Reflections on the final post-2015 negotiations and what comes next

WaterAid’s Advocacy Coordinator for Post-2015 Ross Bailey reflects on the final two weeks of the post-2015 negotiations and argues that this important new agenda is not even close to finished.


6 Aug 2015

I arrived in New York two weeks ago with a sense of trepidation. After six weeks of negotiations held over six months, and with nearly three years of discussion, debate and consultation, the final agreement of the Sustainable Development Framework (SDF) was due in a fortnight.

Like many, I arrived direct from Addis Ababa which has just hosted the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD3). The event divided opinion among civil society and some member states felt it hadn’t shown sufficient commitment to structural issues including global tax policy. Many were concerned that this could make the post-2015 negotiations toxic and that the major blocs (EU, G77, Least Developed Countries) would start the discussions with diminished trust. You can read my colleague John Garrett’s blog on our reaction to the FfD3 conference.

Given that the SDF had crossover with the FfD3 process (common but differentiated responsibilities, referring to climate change without challenging the COP21 process, Overseas Development Assistance), it’s fair to say that the mood was tense.

Pleased but exhausted

Two weeks on and I’m pleased to say that we’ve made it through to the other side with an agreed framework. Negotiations started slowly in the first week. Meetings and days ran long. On the last planned day of negotiation, we didn’t even begin until after midnight. But an extra two days of bilateral meetings followed and by the end, most negotiators looked pleased with the result but thoroughly exhausted.

Completed on Sunday 2 August, the framework entitled 'Transforming our World' was accepted with acclamation and a standing ovation. You can get a sense of the mood in the room from this clip:

What’s in it for WASH?

For an overview analysis of the framework, these articles in The Guardian and The Huffington Post are a good place to start. But for water and sanitation, and WASH specifically, there are a few points of note: 

The agreement of the water and sanitation goal

We all know that water was hidden under Goal 7 in the Millennium Development Goals, sanitation forgotten until 2002 and hygiene completely overlooked.

The SDGs will be different. The sustainable management of water and sanitation has a dedicated goal with six interlocking targets including the ambition of universal access to drinking water (6.1) and sanitation and hygiene (6.2). The remaining four targets cover issues of water quality, water use efficiency, transboundary water management and water-related ecosystem preservation. 
The framework has been criticised for having too many goals but if we’re creating an agenda to ensure a population of seven billion develops sustainably, we can't do without one on water and sanitation. Fortunately, the co-facilitators agree.

Read the goals and targets from page 12 of
the agenda.

Reassertion of the right to water and sanitation

We have called for the declaration and vision of the SDF to include a clear reference to the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Importantly, we’ve also called for hygiene to be included so it is not marginalised or left out. 

I'm delighted to say that this was achieved. Getting this was the focus of much discussion over the two weeks (more on that below).

Leave no one behind

The framework repeatedly references the intention to 'leave no one behind'. Ensuring that we tackle inequality of access to resources is an important statement that WaterAid aligns with. 

Given the deep disparities in WASH access both within and between countries, this is a vital principal that we want to see upheld. Despite a struggle with some blocs, there is a heavy equity focus across the document which we hope to leverage when advocating better WASH access.

Multilateralism, human rights and the UN

As a WASH advocate, it was easy to feel parochial in discussions at times. It’s clear that WASH still has a way to go before it’s a political priority. It does feel as if there’s a perception that WASH gets sorted when income poverty is sorted. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I believed this but it’s a constant objection that our sector needs to be better at overcoming. WaterAid’s work looking at the role of WASH in the 'Asian Tiger' economies is part of this.

Talking WASH (more specifically hygiene and sanitation) was extra important given the limited number of civil society organisations with a focus on WASH (as opposed to just water) who were in attendance. More than once, I was jokingly referred to as Mr Sanitation by NGOs and member states. This will certainly horrify my colleagues Andres Hueso and Rémi Kaupp who are the real experts here.

One of the positives of the fortnight was working with organisations from across the spectrum of civil society who advocate on issues related to WASH. In particular, the NGO Mining Working Group and Amnesty International have both worked extensively on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation (HRTWS) and were essential in cementing the reference to the right in the document. Read their take on the week.

Having this alliance was critical during the second week when the HRTWS came under threat. While the HRTWS was already agreed by consensus in 2013, it remains a 'young' right and its form is contested by some states. Throughout the process, we have been concerned that the omission of this right from the declaration would prove to be a setback to our work.

This came to a head on the second Monday and then again on the Thursday when the US Government and Turkey raised opposition to the inclusion of language on the HRTWS. What followed on Friday and Saturday was a concerted effort by the groups mentioned above and WaterAid to ensure that member states spoke up and showed that there was a consensus and majority for this. We were delighted to hear impassioned pleas from a number of countries including Palau, Mexico, Bolivia, South Korea and Switzerland to this extent.

On Saturday, it became apparent that states would be able to reach consensus on this issue. While states could not reach agreement on the whether to include 'affordable' water, they were able to agree to the form of wording used in the Rio+20 Declaration, reaffirming that this 'young' right is maturing.

The basement of the UN can feel a long way from the realities of the WASH crisis that WaterAid and our partners work on daily. However, it’s a privilege to be at the business end of multilateral negotiations; negotiators from key nations (including Switzerland, Ireland, the UK, US and others) were able to work out effective compromises and credit should be given for their spirit of cooperation during tense moments while juggling many other issues. Civil society was praised by Ambassador Kamau following the agreement on Sunday and the CSO partners involved truly showed their value that day, bringing suggestions on language and joining up member states from different blocs and agencies from different parts of the UN.

The author on the final long night of negotiations.

The bad and the ugly

Four areas stood out to me as problematic:

  1. Starting with the most minor, it was a shame to see the preamble cut down. A longer version existed – until Thursday – which most of civil society felt described the framework better. Given that many may never turn past page 1, we are concerned that it now feels quite simplistic. Much comes down to how member states communicate the full breadth of this document.
  2. We were also disappointed that paragraphs 17 and 18 (which look at the existing MDG agenda and what is yet to be done) did not mention WASH. We must make clear that the achievement of the water target in the MDGs does not mean we can take our foot off the accelerator.
  3. While the co-facilitators tried to ensure the preamble joined up between different areas, the document itself still encourages too much siloed thinking.
  4. Most disappointing were the Follow up and Review sections where the level of ambition on how member states would implement the framework and when they would report on it was reduced. Civil society must use the September summit and future opportunities to push hard on this.

Not the beginning of the end, just the end of the beginning

Once the negotiations came to a close on Sunday evening member states and civil society began celebrating. But the hard work starts now. If we’re going to turn this framework from a nice piece of paper into a global action plan, we need: 

  1. Effective indicators - Progress against the targets will be reviewed and we know that what gets measured matters. WaterAid is encouraging colleagues in the sector to join us and promote the indicators used in the WASH sector technical expert consultation. In particular, we urge organisations to join us and 92 other CSOs and multilateral agencies who have called for an indicator on hygiene to be included. 
  2. Political will - This is a 15 year agenda and there will be many opportunities to show Heads of State and Governments why WASH matters. However, there is no time like the present and we are hoping that middle and low income countries in particular will use their statements at the summit to demonstrate their commitment to improving WASH access. 
  3. Implementation - The planning and implementation of the framework is of course the critical part. WaterAid will be working with UN agencies, INGOs and hopefully member states to define strategies for the delivery of universal access to drinking water and sanitation. Those attending Stockholm World Water Week are invited to join us for the start of this discussion.

Into action

Having been a very international process, this must now become a nationally driven effort. It’s incredibly important that solutions are achieved through partnerships, that they are country-led and prioritise community involvement.

WaterAid looks forward to working closely with member states over the coming years to ensure that we achieve just this. In the words of the South African chair of the G77 who quoted Nelson Mandela, “It is always impossible, until it is done”.

This is just the beginning but we hope that we are now one small step closer to the day when 'done' is possible. 

Ross Bailey is Advocacy Coordinator for SDGs at WaterAid and tweets as @rossb82 and you can read more of his blog posts here.  

For global policy, practice and advocacy updates and discussion, follow @wateraid on Twitter.