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A tactical approach to post-2015 MDGs advocacy

November 13, 2012

In advocating for a better replacement for the MDGs post-2015, there are two main elements. First, the content: what kinds of things matter in development? Second, the model itself: how best to frame the content so that all those who need to be, are guided, encouraged and incentivised to adopt the right directions? In a crowded advocacy market, which of these should we focus on?

Many people in the field of development and international relations are currently engaged in figuring out what should replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015, by which date very few of the goals will have been achieved globally, and none in fragile or conflict affected countries. Everyone involved has his or her idea about what the new international framework should contain, and some (though fewer) are discussing the equally important question of what kind of framework we should use to replace the discredited MDGs. Plenty of other issues are preoccupying those involved, not least how to ensure legitimacy, whether the new goals should be universal or not, and how to integrate them with other frameworks like the proposed Sustainability Goals and the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals. But ultimately, the two main questions about the post-MDG framework concern getting the content right, and finding the right model. In this article I will very briefly explore each of these items, before examining which of them matters most from a tactical advocacy perspective.


It will be no surprise to readers of my earlier blog posts, or of International Alert’s many communications on this issue over the past two years, that from my perspective the content of the post-2015 framework should reflect an understanding of development which is as comprehensive as possible, and which combines the political and technical elements necessary for human progress. Although I work for a peacebuilding organisation, I don’t think adding in a couple of extra goals on peace and security will do the trick. What’s more important is that the content of the post-2015 framework as a whole should make sense from a peacebuilding perspective, rather than simply integrating some of the language of peacebuilding into a list of other development issues or themes.

With that in mind, and drawing on history, it seems fairly clear that the post-2015 framework should be designed above all to encourage and incentivise progress towards a world in which people can be reasonably assured of fair access to security and justice, of opportunities to earn a decent income and accumulate assets, of opportunities to participate in decisions which affect them, of supportive and trusting relationships, and of access to opportunities to maintain and improve their wellbeing and that of their families.

Of course, every country and every society is at a different stage in terms of its progress towards the kind of situation I have just described. Nor is there any rule which says that development progress is linear or smooth. Development is an unpredictable and to some extent uncontrollable process, replete with lurches forward and lurches backward. And it happens primarily in households, communities and countries, not globally all at once. So it makes no sense to set up global goals with timebound numeric targets. What kind of model might work?

The model

Much of the discussion about post-2015 so far has been about the process for developing and agreeing the content for post-2015. Not enough has been said about the model itself, which is a pity because this is at least as important as the content. What kind of international model really has the power to persuade, guide and incentivise developmental thinking, planning and behaviour across the world, and especially in places run by governments whose main incentive is to stay in power no matter what? Again, I won’t repeat here in detail what colleagues and I have described elsewhere. Our thinking so far at International Alert is that the best model to replace the MDGs is one with three main elements. This would meet a set of principles we have also enumerated elsewhere – of which the two most important are probably that it should be about development, not aid, and that it would reflect the very powerful concept of subsidiarity, i.e. that plans and activities should be made, implemented and monitored at the lowest or least centralised level possible.


This leads us to propose a model with three main elements:

  • An overall vision defined globally, sharing much with the Millennium Declaration, and setting out a normative vision of how people and societies can live together successfully and peacefully with human rights being fulfilled. This would likely contain much of the language of security, justice, income, assets, supportive relationships, governance and wellbeing which I referred to above.
  • The major locus of strategy, planning and targets would be the nation – given that we continue to live in a world still made up of nations, their governments and citizens. Countries would have to make their plans according to their own circumstances and realities and, crucially, according to their own political and economic cycles. The trick – and this is where I am still searching for ideas – is how to maximise the incentives for countries and their governments to aim for ambitious yet politically realistic development progress within the comprehensive set of criteria we recommend. Most likely regional organisations can play an important role here. That will be the subject of a future blog.
  • The third element, meanwhile, is about the other entities which can have an enabling or disabling impact on national development: multi-national companies, regional and intergovernmental organisations, international NGOs, etc. They too, acting within their mandates, need to consider how they can contribute to long-term sustainable development writ large.

 Advocacy tactics

So getting the nature of the content right and the nature of the incentives model right must be the two main ambitions for those with in interest in the post-2015 framework – whether or not they agree with our specific proposals for each. The perfect post-2015 framework can thus be shown symbolically by the blue circle on following graph, in which the x-axis represents the nature of the model, and the y-axis represents the nature of the content. For simplicity, let’s consider the content along a spectrum from “narrow” (à-la MDGs) to “comprehensive”, and the potential model along a spectrum from “MDG-type” (top-down) to “in line with subsidiarity” (i.e. in keeping with my proposal above).

Now, even though we haven’t yet figured out the right mix of incentives and rules to make this proposed system work, my gut feeling is that others with more knowledge of international relations and governance can. So I feel pretty strongly that the blue ball in the graphic represents the right outcome. Nevertheless I know it’s an unlikely one. There is too much invested in the MDG-type goal based concept already, to let it go; and other ideas than Alert’s will also prevail in terms of content. Others are in a similar position to me: no matter what their preferred ideal content and model are, they won’t see them enshrined in international protocols by the UN General Assembly in 2016. Compromise is the name of the game.

Tactically then, it is useful to consider the trade-offs, and a simple way to do so is in terms of the outcome of a bargaining game. There are four outcomes to consider as represented by the second graph below, with blue circle A as the perfect outcome: comprehensive content as seen from a peacebuilding perspective, and a vision-based global framework based on the principles mentioned above, especially subsidiarity.

A second outcome, the result of pushing hard for maximum success in terms of both the model and content, is represented by the yellow circle B. In this case, by holding out for a high standard on both content and model, the advocates have effectively bargained away too much of both. The outcome is mediocre on both counts.

The green circle C, meanwhile, represents an outcome in which the subsidiarity-based model is largely intact, while the content is less comprehensive than one would like to see. And this is balanced in the graph by the fourth possible outcome shown by the red circle D, in which the incentives model has been eroded a great deal, but the peacebuilder’s perspective has been maintained with regards to content.

Of course this would not be a bargaining exercise in real life. Those of us arguing for circle A have limited influence and power; perhaps the best we can hope for is some version of B, i.e. a post-2015 framework which is somewhat acceptable from a peacebuilding perspective, and somewhat acceptable as an incentives model. But since B is neither strong in terms of content, nor likely to be an effective international approach, it might be better to aim for either C or D, putting more effort into persuading others of the merits either of our preferred content, or our preferred model. But which one?

My first response to this question was: Circle D is a better advocacy outcome than Circle C. After all, international incentives, whether MDG-type or other, have limited currency in the real world unless backed up by the likelihood of powerful carrots and sticks, and these still seem far off. And we know that aid money – one carrot that certainly does exist – is not the main driver of change, so an insufficiently powerful carrot! And getting the content right is surely more important? But on reflection, I think the better advocacy aim is Circle C. Why?

 First, insufficient attention is being paid, at least thus far in the post-MDG discourse, to the incentives and measurement model. (Indeed, we still don’t know what to call it, with the rather weak “Post-2015” doing service until an appropriate abstract noun accompanied by an adjective or two can be found). That is odd, because there are reams of papers roundly and soundly criticising the way the MDG model has been (mis-)used. Therefore it seems only right to make more noise about and galvanise thinking about a better alternative. Second, from the way some of the High Level Panel members are talking, as well as insiders in the UN system, it seems that the battle for a less technical, more political and less a-historical post-2015 framework is already largely won, so better to put our resources as peacebuilders into stimulating some creative thinking about the model itself. And third, if we do succeed in achieving a model based on subsidiarity and the other principles defined by International Alert, then there will be ample space within the system for civil society and other voices in fragile and conflict affected countries to push for the content which they see as appropriate in their context. They may have to work hard for it, but that is the nature of political change – and it is well known that civil society space and voice which is hard-won, is hardest to reclaim.

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