A (Non) Modest Proposal for the G20: A Sustainable World Commission to Achieve the SDGs 

The next G20 Summit Meeting of heads of state will be held in Rome on Oct. 30 and 31, 2021, under the Italian G20 Presidency. The agenda, with the title “People, Planet, Prosperity”, addresses major obstacles to achieving a sustainable world; a series of lower-level “working” meetings prepares the Summit, including, most recently: G20 Empower to identify measures to accelerate women’s empowerment; the Youth 20 Inception Meeting to open a two-month (virtual) dialogue for young delegates (between 20 and 30 years of age) to discuss global challenges; the G20 TechSprint Initiative under the sponsorship of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) Innovation Hub and the Bank of Italy focusing on the most pressing challenges in green and sustainable finance.

With “People, Planet, and Prosperity” focused on achieving a sustainable world, the G-20 agenda is fully in line with the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that covers the whole gamut of sustainability issues from environment/climate change to social justice issues and economic development. The hope is that this G20 meeting will be powerful enough to move us toward a more sustainable world as defined by the SDGs – something we all seek, including advanced industrialized countries, according to the latest OECD paper calling for a “Green Transition”.

But how to get there? The time has come to decide not what should be done – the UN 2030 Agenda tells us that – but how to do it.

No doubt, there are many possible solutions, but here, I offer a (non) modest proposal. Not modest because it is very ambitious. But it has the advantage of being practical. And it is addressed to the G20 and everyone involved in the run-up to the upcoming Summit. 

Why the G20? Because today this is the one international organism most representative of the world’s geopolitical composition, as it includes both the most important leaders and the largest economies. 

The idea is simple and could be summarized in five points:

  • The goal of a sustainable world has been clearly spelled out in the UN 2030 Agenda and the 17 SDGs but the implementation – how to get there – has been left in the hands of national governments: 
  • No international organization as presently organized is equipped to carry through the necessary coordination to achieve the 17 SDGs; the UN cannot deliver, it has no coercive authority over its member states and in the hands of geopolitical powers;
  • A new governance system needs to be set up to achieve the 17 SDGs, an international institution able to coordinate national governments in a way that the United Nations system cannot: Strong, independent, and innovative, it could be modeled after a successful government agency such as NASA was after it was tasked by President Kennedy to take a man to the moon ;
  • Call it the Commission for a Sustainable World (CSW); while it could follow the NASA model, it would be mandated to achieve a far bigger task – namely, to make the world sustainable for eight billion people – and therefore require adequate funding and regulatory powers;  
  • The CSW must be independent like the European Commission is in its relations with EU member states; it would report on progress to the UN General Assembly and the G20, subject to review, say every 3-5 years, and limited in duration by a “sunset clause” to ensure that once the SDGs are achieved, the CSW would be terminated.

The key idea here is that the CSW is a hybrid institution, modeled after the European Commission but anchored in the UN system, yet much stronger than the UN. 

But it should not become a permanent new international organization or replace the UN.

Also, the CSW would pose no threat to national sovereignty as it would only operate in the areas agreed to by the UN General Assembly: UN 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. That means only two broad areas: The environment (which includes Climate Change) and social justice. And the CSW would regularly report to the UN and the G20 (should the G20 take it upon itself to promote and fund it) and be subject to review to ensure that management flexibility does not cause it to sink into corruption and that it remains within its mandate.

A note of caution: Some flexibility will be needed as the SDGs’ general timeframe is 2030 except for SDG13 (Climate Action) that includes the Paris Climate Agreement’s target to achieve zero-net emissions set at 2050. Also, problems evolve and unexpected events occur – for example, the COVID pandemic was barely mentioned under SDG#3. It would seem wise therefore to have the Commission established for at least 10-15 years. By going for even 10 years you have it running beyond the 2030 Agenda’s current life.

The goal is to give the new governance system a chance to show its worth and, if need be, adapt it to new circumstances. Here is what it would take to create such an institution. And it starts with our changing view of the role of government.

The Real Role of Government in Society: A Driver of Innovation  

Keynes once famously said: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Milton Friedman comes to mind, one of the leaders of the Chicago School and father of the neoliberal ideology that shaped policies over the last fifty years, chipping away at the role of government and elevating the private sector as the only fount of innovation.

But views on the role of government began to change in the 1990s as the privatization of public services failed to satisfy consumers. In 2008, capitalism was hit by the 2008 Great Recession.  In 2011 Occupy Wall Street protested against the inequalities in the system. In this changing environment, a new wave of economists that studied institutions and innovation came up with alternative solutions, notably the Italian-American economist, Mariana Mazzucato, Professor at University College London and founder and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. With her 2014 bestseller The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (2014) she highlighted the importance of government investment in basic research, illustrating it, inter alia, with the technologies making your iPhone ‘smart’: They were all government-funded, The Internet, GPS, the touch-screen display, and the voice-activated Siri.

In 2019, it was the turn of the SDGs to be reviewed, and Mazzucato joined a team of economists led by Columbia U. Professor Jeffrey D Sachs that included Guido Schmidt-Traub, Dirk Messner, Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Johan Rockström. Together they produced a major paper calling for “Six Transformations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. They reduced the 17 SDGs to six major areas of action and for each, they identified “priority investments and regulatory challenges”, identifying specific “actions by well-defined parts of government working with business and civil society”. Their proposal is to be “operationalized within the structures of government while respecting the strong interdependencies across the 17 SDGs.” 

Underpinning this proposal is the belief that government is not a system of gray bureaucrats, drowning in paperwork but a valid partner for both business and civil society. But while this approach provides a clear path to achieving the SDGs at national level, it does not offer a solution to deal with cross-border global challenges: Inevitably, some countries will forge ahead while others fall behind. International coordination is needed so that measures to achieve the SDGs are taken together by all the governments concerned. 

I believe a way out of this conundrum is provided by Mariana Mazzucato’s just-published book, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (2021), undoubtedly her most inspired work to date. Once you’ve read that book – a quick read (210 pages) – you’ll never think of government in the same way again.

Just as she did in her 2014 book, Mazzucato makes a powerful case for public sector intervention in the economy. There is a good reason why we should trust the government, she writes, because “only government has the capacity to bring about transformation on the scale needed” (italics added). This time, however, she brings to the argument a striking example: NASA.

Kennedy made his speech to Congress in 1961 proposing to go to the moon and NASA delivered, incredibly, in nine years: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

The Apollo Program launched the US into space ventures and, as Mazzucato notes, “it is hard to argue that Apollo was a waste of money when set against the colossal cost of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Cost of the Apollo Program Compared to Other Major U.S. Government Programs/Policies: 

(Source: The Mission Economy)


Today, we benefit from the results of NASA’s investments in technology, from camera phones to portable computers. There are over 2000 spinoffs from NASA technology and today NASA still plays a remarkable technical leadership role even though it has been reduced like most Federal agencies:

As Mazzucato says:

“We did it to go to the moon. We can do it again to fix our problems and improve the lives of every one of us. We simply can no longer afford not to.

A Global NASA to Achieve the United Nations 2030 Agenda? 

One might be tempted to conclude that what is needed is a global NASA capable of forming dynamic partnerships with all stakeholders: governments, the UN technical agencies, the private sector and civil society. Such an institution would need to be very big: To make the world sustainable for 8 billion people, it would require generous funding and talented staff. 400,000 young and dedicated people, just like NASA in the sixties. That’s 10 times more than the whole of the UN system today. 

But there’s a political problem: Such an institution cannot be national.  Countries would never accept leadership from a single country or group of countries. Therefore, to solve cross-border global problems, what is needed is an international institution with a mandate that would be acceptable and accepted by all countries – from national governments to the private sector and civil society.

Can the UN be Reformed To Do This? 

Theoretically, this would be possible but in practice, highly unlikely. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

From the moment the UN was born as a global security alliance in 1945, there were crucial parts missing or left unanswered: not only was there no global trade mechanism, but most significant there was no military arm meant to prevent armed conflicts, ostensibly left in the hands of a weak organ, the Security Council. For 75 years attempts to reform the Security Council have regularly failed, as the five big nuclear powers (U.S., China, Russia, U.K., France) hold veto power, used as their self-interest dictates. The UN General Assembly, its multiple Committee sub-bodies, offer opportunities to discuss, deliberate, pass resolutions, without powers to implement.

While radical change cannot be expected to come from UN reforms, the UN has some clear institutional advantages that no new institution could replicate. Over the 75 years of its existence, the UN has carved for itself a unique position on the world stage through its ability to:

  • Issue warnings on a vast range of global environmental problems – most recently on marine pollution, sewage threatening the world’s oceans, and indoor air pollution
  • Stimulate debate on global issues from climate change to recondite technical topics like investor-state arbitration clauses in international trade treaties; the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is a perfect example of how the UN system operates, bringing together all public and private sector stakeholders from all walks of society;
  • Obtain global agreements relying on a broad range of meetings, from expert group consultations to full-blown assemblies of government delegates and representatives from civil society; the 17 SDGs are there to prove it and other notable examples of global agreements include the Codex Alimentarius, EEZs under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and its role in achieving  the Paris Climate Agreement;
  • Experiment with new forms of management,  including the type of matrix management designed to break down bureaucratic siloes, first used by NASA in its Apollo program. 

Unfortunately, there is a difference between being able to clearly identify the goals we need to reach (as the UN is able to do) and actually getting there. Conventional wisdom has it that the heavy lifting will be done at the state level and the UN will simply coordinate. Too many times we’ve seen how that doesn’t work when a major country, like the U.S., China, or Russia finds reasons to deviate or is unwilling to continue participation (Ex-President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement is the poster example). And every country, now and then, finds good reasons to deviate from the SDGs.

But what really prevents the UN from delivering is the lack of authority over its member States. Delegates attending UN functions jealously guard their nation’s sovereignty. Since agreements with real “teeth” require consensus, all it takes is for one delegate to disagree. The UN Secretariat has no coercion or punitive measures at its disposal: International norms, even when agreed to, can be safely ignored.

If the UN cannot deliver and yet we can’t do without it, what should we do? I believe there are lessons to be drawn from what has worked in the past for both the United Nations and the European Union.

Lesson Learned from the United Nations

UN technical agencies have often fared better than the UN Headquarters in New York, not only obtaining a wide range of global legally binding agreements on technical matters but also, in the case, for example, of UNICEF, UNHCR and the World Food Programme, obtaining concrete results on the ground through concerted action from all interested parties. This happens when they operate in emergency situations rather than under conditions of business-as-usual. Under the pressure of an emergency, people tend to work together without the need for outside coercive measures to obtain the needed international coordination.

A case in point is the World Food Programme (WFP). Starting out as a small unit inside FAO in 1961, WFP today has vastly outgrown FAO, with a budget and staff that is multiple times FAO’s. It is now the world’s largest humanitarian organization and a major actor within the matrix management system of the UN (One UN). Unlike FAO or WHO, WFP was not born as an “organization” but as a “programme”: It was launched with a requirement that it be reviewed every three years and terminated once its goal of ending hunger is achieved (sunset clause).

One might be tempted to draw a parallel: why not establish a brand new UN programme modeled on the World Food Programme with all the funds, staff and empowerment mentioned before?

In today’s world, this would not work because UN technical agencies, including funds and programmes with sunset clauses, are all subject to heavy oversight by the “governing bodies” at annual or bi-annual meetings. UN member country delegates engage in micro-management, out-competing each other to see who can best influence and “contain” the so-called “management ambitions” of the UN Secretariat. 

The usual result is not only in political meddling but systemic paralysis.

Lesson Learned from the European Union

It is clear that another type of institutional structure is needed, more independent from national political interference, and this is where the European Commission (EC) can provide a useful model. 

The EC is autonomous, with its own budget and bureaucracy, and it does not have to deal on a daily basis with interfering “governing bodies” as UN agencies do. Its functioning is more closely aligned to  NASA’s and to the rest of the American administration that is subject to congressional oversight: The EC reports to the European Parliament and the European Council. 

A second lesson from the EC experience was recently brought to light by Columbia University Law professor Anu Bradford in her ground-breaking book, “The Brussels Effect, How the European Union Rules the World,” published in 2020.  

Bradford argues that the EU remains an influential superpower despite criticisms, shaping policy in areas such as data privacy, consumer health and safety, environmental protection, antitrust, and online hate speech.  By promulgating regulations that shape the international business environment, the EU elevates standards worldwide and leads to a “notable Europeanization of many important aspects of global commerce”.

In short, Bradford decisively demonstrates how EU regulations impact not only the EU itself where the regulations are mandatory but the whole world. And it does this through the mechanisms of international trade. 

The Brussels Effect – a phrase Bradford first coined in 2012 – “absolves the EU from playing a direct role in imposing standards”, as market forces alone are often sufficient. Businesses that want to sell in the EU single market – for many exporters, the largest in the world and one that cannot be ignored – must necessarily submit and adapt to EU regulations. And they often push their home country to adopt the same or similar regulations and standards.

There are two lessons learned here:

(1) a degree of operational autonomy from political oversight is needed for managerial flexibility; 

(2) a regulatory framework that becomes law in the most important sectors of the world economy helps to achieve the SDGs; this is where the EC can exercise a driving power to achieve not just a Green New Deal for Europe but one for the whole world. 

But to accelerate the Brussels effect, international governance needs to be receptive to the EU model and follow the same approach. 

A (Non) Modest Proposal: The Sustainable World Commission  

Modeled after the European Commission and anchored in the UN system, the Commission for a Sustainable World (CSW) would be an independent institution tasked with international coordination to achieve all the 17 SDGs. 

It would have two main features:

  1.  Revision requirements and a sunset clause like a UN programme, responding to the UN General Assembly and the G-20;
  2. Budgetary and management autonomy similar to the European Commission – endowed with legally binding regulatory powers in the sectors where it is mandated to operate: the 17 SDGs, i.e. environment and social justice, as broadly defined in UN 2030 Agenda.

In short, the Sustainable World Commission should operate like NASA did and be autonomous, flexible, innovative and capable of “symbiotic deals” with governments, the private sector and civil society – in coordination with all the UN technical agencies involved in the SDGs.

From the start, the CSW should be conceived as an ambitious institution, about 10 times as large as the whole UN system is today. If it sounds offbeat crazy, consider this: Its “mission” might not be going to the moon but to bring a sustainable kind of life to eight billion people. And that is truly an enormous task.

At the same time, CSW would be anchored in the UN system and the G20, reporting annually to the G20 as its main sponsor and to the UN General Assembly in New York – and subject to review by both.

Anchorage in the UN system, arguably, makes sense as the Sustainable World Committee could be seen as an institutional mechanism to operationalize SDG#17 which calls for “Strengthen[ing] the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”.

The CSW could be structured following the scheme developed by Professor Jeffrey Sachs et al. in their 2019 paper about the “six transformations” needed to achieve the SDGs – essentially six separate areas of action, each linked to a subset of the SDGs and to be coordinated with different ministries in national governments: (1) education, gender and inequality; (2) health, well-being and demography; (3) energy decarbonization and sustainable industry; (4) sustainable food, land, water and oceans; (5) sustainable cities and communities; and (6) digital revolution for sustainable development. 

With that in mind, one could conceive that beyond the usual operational support (administration, finance, legal office, work program, human resources, procurement, communications, archives, etc), the CSW  would have the following structure:  Six Departments corresponding to the six areas of “transformation”, placed under the office of the Commission President. Each Department would have Divisions and Services working in close coordination with the corresponding units in UN technical agencies and with the major agents of change in every country: (1) Governments, (2) private sector, (3) civil society. They would work to establish the regulatory framework to achieve the SDGs in coordination with all stakeholders and monitor long-term system changes to identify gaps and call for/implement special additional measures as needed to make the world sustainable.

How Likely is the Sustainable World Commission to become Reality?

Is this proposal for an overriding, autonomous Sustainable World Commission too ambitious to be practical? 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that many will see it as threatening national sovereignty and the creation of yet another bloated bureaucracy. But it should be clear to all that the SDGs do not call for a reduction in national sovereignty – unless one defines sovereignty as the right of a country to make the poor poorer, the hungry hungrier, the sick sicker, and the uneducated ignorant. Moreover, no CSW regulation should be imposed without prior approval in the appropriate UN forum. Once approved, there is no reason not to apply it.

The second obstacle is the fear of a “sprawling bureaucracy” and the outsize budget needed to launch the CSW. Here agreement from the world’s major powers is needed and the G20 would seem to be the appropriate forum. Also, the CSW should be able to avoid the usual bureaucratic pitfalls by relying on the kind of modern management techniques as Professor Mazzucato describes in her book The Mission Economy. While the CSW would need to be much bigger than the UN to be effective, we are still talking about a relatively small budget when compared to the enormous amount of money countries spend on armaments and war.

A third major obstacle is likely to come from people who not only distrust the United Nations but actively dislike any “global” organization and will resist the very idea of launching a new institution. Thoughtful preparatory communications, advocacy, and a planned launch will silence many, but never all. So be it; there will be enough of those with the vision to recognize we cannot continue the way we have and expect we can muddle through the future.

The Sustainable World Commission represents fresh thinking, like the gas/electric cars of today are a hybrid of the past and new technology, a window on what can be the future. Is the CSW a dreamer’s dream? Maybe, but nothing less will save humanity from extinction. Is that too much of a price to pay?

Note: Richard Seifman, JD, MBA, Former World Bank Senior Health Advisor and U.S. Alternate Representative to Food Agricultural Organization generously took the time to read the various drafts of this article and provided excellent suggestions that made it much better. Any remaining errors are all mine.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: View from the bottom of the tunnel Featured Photo Credit: Pixabay, Pexels


About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).

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