Framing Sustainable Development Goals With Mountain Perspectives: Post Rio+20 Actions

Mar 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Adaptation, Agriculture, Biodiversity, Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Disasters and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Energy, Environment, Experts Speak, Forest, Governance, Government Policies, Information and Communication, Land, Lessons, Livelihood, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Mitigation, Opinion, Population, Renewable Energy, Resilience, Rio+20, UNFCC-CoP18, UNFCCC, Vulnerability, Water

Dr. Karki

Dr. Madhav Karki writes about the commitments made by the member countries during Rio+20 summit on various sustainable development goals (SDGs) on low carbon green economy principles and good governance practices, in socio-economic and environmental perspectives. He argues that post Rio+20 actions should be more cohesive, participatory, multi-disciplinary and simple in approach, so that they  could be easily communicated and adopted by the communities. The adoption of these principles through focused developmental targets in concurrence with low carbon, green, resource efficient pathways as per local needs are the important areas of actions by country governments. He argues about various priority areas as post Rio+20 actions on climate adaptation & mitigation plans, poverty eradication targets and reviewing specificities of national policies and processes in context to mountains.

We are looking for further observations and comments on this discourse at our ‘Mountain Perspective’ discussion thread. Link>>  

In the Rio+20 conferences, the member countries have supported the idea of developing an elaborated set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). It is also generally believed that the SDGs could also become a basis for redefining and/or making the MDGs complementary to SDGs. This paper argues that beyond 2015 scenario, the MDGs should only continue if they enshrine sustainable development principles at its core. The SDGs should encompass and build on lessons learned as well as the experiences gathered by the member countries in implementing MDGs but also the lessons gained and good practices involved in implementing some of the sustainable development projects and programmes implemented during the 1992-2012 period . Additionally, the SDGs should also take into consideration of the needs reflected in the member states’ climate change adaptation and mitigation measures such as National Action Plan for Adaptation (NAPA), National Action Plan for Mitigation (NAMA), and other resilience building initiatives, especially in mountain regions. The mountain countries should first and foremost set goals to eradicate poverty and adapt to increasing frequency of extreme events transforming the unsustainable fossil fuel-based economy into green economic pathways. Finally, in the post Rio+20 scenario, the process to develop mountain specific SDGs should help mountain countries to promote mountain agenda in all the global environment and development discourses.


In the recently concluded Rio+20 conference, member countries have agreed through the Outcome document[1] to develop sustainable development goals (SDGs) to guide the member countries implement the revamped and recommitted sustainable development agenda. The Outcome document prescribes that the SDGs must be based on the commitment made and the programme framework already agreed under the Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPoI) (1). Besides, these new set of goals have to fully embrace all the Rio Principles[2] and follow the multilateral environment agreements reached under the United Nations umbrella. The SDGs are also required to be developed building on the commitments already made by member countries and the process agreed in the Rio+20 conference (2). The aim of the SDGs principally is to guide the sustainable development pathways incorporating low carbon green economic principles following a good governance system and practices. SDGs will also facilitate better and fuller implementation of the agreements of all past summits in the economic, social and environmental arena. The SDGs have to also focus on priority areas of the member countries that have been collectively decided at the UN level for the achievement of sustainable development and above all, they need to be guided by the Rio+20 outcome document.

Key issues

One of the major issues discussed in the Rio+20 conference was the need to strike a proper balance among the three dimensions of sustainable development – social, environmental, and economic – and ensure their synergistic and complementary relationships and interlinks. The process adopted in this task has to be bottom-up, multi-stakeholder, and participatory that can ensure a well consulted, coordinated and coherent multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral mechanism of goal setting. Additionally, the Rio+20 process being a declared action-oriented exercises, the SDGs naturally have to be also action oriented as well as concise, simple and easy enough to communicate them to the general public. These goals like the MDGs have to be also manageable in number and flexible enough so that each country depending on their capacity, stage of development, the availability of human resources, and means of implementation can set their own level of ambition and gradually achieve these goals.

However, the SDGs implementation and achievement principles and framework has to be common to all the countries to ensure that all countries set their development trajectory on the low carbon, green, resource efficient and sustainable path. Perhaps the timeframe has to be differential according to the technical capacity, availability of the means of implementation, and national situation. The SDGs actually should be a set of tools that should be useful for pursuing and charting out a focused, coherent, time-bound, and targeted sustainable development roadmap through a country driven process. The SDGs should be also useful to assess the impact of policies on achieving the past goals say MDGs and should help drive the implementation and mainstreaming process of sustainable development. These goals also need to address the urgent needs of the mountain communities and respond to the immediate priority areas of the vulnerable and marginal countries in their efforts to achieve sustainable development goals (5).

Post Rio+20 UN-led Processes

The Rio + 20 outcome document The Future We Want had decided to establish an inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process on developing and finalizing SDGs that is open to all stakeholders with a view to developing global sustainable development goals to be agreed by the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The outcome document mandated the creation of an inter-governmental Open Working Group that will submit a report to the General Assembly in 2013 containing a proposal for sustainable development goals for consideration and appropriate action. The outcome document specifies that the process leading to the SDGs needs to be coordinated and coherent with the processes considering the post 2015 development agenda and that initial input to the work of the Open Working Group will be provided by the UNCSD in consultation with national governments.

The UN Secretary-General and over 60 entities across the United Nations including the World Bank, IMF and OECD have worked together to produce a report that outlines the process and framework for developing the SDGs. An yet to be defined UN arm will most probably provide the technical support to the Open Working Group as mentioned in the Rio+20 outcome document. As has been observed in all the UN-led processes, Mountains have been generally neglected in MEA related processes and therefore it is incumbent on the agencies such as ICIMOD to postulate and submit what I believe should be the mountain perspectives in developing the SDGs. This paper therefore proposes the key priorities, goals, processes, and partnerships from mountain perspectives for this purpose.

Priority Areas and number of goals

It can be safely argued that poverty eradication, good environmental governance and social and gender equity should be the overarching goals of the SD in mountains or what is popularly known as the Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD). For identifying the goals first key priorities and goal targets can be identified as suggested below:

  1. Poverty Eradication
  2. Food and Energy security
  3. Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation
  4. Biodiversity Conservation
  5. Resilience building to natural Hazards, Risks and Disasters
  6. Social and Gender Equity
  7. Sustainable Forest and Natural Resources Management
  8. Gainful Employment to Youth and Women
  9. Universal Primary and Vocational Education
  10. Universal Primary Health Care
  11. Mountain and Women Friendly Technologies

The above priority list (in no particular order) of areas aims to address the most urgent needs and incorporates, in a balanced way, all three dimensions – social, economic, and environmental of sustainable development (SD) as well as SMD and their inter linkages in the following manner: There is an ongoing debate on whether we should have both MDGs and SDGs or only MDGs integrating environmental sustainability aspects in them or only SDGs incorporating the 8 MDGs in the SDGs to be agreed by the UN member countries.

From the mountain perspective framework, we feel that there will be a practical challenge in having two set of goals which will create duplications, spreading the limited resources of the mountain countries too thin, and above all creating confusion in achieving and reporting both sets of goals. We do see problems and challenges in integrating either of them into one single set of goals since MDGs are for developing countries only. For mountainous countries many of which are LDCs, MDGs are equally important. Also, since SDGs are required to be of global in nature, the challenge remains as to how MDGs could also be applicable to all the countries – developing and developed.

However, I feel that being largely developing and least developed countries, mountain countries should advocate and work for one set of global goals – be it SDGs or MDGs at global level with enough flexibility to achieve them in a gradual manner. In this respect, perhaps MDGs after their expiry in 2015 should be graduated into SDGs or millennium sustainable development goals (MSDGs) since the MDGs are not only lacking the environmental sustainability aspect particularly the goals to combat climate change which is crucial for the survival of the mountain countries but also social equity or equitable economic growth aspect. SDGs can be made much broader in scope and divided into sub-goals to suit different countries according to their varying level of capacity, capabilities, technologies, resource availability and ground reality. Developed countries can have the SDGs out of which they may report only on goals not achieved which I guess would be mostly environment related and on those already achieved they can provide lessons to developing countries on the processes and measures that worked and did not work thus avoiding the mistakes developed countries made.

The SDGs can be made all encompassing to include new changes and challenges that have come up in recent years such as climate change, disaster risks, hunger, food security and energy security, pandemics, unsustainable growth and a suitable operational framework proposed. Most importantly, the above mentioned three overarching goals should guide the revision of MDGs so that they truly becomes universally applicable MSDGs. Expanding the MDGs by incorporating environmental and resource scarcity aspects alone will not make MDGs achieve the intent of the SDGs thereby ensuring the environmental, social and economic sustainability of the world. The word `sustainability’ in all its intent and purpose must be incorporated in any future version of MDGs or SDGs or in MSDGs.

The utility, value and relevance of the SDGs

Rio-CHI-The future of mountainsThe major use of the SDGs in the mountain contexts, in my view should be: a) to review the impact of national policies on improving the livelihoods of mountain people and resilience of mountain ecosystems and people, and b) to help balance economic, social and environmental pillars in policy development process and programme implementation. They should also help frame mountain specific policies and programmes. In many mountainous countries, the problem is not due to lack of polices but more due to the lack of their full and meaningful implementation. Therefore, having holistic, inclusive, and equitable goals and all encompassing SDGs would be useful tool to mountain countries to use them as filters to measure the impacts of policy implementation. The SDGs can also help to strike a better balance among the three pillars of sustainable development since the goals will have to include environmental sustainability, social equity and economic efficiency in terms of carbon intensity, resilience to disasters, and livelihood diversification. The goals along with the SD/SMD indicators will help us to make sure that the intended target beneficiaries of a particular policy are reached and that the development becomes sustainable.

The SDGs in the mountain context will also have to be of strategic nature. To suit mountain country’s specific needs, these goals will have to enable mountain countries to set targets at differential ambition level so as to suit the specific situations of each country according to the capacity and resources availability with each country as already stated above. Although the SDGs are of global nature but each country can set the target at the level it believes it can meet the achievement. For example, least developed countries (LDC) that are mostly mountainous in nature may have to set their ambition level at lower band compared to a typical developed country’s ambition. For example, Nepal may have to give first priority to achieve the basic needs requirement of her people such as ensuring minimum supply of food, nutrition, clothing, energy, housing, health, drinking water, sanitation, primary education to all keeping the environment sustainable and ensuring social and gender equity as per the internally accepted level.

But how to go about developing all encompassing SDGs that can address the ongoing issues such as equity and justice in the climate change adaptation, mitigation as well as the sustainable development processes and outcomes is a big challenge. Perhaps the common but differentiated principles agreed in both the Rio 92 and the Cancun Adaptation Framework can allow countries to use global framework of adaptation and sustainability to develop realistic and acceptable.

The other MEAs, especially the COP17 agreements – Durban Platform – and the most recently the Rio+20 outcome document have reinforced and further solidified this notion. Therefore, the methodology to be followed should be such that SDGs will be set at strategic level and each country’s development policy and strategy will set SDGs as target or operational levels to be achieved by certain timeline meeting common global sustainability criteria and indicators. For example, in case of mountainous least developed countries in the HKH region such as Afghanistan and Nepal, given the resource constraints, capacity deficit, and lack of technology, the timeline of achieving SDGs will have to be of longer duration compared to some of the fast growing economies such as China and India.

This example points out the need for the development and environment sustainability parameter to be set at wider in space and time. However, the mountain countries will have to make full commitment to SDGs along with the resolve to keep a balance among the three pillars of SD/SMD. I think for the mountain countries, the spirit of the SDGs will have to be more to achieve the balance, coherence, and coordination among the three pillars and in making sure that the different goal aspiration level are achieved in a balanced manner.

Importance of Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation

“The SDGs have to fully respect all the Rio Principles, build upon commitments already made, and contribute to the implementation of the outcomes of all major summits in the economic, social and environmental fields” says `The Future We Want’ outcome document of the Rio+20. Therefore the SDGs “should be coherent with and integrated into the United Nations development agenda beyond 2015″, (3); The MDG being the goals set for developing countries by the UN, any future replacement of and/or revision of the MDGs must focus on goals # 1, 2, 3, 7 and 8 for their inclusion into global SDGs although some elements of all goals may have to be considered while framing the SDGs.

Similarly, form the Agenda 21 and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPoI) commitments perspectives, aspects such as low carbon or green economic approaches, social equity, and environmental sustainability and good governance must be included in any SDGs. There are number of cross cutting issues that must also be included in these goals prominent among them being sustainable extraction and use of biodiversity and natural resources; sustainable development practices at national level that also address regional and global sustainability issues.

Health and energy for all, good institutional framework for participatory and decentralized development, and gender equity and equality are other cross cutting issues that need to be addressed as well, especially in the mountain contexts. The priority or key areas for interventions to achieve sustainable development specifically SMD impacts at scale are: food, water, energy, and ecological security, sanitation, and sustainable use of water, ecosystem services of mountains and dry lands especially forests, biodiversity and range land, health, education, and shelter.

Critical Steps to be taken

In order to ensure that the SDGs are coherent, integrated and forward looking, a number of steps are to be taken to make sure that the SDG process is holistic, inclusive and innovative. For this, the important steps suggested are: First, the key is to have a coherent, committed and convincing policy at various levels to work toward achieving sustainable development goals. Second, multi-disciplinary thinking and interdisciplinary actions are need in an effective implementation of policies. The other steps to be taken also include taking overarching actions such as: global commitment to sustainable production and consumption, good environmental governance, poverty reduction, population management, and regional co-operation. Incentive based mechanisms such as payment for ecosystem services, REDD+, global funding to build natural and environmental commons will be the economic instruments. `Polluters Pay’ principles should be implemented and enforced from global, national to local levels. Resources must be made available to least developed and land locked country to organize the capacity building, technology transfer, and means to implementation of the SDGs. Also effective measures have to be planned to surmount the challenges such as creating green jobs and pro-poor growth, social inclusion or inclusive development, building resilient communities and ecosystems, more applicable science and technological solutions, south, triangular and private-public-civil society partnerships and affordable financing mechanisms, and strengthening existing institutions and organizations for accelerating sustainable development agenda.

Monitoring, measurement, and assessment of progress toward SDG achievement

As mentioned above the SDG framing process has to be participatory in nature, multi-stakeholder in process, and ensure public-private-civil society involvement in implementation. I also think partnership building and networking will be the key in designing, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the progress on SDGs. `One size fit all’ approach will not work and considering each country and region’s peculiar conditions and local realities, there is a need to develop a menu of options so that the implementation, monitoring and evaluation frameworks are also developed to meet differential conditions of member countries.

As it is well known fact that the `monitoring and evaluation’ is as good as `planning and designing’ of the activities which means that each member country should develop involvement and ownership of all the stakeholders by involving them from the design to evaluation of the SDG related projects and programmes. Just involving stakeholder either in design or monitoring alone will only yield criticism and frustration. The participatory process has to begin from the proposal or idea development stage itself. The project development exercise itself should be preceded with participatory planning and concept generation for securing stakeholders’ inputs and agreement.

This will develop not only ownership of the scheme by the stakeholders but also help ease up the implementation process. The commonly developed idea will then be developed into a proposal by the professionals as the proposal development is a technical and professional work. But once the proposal is developed, it must be shared and suitably communicated to all the concerned stakeholders for their feedback and acceptance. The SD agenda must be developed through a bottom-up process to ensure that the goals should include collection and synthesis of the SD agenda and plans at sub-district, district, province and country levels. Relevant civil society organizations should be involved based on the principle that the inputs should promote the agenda of the mountain people and the ecosystems and that the concerned civil society organizations have expertise, capacity and good track record to contribute and contribute positively to the process. But all relevant stakeholders and potential contributors from CBOs, NGOs, and INGOs must be involved in the sustainable development process.

Guiding principles for SDGs in Mountain Countries

Mountain countries should guide the process of developing SDGs based on some key principles or guidelines: a. holistic and participatory development of the goals, sub goals and indicators; b. inclusive in process by involving all gender, social classes, and stakeholders concerned; c. equitable in its coverage and aim in that those people and regions that are poor, marginalized, disadvantaged, and vulnerable should get the highest priority in terms of attention and interventions; d. universally applicable but based on the sub-principle of common but differentiated approach; and e. action, oriented, time-bound and with full financial, technical and institutional backing for their full implementation with areas needing urgent and immediate attention receiving higher priority.

Global Partnership for achieving SDGs

Partnership at all levels- national, regional, and global – at both vertical and horizontal scales will be necessary to achieve the SDGs, especially in mountain countries. Not only global but also regional and sub-regional level partnership building efforts are therefore called for that includes south-south, north-south, triangular, public-private-civil society partnerships based on the principles of: a) lesson learning and experience sharing, b) enabling the least developed member countries to `leap-frog’ in their development efforts, and c) commitment to the overarching sustainable mountain development goals of poverty eradication; environmental sustainability, and sustainable consumption and production, and equitable development.


Author: Dr. Madhav Karki wrote this article for Climate Himalaya’s Expert Speak column. Dr. Karki worked as Deputy Director General (2005-2012) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) at Kathmandu, Nepal, is now associated as Senior Research Faculty with ISET-Nepal. Email:

[1] United Nations; General Assembly; Document no. A/RES/66/288; Sixty-sixth session; Resolution adopted by the General Assembly;[without reference to a Main Committee (A/66/L.56)]; The future we want;11 September 2012;

[2] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Sustainable Development (UNDESA/DSD) (2012). Sustainable Development in the 21st century (SD21); Review of implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Principles Synthesis, January 2012, UN HQ, New York


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One Comment to “Framing Sustainable Development Goals With Mountain Perspectives: Post Rio+20 Actions”

  1. Vir Singh says:

    Kudos to Dr. Madhav Karki for this wonderful piece which covers virtually all the issues necessary for conventional mountain development. The eleven priority areas Karki-ji has elaborated upon appear phenomenal for development intervention in the mountain region. But what is grossly lacking are the factors that integrate everything there is in the mountains.

    Our development (if we call it development) is often sliced into various sectors or segments virtually with no or little epistemological input. We can achieve “targets” in individual activities or programmes, but when we see the overall outcome, the “goal” is found missing and almost unreachable! Why? Because there is no philosophical foundation the whole agenda can firmly stand upon, robust and integrated. Operationalisation of the sliced programmes does not lead to wholeness. Disintegrated priority areas do not lead to an integrated whole. Diversity of everything does not lead to united and ever-blossoming oneness.

    In the over-specialisation of the development intervention that compels “participation” only of the politically strong and favoured individuals, capitalistic organisations, pro-capitalistic professionals and a nexus of vested interests, always misses the genuine participation of the largest component, that is, people, without whom there can be no revolution. Of course, there are always, nice words to “ensure people’s participation”, but it is also a fact that this genuine participation can never be a dream come true when there are so many development actors there to take lions’ share out of development.

    What is the crux of the truth is to pursue eco-philosophy which is vital for infusing life into development intervention and turn the conventional development into a sort of sustainable development. Sustainable development of the Himalayan mountains cannot be realised without ecological integrity of everything else there is. And ecological integrity — the ultimate truth of the survival and sustainability of the biosphere — cannot be realised without eco-philosophy. What must imbibe in our Minds (if they are fertile enough) is not a mechanistic approach to mountain development, but an eco-philosophical approach with people (not the favoured human species) at the heart of it.

    Prof. Dr. Vir Singh
    Department of Environment
    GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology
    Pantnagar, Uttarakhand, India

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