“The world without the SDGs would be a much darker place” - Interview with Paula Caballero and Patti Londoño

In 2011 Paula Caballero had a groundbreaking idea: development is not only for developing countries. The whole world has to change. She wrote down the approach. Strongly supported by the Colombian Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patti Londoño, all member states of the UN adopted her idea in 2015. Today, the Sustainable Development Goals shape the world. This is their story.

Ms Caballero, today the Sustainable Development Goals are a worldwide guideline for development in all countries. A lot of people don’t know that the whole idea came from Colombia. And it all started in January 2011 in a hotel in Bogotá when you worked as Director for Economic, Social and Environmental Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia.

Paula Caballero: Back then, we started to gather a few people to brainstorm about what we were going to do for the Rio+20 summit in the following year …

… which was after 1992 and 2002 the third international conference on sustainable development.

Paula Caballero: Exactly. Patti Londoño had just become Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. The UN had an agenda for what should happen 20 years after the first so-called Earth Summit. But that was not something to inspire anybody. The focus was on something called green economy, a concept around which there was a lot of controversy so there were pointless discussions and fights about what that meant.

And you wanted something different?

Paula Caballero: We thought: this is terrible; it would kill the whole Rio agenda. Something huge has to happen, as we are in such a global crisis. Rio+20 had to be a galvanising and inspiring moment. So we needed to come up with an amazing agenda. I asked Patti for permission and called colleagues from across government, and I brainstormed in the ministry. As I saw it, the only thing that had worked so far in galvanising development was the Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs, that went up to 2015. They were a metric people were able to get and relate to. But it was also a pro-poor agenda, a minimalist agenda. It said that development is only for developing countries. Given the scale of global crises, we needed an agenda for everybody

And you suddenly had this moment where you thought: development should be for the whole world?

Paula Caballero: I thought the MDGs had worked; you can touch them, you can feel them, but they had nothing to do with the economy or environment, for example. So I thought: why don’t we propose the real agenda, the big agenda with all the stuff that has to be done for everybody? In that first meeting, we tentatively called them global environment objectives. But after I proposed the idea to Patti, we thought it better to change them to SDGs.

To Sustainable Development Goals?

Paula Caballero: Yes.

Patti Londoño: I told Paula to go write up the idea.

Paula Caballero: So I said to her that it’s just an idea, maybe a crazy idea. But Patti said, no: write it down. It was a Friday, so I wrote it over the weekend. After that, every time I had to go to New York for other negotiations, I used the time to promote the idea. There was the little Vienna Café in the UN building which I called my office. Every time I was in New York, I would sit there and talk to anybody who would come about the SDGs. Mostly, the first reaction was: this is a crazy idea. We already have the MDGs. The agenda for the next Rio conference has been defined in a UN resolution. You can’t change that. And what do you mean it’s for everybody? For all countries? Developed countries don’t have these problems. And most important, people were asking: why Colombia? Why is Colombia proposing a global agenda?

How important was the fact that the SDGs came from a developing country?

Paula Caballero: Very important. The old MDGs were very much a top-down approach: developed countries provided money and developing countries had to act. But in a globalised world, we have huge problems, caused by everybody, for example, take overconsumption. But development was understood as something that doesn’t happen to a developed country. It was a very patriarchic mindset. Proposing a global development agenda – it didn’t fit in. That was a paradigm shift no one was prepared to agree to at the beginning.

It seems you were angry about that global patriarchy.

Paula Caballero: No, not angry. Passionate.

We can certainly say you talked really passionately about it. Did other developing countries share that feeling?

Paula Caballero: Oh no, most developing countries were, at the beginning, completely opposed to my idea. They were terrified because the official development aid was structured around the MDGs. They funded government programmes to do with health or education. Even big foundations that supported the MDGs were vehemently opposed. But to Colombia, the MDGs were really important. Our proposal was not against the MDGs. It said that we needed to build on the MDG experience to create a radically new framework. But everyone was used to the MDGs. For example, for the bilateral system, it was a very nice thing: for rich countries, it was a simple agenda to fund with straightforward clear targets; it was a done deal. And then Colombia came along and said: let’s replace it with an incredible agenda that truly reflects the complexity of development. Many in both developing and developed countries thought that the SDGs would derail the whole development agenda.

What was your main argument for starting the ball rolling; who supported you?

Paula Caballero: My vice minister and my minister. Otherwise it would never have happened.

Patti Londoño: We gave the initiative the political support it needed. After that, it was a web of different players. We reached out to civil society and certain governments. There was a handful of western delegates that became interested in the idea and stood behind it. We called it “the secret friends of the SDGs”. This informal group came together in November 2011.

What was the first country in Europe to support you?

Paula Caballero: We went round with the proposal in the halls of the UN and cafeterias around the UN, in New York. On 27 March in 2011 we had the first SDG meeting with 20 delegates in the Colombian Mission. The delegates who came were respectful but mostly, they explained all the reasons why it could never work. The reaction was that it would not fly. It’s a long story but, in short, in July, there was a meeting in Solo, Indonesia. That was the first time that I presented the SDGs in an official UN setting. There was no discussion. I was only allowed to present it. But in the hallways, I started to meet with delegates who were getting excited about the idea because it was so tangible and compelling. Key among these was the delegation of the European Union. And they liked the idea very much. Guatemala confirmed that it wanted to support the proposal.

How did the Europeans support you?

Paula Caballero: We had to be secret friends. Because we could not say: Colombia and the EU is proposing that … It would have been dead because we first had to build up ownership by a wide range of countries. At the end of August 2011 there was an informal consultation in Brazil to prepare the Rio+20 summit. The Brazilians said anyone could present what they wanted, so I presented the SDGs. The topic hijacked the meeting completely. No one talked about anything else. But it was a confusing proposal because it was too centred on Agenda 21. So that night, I rewrote the proposal and Guatemala confirmed their endorsement. The next day, we printed out what became known as the “Colombia-Guatemala proposal”, which for many is the original SDG paper. As I said, it is a long story but the next decisive milestone was 1 November 2011. By then, we had enough support that enough countries asked the Rio+20 Secretariat to include the SDGs in the formal negotiation text. That was it! That was the moment that the SDGs formally and irrevocably became a part of Rio+20.

What does that mean for Colombia today? Is the country proud of its invention?

Paula Caballero: Oh yes, very proud. The other day, I met the president in a meeting and he said: I’m so proud of the SDGs and I have structured all my government around it. Same as the previous president. For Colombia, this is a source of great satisfaction.

Now, let’s jump to 2019. This year, it was the first meeting of heads of state to meet and talk about the SDGs since adoption in 2015. The UN Global Sustainable Development Report states that a sustainable future is still possible, but it also observes that “the progress made in the last two decades is in danger of being reversed through worsening social inequalities and potentially irreversible declines in the natural environment that sustains us.” So, where do we stand?

Patti Londoño: The SDGs are a whole new structure for governments, a framework to reorganise their national planning. Governments have been given the perfect tool to focus on advancing an integrated development agenda. And to be able to measure the impact. Of course it will take a while because governments have to adjust. But the good thing is that the SDGs are at the core of many developing programmes. All around the world. Have the SDGs failed because there is more inequality in the world? Have they failed because not all children in the world are educated? That is not the key point because transformative change takes time. But the SDGs are structuring government plans, both at national and local level, which is even more important. If you look at the national reports countries are submitting, which are voluntary, you can see the effort countries are making.

But the UN clearly said: we want to erase poverty and hunger by 2030. And looking at the current state of the world with its crisis of multilateralism and a widening income gap, it seems to be impossible to reach that target.

Paula Caballero: When we were negotiating the SDGs, there were many, many dark moments; even until the last moment, we thought we were going to lose the targets. I remember feeling absolutely desperate. Don’t think the SDGs were inevitable. We almost lost them many times. And today, the world without the SDGs would be a much darker place. And yes, it is going to be very difficult to implement them; you have the totality of what you need for deep, sustained and sustainable development in front of everybody’s faces. Whether you are a director general of a transport company, or are a mayor in a small city, or the captain of a big industry, you have to wilfully ignore the agenda because it is right in front of you, reminding everyone all the time of what needs to be tackled. Implementation is going to be at least as hard as getting them adopted. We cannot take the SDGs for granted.

What about the rise in populism?

Paula Caballero: Because so many indicators are going in the wrong direction, because we are breaching planetary boundaries, because inequality is growing, because populism is growing, the SDGs are more important than ever. With them, we have a reference against which you can measure not just direct but also indirect impacts. The SDGs are a planning tool and a mindset. We are only four years into a paradigm shift. It is not just going to happen overnight. This is actually an agenda for 2050 because the decisions we are making right now on infrastructure, on investments, on vehicle fleets and transport, on energy and food systems … those decisions are being made for the next 30 years. We are already locking in the development trajectories for the next 30 years. Right now. As I put it, “2050 is now”.

Patti Londoño: And it is important that there is a convergence between the civil sector, the economy, the private sector and international organisations for SDG implementation. Big companies, for example, are implementing the SDGs. Have you ever seen something like that before? We changed the narrative regarding how we should organise our societies.

India wants to build many coal-fired power plants to fight poverty. If we tell them to make everything solar-powered because of the climate, it might take longer. How do you deal with these trade-offs?

Paula Caballero: The real trade-off is that India is highly vulnerable. Look at the prospects for Indian agriculture with melting glaciers, erratic monsoons and land degradation. They already have one of the highest rates for farmer suicides in the world. So climate change is already impacting India.
There are a lot of trade-offs. But with climate change, the trade-offs are becoming irreversible. We need to understand this. Climate change will not only make future development goals more difficult to achieve, it will also destroy many development gains to date. Ultimately, that is the real trade-off. And the real story is: the number of coal plants India was going to build has actually gone down. And India has other more sustainable options for ensuring energy access, which are more cost-effective especially for more remote areas that are off the grid. And India knows this. They have positioned themselves as leaders in solar energy and set ambitious targets. So hopefully, India can become an example of how you can adjust to a new reality.

The US seems to be out of the game. Who is going to lead the implementation of the SDGs?

Patti Londoño: All of us. Citizens, young people and of course political leaders. The SDGs don’t come just from the top. They have been built in a very consensual manner. Unless we accept that we all need to embrace the SDGs, nothing is going to happen. I know that is difficult. It is a responsibility approach. We all have to be responsible towards ourselves, our community and our planet. Changing the patterns of consumption and production means a lot of behavioural change. The good thing is that the SDGs are a tool for people to relate to.

The next Rio summit will be in Brazil; President Jair Bolsonaro denies climate change …

Paula Caballero: … Maybe they should consider moving the next Rio summit elsewhere. But international leadership does not depend on the US: they never ratified the Kyoto Protocol or the Convention on Biodiversity , for example. And what happened with the election of Donald Trump is that civil society, the private sector, cities and local governments in the US stepped in and committed to fighting climate change. That is the kind of bottom-up approach that Patti is referring to.

Do you see the same happening in Brazil?

Paula Caballero: Yes, there is a lot of powerful activism in Brazil. But it is very difficult for them right now. And there are a lot of governments around the world that don’t share the sustainability agenda and are not fighting the planetary crisis. That’s reason for everybody else to step up. We need to help change mindsets and support local governments in implementing the SDGs. In many ways, the private sector is actually ahead and pulling governments along. This is a brave new world of diffuse leadership. We have to break out of this idea of top-down leadership. This paradigm shift demands that everyone step up.

So the SDGs may be the mindset that shapes a global society?

Paula Caballero: Yes, but we have to understand that we are not going to implement the SDGs with a business-as-usual approach.

Patti Londoño: We should not leave it to the governments. We all have to work.

Today, Paula Caballero works as Managing Director for the Lands for Life programme at the NGO Rare.
Patti Londoño is now an independent consultant for United Nations affairs.