Imagining Global Development Policy after 2030: What is the EU’s Role and How Will it Sit with Competing Geo-Political Paradigms?

By Andy Sumner and Stephan Klingebiel / Part of the European Development Policy Outlook Series

The EU has been particularly important in championing Agenda 2030 and keeping the SDGs on the global development policy agenda. What should happen after the deadline passes?

Development won’t end in 2030. Even if – what is extremely unlikely – the headline SDGs were met, at least a billion people would live just above extreme poverty. What are the options for a unifying framework after 2030, and what should the EU’s role be amid competing geo-political paradigms on global development.

The EU and the SDGs

What has so far been the contribution of the EU to achieving the SDGs around the world? A recent external evaluation report published by the EU Directorate-General (DG) International Partnerships (INPA) addressed this question. It focused on the period after the SDGs were agreed, 2016-2021, and 146 countries. It found evidence that the EU has played a pivotal role in the global, high-level championing of the SDGs. However, the EU’s impact at the high-level was much less evident in terms of national political influence by EU delegations. A further layer of complexity is that a recent review by Munro of the national development plans of more than 140 countries found the SDGs framing clear in plans by Low Income Countries and High Income Countries, but less evident in Middle Income Countries’ plans, suggesting that Agenda 2030 may losing traction. Overall, the evaluation of the EU’s role points to three big contributions of the EU: First, the high-level political influence: The EU has effectively influenced the global agenda to champion the SDGs, positioning itself as a leader in global politics. Second, undeniably, financial commitments: substantial funding has been allocated to the SDGs and Agenda 2030, highlighting the EU’s financial support towards global development goals. Third, a set of policy tools: The EU has developed a suite of SDG policy tools, such as the SDG mapper and the Global Europe Results Framework, to integrate and monitor progress towards the SDGs.

What should the EU do before 2030?

The same external evaluation notes that ahead of 2030 the EU needs to do three things: First, enhancing global influence: Strengthening partnerships with other global actors and extending influence mapping to national EU delegations can amplify the EU’s impact. Second, clarifying policy positions: Developing clearer outline of policies on how each SDG should be pursued (the research on many specific SDGs is well-known – e.g. stunting – and needs packaging into short, digestible format as briefs). Third, developing an understanding of what the causal chain is assumed to be from EU activity to SDG outcomes: Deepening understanding of how EU activities contribute to SDG attainment by delineating causal chains (also known as a ‘theory of change’).

So, what should the EU think or do about the post-2030 era?

There is generally widespread support for the 2030 Agenda, at least in the sense that there is no global anti-SDG sentiment, though these are starting to appear in some populist parties in some countries. This is because all countries negotiated and agreed the SDGs unlike their predecessors, the MDGs and precursor, the OECD-DAC goals. As the 2030 deadline approaches, the question of what next will inevitably arise.

So, the good news: First, that global support for Agenda 2030 isn’t (yet) eroded: In general, in most countries governments and civil society organizations (CSOs) appear to be supportive the 2030 Agenda. This can’t be taken for granted of course especially so as failure looms on the horizon. Second, on progress: Significant progress has been made globally in areas like poverty reduction, hunger alleviation, education, and healthcare, indicating the feasibility of achieving SDGs at least up to when the pandemic hit. Third, international actors were able to agree at COP 27  on a new fund that will help developing countries offset the damage from natural disasters caused by climate change – often called “Loss and Damage Fund” and to attract significant initial budget.

And now the bad news: First, the pandemic setback: The COVID-19 pandemic and even more importantly the consequences of the Russian aggression in Ukraine have stalled SDG progress and been the subject of discussion in detail (see here and here).

Second, the poly-stressors/crisis context: The convergence of multiple stressors and crises poses a significant threat to what’s been achieved on the SDGs. Over a billion people live just above extreme poverty and are at risk of sliding back into poverty amidst economic and geo-political shocks, and climate-related stressors/shocks too. Third, new complexity and polarisation in the Global South: First there’s a polarisation between 40 or so countries where ODA matters a lot for the reasonable functioning of the state and delivery of basic services versus countries where ODA is insignificant vis-à-vis domestic resources. Second, there’s the oft-noted polarisation between fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS) – increasingly middle-income as well as low-income countries versus countries that are generally peaceful.

So, what next? Preparing for Beyond 2030

Looking ahead, three aspects need attention by the EU but also by other international actors:

First, political sensitivity:  Given the time and effort invested in crafting the SDGs, discussions about the post-2030 era need to navigate political sensitivities. In short, talking about after 2030 does not mean giving up on the SDGs between now and 2030. Poverty, inequality, and global cooperation are long-run policy issues.

Second, EU Decision Points: The new Commission, once appointed, faces the task of determining the EU’s stance on any post-2030 frameworks, and thinking through how to facilitate the high-level political process too.

Third, relatedly, EU Leadership: The EU’s role as a global leader remains essential in keeping the SDGs alive even to 2030, also if there is any framework beyond 2030. Establishing political processes involving high-level forums and engagement with CSOs is important in the near future, given the SDGs took 4-5 years to negotiate and agree, even though they built on the MDGs.

So, what are those post-2030 options?

There are three options the forthcoming Commission faces choosing from; and the context is different, being one of competing geo-political paradigms. Here is the choice:

Option 1, the ‘keep it simple’ or ‘too difficult to change’ scenario: This entails extending the SDGs to 2035 or 2040. This simple solution may still be politically arduous. It has the advantage of not needing any changes or perhaps some minor. The problem is: can something fail and simply be extended and blamed on the pandemic and the tense geopolitical context? It could also be a pragmatic approach in case the European Parliament elections (June 2024) and the US presidential elections (November 2024) lead to a more populist environment for global affairs.

Option 2, the ‘go ambitious’ scenario: This entails adopting an ambitious new framework aligned with the contemporary poly-stressor/crisis context. This new framework would presumably align to human security broadly defined meaning ensuring countries and people don’t fall into poverty, or back into poverty by reducing risk exposure and insuring against risk. Such thinking seems fitting to contemporary times though it is hard to imagine a negotiation again of almost 200 countries at the UN, given the state of enthusiasm in the multilateral system.

Option 3, the ‘go low, or give up’ or the ‘default scenario’: This option is more of a default than a decision. If there is no post-2030 framework, then there is nothing and twenty years of a broadly accepted framing will be over. For better or probably worse, there would be nothing to guide the multilateral system.

In this set of options, option 1 seems the most politically plausible, though not easy. To achieve even the ‘keep it simple’ option, the EU global leadership role will need to come to the fore again. That said, half of EU staff are warning of the SDGs facing abandonment. Why? Interviews with EU staff point towards the impact of the geo-political turn of world events in recent year.

A robust political process becomes imperative. This entails high-level forums involving the UN, G20/77/7, and active engagement with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) such as the global network of CSOs, CIVICUS. Only  concerted efforts by the EU will ensure any framework exists beyond 2030. And then there’s the rub: Agenda 2030 is only one framing amid a set of geo-political paradigms that will play a role in determining what next.

What is likely to determine the outcome? It’s the geo-political paradigms

When the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs were agreed, the global community was able to take advantage of a “window of opportunity” to make some global progress.  Even a Paris agreement with its overarching goal to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” was feasible to achieve in 2015. Since then, international relations have been characterised by profound geopolitical upheavals. The systemic confrontation between China and Western countries, especially the USA, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and related consequences, the seizure of power in Niger in 2023 by military coup leaders and similar events previously in Mali and Burkina Faso, the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip as a result of the Hamas terror attacks on 7 October 2023 and, last but not least, the complete takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban make it clear that the environment for global cooperation efforts has become much more difficult. In recent months and years, global cooperation has taken significant steps backwards. Populism and autocratic trends in all regions of the world are also seriously damaging efforts towards global cooperation. The scope for finding joint solutions, particularly in the fight against climate change, has become difficult or even impossible and is itself becoming part of international conflict lines.

One important aspect, little considered so far, is that of competing geo-paradigms and how the SDGs/Agenda 2030 will be co-opted, adapted, or side-lined between or within competing worldviews on global development.

The Millennium Declaration and the 2030 Agenda were drafted and developed as meta-development paradigms under little pressure from geopolitics. This is likely to be very different for a post-2030 agenda. The EU, the USA and other OECD actors, as well as China, most likely supported by Russia, but also southern actors beyond China, are likely to take a much more geopolitical view of a new global development agenda. Which players will set the tone? Is the narrative supposedly a Western perspective and characterised by the value system of one actor or group of actors? How strongly can China or India present themselves as opinion leaders of the Global South? Will the G77 adopt a strong position of its own? All these questions are likely to dominate the discussions in the run-up to 2030.

We saw already for the last decade an increasingly relevant geopolitical dimension of development topics, not at least development paradigms. One crucial turning point has been and is the use of the development initiatives initiated by China for offensive geopolitics in the Global South, especially since the 2017 Communist Party Congress. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been being implemented since 2013, has set new standards for how an infrastructure initiative can massively change countries, e.g. Pakistan. Incidentally, this is an initiative that is not only aimed at developing countries, but encompasses a total of 180 countries and institutions. Other Chinese initiatives have been added in recent years, including the Global Development Initiative (GDI) in 2021, which is valued by many developing countries. At the beginning of 2023, the Global Security Initiative (GSI) agreed on by the group of BRICS countries was added. The Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) published in March 2023 shows the range of the initiatives and the close links between them.

China’s development initiatives have significantly enhanced its soft power capacity. The Global Development Initiative (GDI) meetings draw notable high-level participants from Global South countries, garnering close attention in European capitals and Washington DC alike.

These initiatives have prompted various responses from Western actors, exemplified by the EU Global Gateway initiative and analogous approaches from other G7 members. India’s G20 Presidency in 2023 illustrated the nation’s readiness to propose its own development paradigms as well and assert a crucial leadership role for Global South actors. These recent developments suggest that geopolitics will likely shape discussions surrounding any Post-2030 Agenda.


In conclusion, renewing the mission of EU development policy amidst global poly-crisis requires charting a multilateral course beyond 2030. As the world grapples with complex interconnected stressors and crises, the EU’s leadership and commitment to the SDGs will remain important in what happens up to and beyond 2030. One aspect likely to determine the outcome is whether the EU’s worldview and Agenda 2030 increasingly competes, loses out or somehow merges into other worldviews or not.

The EU, with its “geopolitical commission” faces challenges in a complex global landscape. However, the EU’s commitment to global sustainability stands to benefit greatly if it endeavours to foster consensus on a future sustainability agenda. To achieve this, the EU and its member states ought to explore various avenues for informal consultations to initiate a new global agenda debate. Such consultations should involve key stakeholders from the Global South, encompassing less powerful actors but also big emerging powers, including China. Engaging in this manner does not imply naivety on the part of the EU amidst geopolitical complexities. Rather, it underscores the EU’s commitment to promoting investment in de-escalation efforts within critical global discussions.

Andy Sumner is Professor of Development Studies at King’s College London, and President of EADI.

Stephan Klingebiel is Senior Researcher and head of the research programme “Inter- and Transnational Cooperation” at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) and Visiting Professor at the University of Turin.

Image: Richard Koek on Wikimedia Commons

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

One Reply to “Imagining Global Development Policy after 2030: What is the EU’s Role and How Will it Sit with Competing Geo-Political Paradigms?”

  1. “the escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip as a result of the Hamas terror attacks on 7 October 2023”

    A noteworthy and, I imagine, intentional framing by the authors, albeit a bit disingenuous one as it completely overlooks the full-scale invasion by Israel of Gaza and the massive bombing campaign that has resulted in tens of thousands of innocent civilian lives lost. To speak nothing of proportionality or of the International Criminal Court outcomes. Or the fact that Israeli military has been using AI to make decisions on what targets to bomb – — is this what want the future to be as the international community striving for a poverty-free, war-free future?

    If we want to talk about progress on SDGs we should also note that countries like Israel (along with its primary funder, the United States) are not exactly helping in the attainment of SDG16 (Peace, Justice) through their colonial and imperial project and this highlights the need for a more justice-oriented approach to a post-2030 agenda that addresses the widespread impacts of these forces upon the developing world/’Global South’.

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