


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