The UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has reported. Compared to the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the big change is that peace and good governance have been brought in front and centre where they belong. The HLP’s report is far from the last word in a continuing debate on international development but it marks an important moment and has a lot - though not everything – to offer.
The HLP’s report focuses on a universal agenda. That is, its first switch in focus and emphasis compared to the current MDGs is that it is about development of and for all countries, not just low income countries. And that logically produces the second switch, because it means their agenda aims to address development and not just development aid, which is where much too much of the MDGs debate has been stuck.
To drive the new agenda forward, the HLP features five “transformative shifts”:
- “Leave no one behind” – end extreme poverty “in all its forms”
- “Put sustainable development at the core” – “halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation” and achieve “more social inclusion”
- “Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth” – “a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities”
- “Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all” – “Freedom from fear, conflict and violence” with governments that are “honest, accountable, and responsive” – “to recognise peace as and good governance as core elements of well-being, not an optional extra”
- “Forge a new global partnership” – “a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability
To start assessing this properly, we can step back a bit and look quickly at the background.
Reports, panels & working groups
As a reminder, the eight MDGs were agreed in 2000-2001, with targets set for achievement in 2015. They covered a lot of important development issues – notably poverty, gender, water, health, basic literacy – but excluded others such as peace, human rights and governance, all of which are in the agenda developed by the HLP.
The UN General Assembly is expected to agree on something to replace the current MDGs in September 2015. The HLP’s report will be followed by more, including one by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a special event this September (in charge of this report is Deputy SG Jan Eliasson). And there is the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development – a slow-born offspring of last year’s Rio 20+ sustainability conference – which will put proposals up for discussion at some point.
So the HLP’s report is not the end of the process. Nor the start. It’s one leg in an extended relay – but an important one.
CURRENT MDGs: Achievements
The MDGs are generally agreed to have helped mobilise support for overseas development aid (ODA), which increased dramatically from 2001 until the financial crash of 2008.
This increase in ODA is widely credited with lifting well over 500 million people out of extreme poverty this century – widely but not universally.
There is broad agreement that economic growth has taken 500 million people out of extreme poverty from 2005 to 2010 and cut the rate of extreme poverty in developing countries by 50 per cent since 1990. But the issue is whether – or to what extent – that growth is motored by aid.
Mark Malloch-Brown, one of the architects of the MDGs, acknowledges that poverty reduction is ‘thanks largely to the rapid economic growth in China and other parts of Asia’. So how much is Chinese economic growth of around 1000 per cent since 1990 due to foreign aid – and is any of it specifically due to increased aid during the MDG period?
Some argue that ‘the huge international machinery behind the (MDGs) has been fairly unimportant’ in achieving growth anywhere. But that doesn’t settle two other questions. Does ODA spent on, for example, health and literacy programmes help growth a couple of decades later? And for those who are not helped out of poverty by economic growth, can ODA still be important – alleviating the effects of poverty even when not directly reducing it? Most in the aid community – donors, beneficiaries, practitioners and international monitors alike – agree that there at least ODA has not just a positive but a much needed impact.
Others point to at least two serious flaws. First, the MDGs omitted important issues but were treated by many practitioners as if they were comprehensive. In effect, if something was not part of the MDGs that was license for leaving it out of development aid.
Here, it’s worrisome that the MDGs were drawn up rather casually. Mark Malloch-Brown has described the last minute coincidence that led to the inclusion in the MDGs of anything on the environment. He bumped into the head of the UN Environment Programme just after the MDGs had gone to the printing press, swore silently and had just enough time to dash back and get sustainable development included. Perhaps if he’d bumped into the head of Peacekeeping Operations, peace would have got a look in too.
Second, the goals were expressed as statistical targets. That sounds like a strength and is often treated as such; it gives them a concrete, hard headed look with impact you can check and prove. But where there is a statistical target, there is someone to game the stats.
It’s not always done wittingly. Take a look at this: the anti-poverty ONE campaign - a coalition of development NGOs that had its big Hyde Park demo on Saturday 8th - wants to ‘ensure that the world sprints to the 2015 finish line.’
OK – I know it’s just a metaphor but what happens after a sprint finish? Runners collapse, slow to a walk, hang their heads exhaustedly or wave ecstatically – anyway, they stop running.
Which is exactly what is not wanted. The challenge is not one last, big lung-bursting effort; the challenge is sustained progress – indeed, self-sustaining progress.
It seems it’s sometimes easy to forget that.
Against that background, the High Level Panel (HLP) - co-chaired by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron - faced a number of contradictory pressures as it met during 2012 and 2013 to establish a new agenda for thinking about international development.
- There was pressure to highlight successes with the MDGs
- and counter pressure to acknowledge limitations and flaws.
- There was pressure to be aspirational and inspirational
- and counter pressure to pay realistic attention to the unfavourable international economic context of today.
- For the sake of continuity there was pressure simply to come up with replacement goals,
- but in order to make a break, there was pressure to contribute to a new discourse of development.
- There was pressure to keep it crisp and simple
- and to make strategic priorities rather than produce a Christmas tree on which to hang everything or a long shopping list of wants.
- And then there were all the sectional pressures to include specific issues – enough of them to cause many a Christmas tree to collapse under the weight.
Sorry. But I guess you know what I mean. Anyway, let’s crack on.
Twelve universal goals & 54 mostly national targets
With its broad vision of five big shifts – ending extreme poverty, sustainability, inclusive growth, peace and a global partnership – the HLP recalls the 2000 Millennium Declaration by the UN, which was the statement of aims and vision that underlay the more concrete MDGs.
The HLP has finessed the argument about how concrete to get by expressing the five big shifts through twelve “illustrative” and universal goals, themselves broken down into 54 mostly national and equally “illustrative” targets.
The twelve goals:
- End poverty (meaning extreme poverty – below $1.25 a day)
- Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
- Provide quality education and lifelong learning
- Ensure healthy lives
- Ensure food security and good nutrition
- Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
- Secure sustainable energy
- Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
- Manage natural resource assets sustainably
- Ensure good governance and effective institutions
- Ensure stable and peaceful societies
- Create a global enabling environment and catalyse long-term finance
If having twelve goals seems a lot (four more than current MDGs), it looks like it was hard work to keep the number that low. Vulnerability to natural disasters, for example, turns up among the targets through which goal 1 on poverty is to be met. Slowing down climate change (which early in the report is described as the issue that will determine the success or failure of international development) pops up as part of achieving “a global enabling environment” in goal 12. Pressure to have a separate goal on equality was headed off, but the principle if not the word is strong in goal 2 on gender, 3 on education, 5 on food security and 10 on governance as well as 8 on jobs and equitable growth.
Judged as an act of intellectual organisation – how to get all world problems down on as few pages as possible – this is a really very creditable effort. Reading it, every time I think I’ve spotted an omission, it turns out I haven’t. The issue I am thinking about is somewhere in there, implicitly if not explicitly, in one place if not the most obvious one. There will nonetheless be a number of groups who find that their particular issue has not been named among the targets. But I doubt that the generic heading under which their specific work sits is absent.
By naming the big issues more or less adequately, the HLP has also done something to focus the debate on the features of the world system that get in the way, the obstacles that have to be addressed and moved along the way. These are the big political problems that lie at the heart of development. They are the right place to start the discussion, so hats off to the HLP for getting the debate going at the level that it should be.
At the same time, by going for goals and targets, the HLP did not shirk the details, while by making them “illustrative” it avoided nailing itself to potentially contentious details or an unrealistic blueprint. It’s a difficult balance between two risks: too general, overly Olympian or just plain vague on one side, and too technical, lost in the detail and narrow on the other. The HLP has managed it pretty well.
The next rounds of debate
All this simply sets up the next rounds of debate. The HLP’s report will set the terms of discussion for a while and, as far as responses to it are going to go, I think there will be three levels:
- The headline level – the big shifts and to some extent the 12 goals ;
- Issues of detail and coherence within the text, especially whether the goals fully express the big shifts and targets are comprehensive for the stated goals;
- Real world issues of context and implementation – as in, it’s all easier said than done.
$1.25 a day
At the first level, I think the one big issue that stands out is the headline-grabbing ambition of ending “extreme poverty” by 2030. This is the global clarion call; how the politicians on the HLP must love being part of it.
The aim is that, by 2030, there should no longer be anybody in the world living on less than $1.25 a day at 2005 prices. That would indeed be a great achievement. And it is within reach because the poverty rate among low income countries has fallen from about 43 per cent in 1990 to about 16 per cent by 2015.
The $1.25 a day level, which functions as the statistical expression of “extreme poverty” just as $1 a day used to, is the average poverty line of the 15 poorest countries in the world (for comparison, the US poverty line is $63 a day).
But today about 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day.
So beware of the stats. If the effort to “lift” everybody above the 1.25 mark becomes an effort just to do that, with a sprint finish at the end, there is likely to be some statistical bunching somewhere not far above the 1.25 line. It is not at all unlikely that the goal on extreme poverty could be achieved yet the number living below $2 a day would remain almost static.
How to avoid this seems to me to be a major issue for poverty alleviation in the coming few years. I would argue that it will not be avoided if the emphasis falls on traditional anti-poverty programmes. They should be safety nets and ways of handling the toughest cases. For the most part, alleviating poverty will not come from anti-poverty programmes but equitable economic growth. That will determine not only the scale of anti-poverty success but also its quality.
Inclusive growth? Remind me?
Closely related, what do we think the prospects are of “equitable economic growth”? In the UK, three years under the coalition government headed by one of the HLP’s co-chairs have given us 1.1% economic growth and an increase in youth unemployment from 20 to 22%. So the third big shift – inclusive economic growth – is about something that in some parts of the world we are beginning to forget what it looks like and in others has never been experienced.
If the HLP has neatly set out what the aim is, it remains to discuss how to get there and what things have to change so that we can get there. Here is where the critique that inequality, while admittedly present (see above) is less present than it should be is hard to rebut.
Peace and the institutions of security
The four targets for the peace goal offer a partial combination of the what and the how:
- Reduce violent deaths per 100,000 (by a rate that is specified to suit each country’s capacity and circumstance – these are national level targets) and eliminate all forms of violence against children
- Ensure justice institutions are accessible, independent, well-resourced and respect due-process rights;
- Stem the external stressors that lead to conflict, including those related to organised crime;
- Enhance the capacity, professionalism and accountability of the security forces, police and judiciary
They need to be read alongside the accompanying goal and targets on good governance and effective institutions. These do more than the peace-goal targets to focus on the state-citizen contract of accountable authority, which is actually at the heart of real political freedom and stability in any country.
Even so, the HLP’s work on what it is that creates a peaceful society has gone only a limited distance. It has looked more at the formal than the informal institutions. True, the panel specifies that in “institutions” it includes “the informal rules of social interactions” (p50). It has nonetheless focused more on authority (and the mechanisms that make authority accountable and responsible) than on interaction.
The HLP’s implicit theory of how peace is generated thus emphasises justice, security, law enforcement and external stressors alongside the economic, food security and gender issues addressed under other goals. These are all important but experience also underscores the necessity for dialogue, mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation.
My worry here is that the positions taken in the HLP report, more than two years before the UN General Assembly votes through the new development goals, will be about as comprehensive and nuanced as official position-taking will get. From here, I would expect positions to narrow, to lose their challenge and depth while gaining in technocratic legitimacy.
Accordingly, it seems time the debate gets properly under way so that doesn’t happen.