Designing the post-2015 development agenda: A brief commentary on current proposals.

Last month, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released a report outlining the proposals for a new development plan following the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.  The report – which by its own admission is meant to be illustrative rather than prescriptive – highlights some of the broader themes and goals to be included in the new agenda.  While much of the content included in the tentative agenda appears to be an extension of current MDG targets, the HLP’s report proposes several significant additions.

Based on the understanding that the post-2015 agenda must be universal in nature, the HLP proposes that the new plan be driven by five substantial and systemic ‘transformative shifts’:

1. Leave no one behind – In keeping with the spirit of the MDGs, this ‘shift’ aims to move from reducing to ending all forms of extreme poverty by 2030.  The basic idea is that the new agenda should include goals that focus on reaching marginalized groups, placing a greater emphasis on providing broader social protection, ensuring universal human rights, and securing widespread access to basic economic opportunities for individuals across income levels and social groups.

2. Put sustainable development at the core – Grounded in the understanding that meaningful and irreversible poverty reduction is achieved through more than economic growth alone, the new agenda emphasizes that developmental reforms should address the social, economic, and environmental challenges that influence poverty.  The HLP recognizes that developed countries have a special role to play in supporting sustainable development, particularly regarding environmental challenges, calling on developed countries to reduce unsustainable consumption and facilitate the development, and transfer, of green technologies.

3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth – Part of ensuring sustainable and long-lasting poverty reduction is based on providing opportunities for all – particularly traditionally marginalized groups, such as youth and women – to access good job opportunities, as well as the education, health care, and infrastructure necessary to allow individuals to grow and prosper.

4.  Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all – In recognizing that peace and good governance are central to developing prosperous societies, the HLP calls on all countries to strive towards improving the transparency, accountability, and responsiveness of domestic institutions.

5. Forge a new global partnership – The final transformative ‘shift’ emphasizes that the new development agenda must be underpinned by a spirit of cooperation, solidarity, and mutual accountability, calling for partnerships between development actors built on mutual respect, mutual benefit, and our shared humanity.

An agenda for change?

The HLPs report proposes several significant additions and changes to the MDGs, outlining an agenda that takes a more holistic approach to development challenges.  With the inclusion of goals for peace-building, governance, and cooperation, it is clear that the new agenda will move beyond statistical targets to engage with the more systemic and fundamental causes of poverty.   The recognition that poverty extends beyond the deprivation of income and services, and that the long-term eradication of poverty requires an overhaul of the economic, political, and social systems that bred inequality, is a noble – albeit ambitious – goal.

There are two additions to the new agenda that I find particularly encouraging.  Firstly, the HLP report clearly recognizes that sustainable development requires a consolidated effort by a variety of development partners, including civil society and local community groups, NGOs, traditionally marginalized populations, national and local governments, multilateral institutions, and the private sector.  The inclusion of non-traditional development partners (pretty much any actor that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘donor’ or ‘recipient’) is significant, as it marks a clear shift away from past paradigms that saw development as an aid-driven process of projects and programs, towards one that calls on a variety of actors and stakeholders to cooperate in pursuit of a common goal – sustainable development and poverty reduction.  Indeed, by calling on a variety of actors to contribute to a ‘global partnership’ for sustainable development, the HLP universalizes development and sustainability challenges, reframing development problems and solutions as ‘global’, rather than ‘Southern’, concerns.

Secondly, the call for institutional change, not only in developing countries, is undoubtedly a positive addition.  While it is recognized that substantial improvements to institutional systems requires domestic will or pressure for change, and that in reality such changes are usually slow moving and incremental, explicitly drawing attention to the challenges of poor governance and the importance of institutional quality for long-term development and stability is a step in the right direction.

Challenges and limitations

The proposed post-2015 agenda is not without problems – many of which the HLP does in fact mention within their report.  Perhaps the most obvious difficulty is that while the new agenda can be applauded for seeking to engage with the social, political, and economic systems that sustain inequality, it runs the risk of being over-loaded with priorities and may be viewed as unrealistic and utopian solutions to systemic problems.  Moreover, the feasibility of the agenda appears questionable at best, raising serious concerns about implementation and the practicality of pursuing such a broad and over-arching plan in practice.

Additionally, there are questions about financing, particularly given the recent decline in aid levels following the financial crisis and Euro zone turmoil.  While the OECD reports that aid is expected to increase slightly in 2013, long-term questions about financing for the new agenda remains a concern.

Finally, measurement challenges promise to persist within the post-2015 agenda.  Measuring target performance has been a key challenge throughout the MDGs, and can be expected to present problems in the future.  While the HLP has yet to set specific targets for measuring development performance, the inclusion of goals for institutions and governance, the indicators for which are notoriously subjective and act as questionable proxies for actual policy performance, presents further measurement problems.

That being said, in acknowledgement of past measurement challenges, the HLP has called for a ‘data revolution’ as part of the new agenda, urging governments to improve the quality of statistics and the availability of information.  However, actual improvements in data quality and measurement capacity remain to be seen.

The bottom line

While the post-2015 agenda is still very much at its early stages, I am cautiously optimistic that the new agenda will provide a more holistic approach to development and long-term poverty reduction.  The point is not that the new agenda provides an answer or solution to development challenges – which (in my very humble opinion) need to be locally grown, context specific, and incremental – but that the HLP’s acknowledgment that meaningful poverty reduction requires more than moving beyond the $1.25 poverty line to include fundamental social, political, and economic transformations, is an important step forward.  While we will have to wait and see what exactly makes the final cut for the post-2015 development plan, I remain hopeful that the new approach outlined in the HLP’s report provides a framework for substantive change.

Racheal Calleja

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