Back in mid-2010, in time for the MDGs-plus-10-years summit, International Alert published a review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which criticised the MDGs for being too narrow and too technical; for confusing ends with means; for being top-down and for being used in statistically illiterate ways; and for creating perverse and unhelpful policy incentives. We proposed an alternative model, drawn from our work since 1986 on peace and conflict in over 25 countries, and drawing also on historical accounts of how societies have made progress towards some of the elements of the Millennium Declaration. Our model was constructed differently from the MDG model, with two main elements.
The first was an overarching vision very much in line with the Millennium Declaration, which described how people can live together prosperously, peacefully and fairly. We felt this was something broad enough and perhaps relatively simple to get agreement on.
The second key element was the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that planning, decision-making and implementation should be done at the least centralised scale possible – but in ways that are coherent with the overarching vision. We've built on this thinking in our advocacy and contributions to the post-MDG debate, since.
We recognised of course, that ours would be just one among many competing suggestions, and that even if our model were to be adopted, the content of the vision would also be contested. Since we were among the first to produce our suggestions for post-2015, we knew very well that our proposal would be swamped by an avalanche of others. So we also made recommendations about the process for determining the post-2015 goals – essentially that the process should be both wide and deep – engaging people from across the world, and going beyond the usual suspects in the development sector.
Looking from afar at the High Level Panel meeting on post-2015 in Bali last week, I feel the discussions about post-2015 goals are taking place in many ways as we suggested. Although I am doubtful that our proposed model combining an overarching vision and subsidiarity is getting much traction, the process of debate and discussion since 2010 about the kind of goals the world needs has become increasingly noisy, messy, and rich – as it should be. While the usual suspects are still far too evident – i.e. too much of the noise is still being made by “development experts” and single issue campaigners – there is at least a healthy debate going on, expressing diverse views. Back in 2001, when the MDGs were coined, the minting was done by UN and other technical experts, based mainly on data they were already tracking, with a few narrow political issues thrown in. Mostly the work was done behind closed doors, under instruction to avoid anything controversial – and certainly to ignore most features of the powerful Millennium Declaration which had been agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2000 – but about which many member states had subsequently developed buyers' remorse.
The avalanche of proposals we predicted has indeed come to pass. Twitter and the blogosphere are rife with comments and information about the process, and with suggestions for and comments on the content of debate. Every abstract noun – and also fortunately some concrete nouns too – associated with the cause of development and poverty elimination has been the subject of briefings, tweets, blogs, learned papers and presentations. Human rights, planetary boundaries, gender, water, women, youth, food, business, accountability, sanitation, security, livelihoods, commons, family planning, maternal and child health, resilience, peace, prosperity, trees, migration, governance… you name it, we’ve heard about it.
To some extent this is like dressing a Christmas tree with more and more baubles. But what’s most encouraging is that many of these single issues are being discussed in terms which recognise their interactions with other factors, and which recognise that ultimately, this is about the politics of change or no-change in places where real people actually live and make the best decisions they can, and not about international talking shops. To take just one recent example, an article by Peter Sutherland on migration – yes, a single issue and thus potentially another bauble on the tree – made the basic point that "to succeed, the post-2015 agenda must break the original mould. It must be grounded in a fuller narrative about how development occurs – a narrative that accounts for complex issues such as migration…", before explaining how important migration is to people’s and families’ development and coping strategies. This is just the kind of thinking which was so obviously missing from the narrow narrative symbolised by the MDGs, as we pointed out in our 2010 report.
So how is the High Level Panel doing?
The High Level Panel has now wrapped up its final formal discussion, in which it addressed how to build a global partnership and the means of implementation, and will proceed to prepare its report. As the panel says in its Bali Communiqué, it has consulted with women, young people, MPs, formal and informal sector businesses, civil society, academia, the UN, governments, and others over the past year or so. It’s good that the process for discussing the next set of goals is so much more open and participatory than before. Because the conversations are enriching in themselves, for all who take part in them, even if all the good ideas don’t find their way into the next set of goals.
The panel’s communiqué highlights the need for a global agenda which is transformative, people-centred and planet-sensitive, based on a set of principles including respect, equity and shared responsibility. It highlights economic growth and prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. It identifies five key areas for action with regards global partnerships and means of implementation:
- Reshaped and revitalised global governance and partnerships
- Protection of the global environment
- Sustainable production and consumption
- Strengthened means of implementation – though really this is about money
- Better data availability and accountability in measuring progress
These are all good and fine. The commitment to environmental protection and sustainable production and consumption are particularly important as markers, given the risks we are taking with our planet. Global governance in which governments and others are accountable for their commitments and actions as contributions to a fairer and more peaceful world would certainly be a reshaping of the current systems. A better regulation of international financial flows to avoid money laundering and tax evasion, as mentioned in item four, would be a major step forward. And better data – and better data availability – can be critical elements of accountability and effectiveness.
But the document is all too easily read as a bit of a fudge. Where is the global commitment to improved national and local governance? Where is the recognition – surely basic to any proposed replacement for the MDGs – that the new goals need somehow to be linked to international carrot-and-stick incentives? Where is the understanding that it is hard to square the circle when you have sustainability, environmental protection and economic growth all in the same document? Where is the mention of peaceful co-existence – another public good which is hard to square with some approaches to economic growth and environmental sustainability, at least in the short term? Where are the references to important elements of the peace and statebuilding goals: such as better politics, justice, security, taxation and public services?
Above all, where is the understanding reflected that "strengthened means of implementation" and "reshaped global governance" will count for nothing without activism by civil society and governments alike, i.e. people taking a leadership risk in pursuit of the huge transformation which is needed if the panel’s vision of ending extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and sustained prosperity for all is to be anywhere near met. The main “means of implementation” are always going to be individuals and civil society (and I don’t just mean NGOs!) working to make change happen in their lives and communities.
I’m not sure we could or should have expected more from a series of High Level Panel meetings and communiqués. And to be fair, this particular meeting was focused mainly on global partnerships and means of implementation, so should not be seen as the be all and end all. So perhaps we should reserve judgement until we see their final, full report.
In the meantime, for me the glass is definitely half-full rather than half-empty, because of the rich and lively conversations going on around the world as a consequence of this formal post-2015 process – whether or not they lead to what I’d regard as the right model. Ultimately, the main finding of International Alert’s 2010 essay on the MDGs was that they represented a defunct and perverse narrative of development and human progress, and that we needed to come up with a new narrative more reflective of what societal progress really entails. Following the various conversations taking place around the post-2015 goals, I can see elements of this broader and more political narrative taking shape. Many of them may not find their way into the new set of goals – they may be too difficult for some member states to accept. So be it. But in the meantime let’s keep this very lively conversation going because, whatever gets agreed to in the high level halls of power, it’s activists who will make the difference.