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January 24, 2019

How Kenya-led process gave the world SDGs

Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Kenya's Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Ambassador Macharia Kamau, Kenya's Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Despite its notable achievements, Kenya’s permanent mission to the United Nations remains little understood back at home.

Ambassador Macharia Kamau, the head of that mission and the permanent representative to the UN in New York, says even Kenyans in the diaspora have never truly understood what the mission does.

But last week, Kenyans took notice as Ambassador Kamau was showered with praise when heads of states formally adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Kamau co-chaired negotiations over the past three years, finally giving the world the 17 goals and 169 targets, with the near-impossible promise to end poverty in 15 years time.

When he unveiled the draft agreement last month, an emotional Kamau fought back tears, recounting how Pope Francis “continuously prodded us” to seal the deal. He then broke into sobs as he dedicated the agreement to his friend Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti, who had died while negotiations were ongoing.

In his address last week, the Pope noted that the goals may finally help the world address what he called the “culture of waste” and save the fast-degrading environment.

Kamau laments their work remains largely unknown to many Kenyans. “The nature of the work, its complexity and its variety makes it difficult to communicate it to Kenyans,” he says in a past e-newsletter by the Mission.

“Nonetheless, the nature of the work that we deal with, whether it has to do with international security, public health, education, economic development, human rights, women’s and children’s affairs, the law of the sea or the environment etc, is of seminal importance not only to Kenya or Africa but also to the entire world,” he says.

The 57-year-old diplomat said producing the SDGs was a political, intellectual and technical process.

“So, to get all those pieces in place was really the big challenge,” Kamau said. “The challenge was to see how we were going to balance all of this in the context of a global agenda that is universal that represents all cultures, all peoples and all other dimensions of social order in the world,” he told a press conference last month when he presented the draft agreement.

Kamau shepherded the negotiations along with Hungary’s ambassador Csaba Krösi and later Irish Ambassador David Donoghue.

UN secretary general Ban KiMoon heaps praises on the Kenyan diplomat. “I thank Ambassador Kamau and Ambassador KÅ‘rösi for their hard work, engagement and energy. Without their tireless efforts we would not be where we are today. Let us now match their commitment as we work to achieve the sustainable development goals,” he said in a dinner to honour the two.

The new goals were adopted last week amid a thunderous standing ovation from delegations that included many of the more than 150 world leaders. “We are proud as a mission and country in providing leadership for the world and the next generation. This is a far sighted agenda and not navel gazing,” Kamau told journalists in New York last week.

Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN office in Nairobi and the Unep, Dr Martin Kimani, told the Star it was striking that a Kenyan led the process. “It is a great deal,” he said.

Unep executive director Achim Steiner called it a historic step. “For the first time, we have a development agenda that is focused on sustainability in both the developing and the developed world.”

The SDGs will replace the millennium development goals (MDGs), effectively on January 1, 2016.

The goals have however been criticized as being vague and aspirational, and of trying to cover too much ground.

Dr Bjorn Lomborg, the president of the Copenhagen Consensus and one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, says by adopting goals that promise everything to everyone, heads of states may have squandered a once-in-a-generation chance to help the planet most effectively.

He says the MDGs worked because there were 18 clear and short targets.

“Having 169 priorities is the same as having none. This laundry list of aspirations tries to please everyone and yet will end up doing much less for the most vulnerable people,” Dr Lomborg says.

Based on this research, a panel of experts including several Nobel laureate economists established that focusing on just 19 phenomenal development targets would achieve four times more good for every dollar spent than spreading money across all 169.

Dr Lomborg is now working with developing countries to help focus on the most important goals for them.

Defenders of the SDGs, on the other hand, point out that the goals have emerged from a genuinely inclusive process that made room for voices from developing countries, unlike the MDGs, which were handed down by technocrats from above.

“These are goals for the entire world. They are universal. The MDGs were targeted at developing countries, particularly the poorest,” Dr Kamau notes.

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