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Will the post-2015 goals be any use?

April 4, 2014

The post-2015 development goals need show how to reduce fragility and increase resilience in conflict-prone contexts. They also need to be designed as a system of genuine incentives for participation and transformation.


The UN’s Open Working Group is nearing the end of its work and will soon make its recommendations for a set of global goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) next year. These will, presumably, guide people and institutions across the world in determining how to continue building increasingly prosperous, well-governed, secure, healthy, just, equal, well-educated and well-adjusted societies over the next fifteen years. As if this were not enough, they will also – presumably – attempt to square the circle between shared economic growth and sustainability, during a time when population and consumption demand continue to rise rapidly. Oh, and they also somehow need to accommodate the very different political perspectives of countries as diverse as China, Finland, Nigeria and the Maldives. Quite some task.

I was invited to take part in a public discussion at the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath last night to discuss all this. Alongside me on the panel was Graham Brown of the CDS, Simon Maxwell, Senior Research Associate of the ODI, Lee Webster of Womankind Worldwide, and Hugo Gorst-Williams of the DFID. This was a really useful opportunity for me to “read myself back into” a subject I was personally more engaged in two or three years ago, than today. I found that for all the progress made in the post-2015 discussions since then, my sense of what the post-2015 goals ought to and might be like, has remained fairly constant.

Asked by the organisers to raise what I felt were important issues in the post-2015 process, my points were simple. The MDGs are deeply flawed: too narrow, too technical, statistically inept, unstrategic, and quite probably anti-democratic; they have acted as perverse incentives, and have been (mis-)used to create a fundamentally wrong idea of what “development” is.

A useful way to think about development is as “history looking forwards”, which brings to mind the question, “how will future generations describe the progress we are now making?” They will not, I think, define it mainly in terms of the goals and targets contained in the MDGs: they will describe institutional change, personal leadership and courage, major political acts, changes in values and culture, international trends and movements, and so on. They will certainly have something to say about how we responded to the challenge of climate change. The fact that we can’t easily make predictions about these kinds of things does not mean we shouldn’t recognise their importance for development: indeed it helps remind us of the hubris inherent in trying to create framework to describe what we think development ought to look like over the next fifteen years. Especially since even Francis Fukuyama now recognises that the “end of history” is not yet upon us after all, and there is no known blueprint to follow.

The post-2015 framework in fragile and conflict-affected countries

The first point I chose to raise was that development in fragile and conflict-affected countries needs to be very carefully thought through. Such places, more or less by definition, face significant institutional challenges, and – as the word fragile implies – development initiatives can cause damage if not carefully wrought or applied. Fortunately, before they became distracted by their challenging experiment, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, the governments and IGOs participating in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding had some useful reflections about how to frame “development” helpfully in fragile contexts. They saw this as being about reducing fragility – aka building resilience, and through resilience, peace – and identified five strategic axes which they saw as important for the governments and people in such contexts. Known as the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), these were about:

  • Legitimate politics
  • Inclusive economic growth
  • Justice
  • Security
  • Taxation and service delivery.

If these five issues are not prominent in the post-2015 framework, it will not be a useful one for the people living in fragile and conflict affected contexts, who want and deserve an opportunity to participate in peaceful progress.

Getting the model right

My second point was not about the content of the new framework, but about its structure. Two phrases much used (indeed, probably overused) in connection with the new framework are “transformative agenda” and “no more business as usual”. This is great rhetoric, and it implies that incumbent beneficiaries and custodians of the status quo will have to accept – in fact will probably have to drive – the process of change. Any student of human nature knows this is counter-intuitive: turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas, and this is the paradox we tried to capture in the title of a 2010 International Alert publication called Working with the grain to change the grain.

Hugo Gorst-Williams of the DFID said last night that one of his criteria for the post-2015 framework is quite simply that it should work. To me this means inter alia the post-2015 framework needs to be devised and constructed explicitly to provide incentives for transformation. It must incentivise people to do things differently. The great global conversation being conducted about post-2015 does not pay enough attention to this – it remains far too focused on everyone’s need to get his or her favourite issue (security, gender equality, population, climate, education, etc., etc.) into the mix. As Simon Maxwell said last night, we should beware of holding the whole enterprise hostage for the sake of our particular pet issue.

If the model is designed to maximise incentives for change, what should it look like? I leave the fine detail to those cleverer and better versed in international governance knowledge than me, but grosso modo I reckon it should be constructed with the following criteria in mind:

  • Simplicity, so it is accessible to as many people as possible who can use it as a reference in their own debate about development and progress: civil society, politicians, technocrats, business people, etc.
  • It should encourage wide and continuous participation, therefore should leave most questions open to debate and decision.
  • It should be defined around development – or, as I prefer, progress – and NOT about aid. Aid matters, but it is not the primary driver of progress: that label properly belongs to circumstances, leadership, human capacity, technology and politics.
  • It should be able to accommodate valuable but fuzzy developmental aspirations which do not lend themselves to easy, numerical targets: well-being, psycho-social health, functional relationships in society, etc.
  • It should reflect the idea – borrowed from the concept of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken as far from the centre (in this case, New York) as appropriately possible. Local initiatives need to be enabled by national and global initiatives, but local initiatives need to be taken locally.

With this in mind, I envisage a model with three key elements:

  1. A globally defined vision, derived from the Millennium Declaration (which was long ago agreed by the UN General Assembly, thus limiting the horse-trading now needed), containing a set of broad, aspirational components. These would be in succinct narrative – not numerical form – and would embody a set of broad cross-cutting “goods” such as equality, human rights, quality, availability, access, and the importance of institutions. My best guess as to the right list would not be a million miles away from thePSGs:
    • Justice
    • Security
    • Livelihoods
    • Well-being
    • Governance.

This vision would be described in normative, aspirational terms – equal access to justice for all, for example – while recognising that travel towards such aspirations will take time, will happen differently in different places, and that its eventual achievement cannot be taken for granted, and thus requires the sustained exertion of political will.

  1. National and sub-national planning and accountability frameworks whereby these global aspirations are taken into account – alongside other issues like the expressed wishes of the electorate, environmental factors, the economic cycle, and regional trends and pressures – in setting goals and targets for progress towards those aspirations. Clearly these should be part of, rather than artificially established alongside, the planning and accountability systems and processes at play in each country – though can also be used as a tool for improving these.


  1. Some kind of supranational / international monitoring/auditing process which reviews the degree to which each country demonstrates progress in intent and execution in the direction of travel towards global aspirations. This could be done regionally under the auspices of the regional IGOs, along the lines of the African Peer Review Mechanism, or by the UN or a new independent body.

A DFID friend told me recently that in his view, the post-2015 discussions are now passing “from policy to politics”. If so, the space for NGO advocacy is probably decreasing fast. My view is that we should not use too much of that precious space in continuing to argue for the content of the new goals: the excellent High Level Panel Report report contains most of what is needed, and many of the government delegations involved – not least, that of the UK – are well-versed in what matters most, and better versed than most NGOs in the tactics and timing of international negotiation. Instead we should be using it to argue for the right model within which the post-2015 goals and targets should sit.

Will the post-2015 goals be useful?

Taking part in yesterday’s debate was indeed a useful opportunity re-acquaint myself with the state of the post-2015 discussions, so I thank the CDS for that. I won’t further abuse your time by reporting on what other panelists and audience members said. Suffice it to say that I learned a lot, and there were varying degrees of scepticism, cynicism, pessimism and optimism in the room, llustrating the benefits of simply having a debate about what constitutes progress. At the end of it all, an audience vote was held on a number of the points raised. The one that most interested me was on whether voters felt the post-2015 construct was likely to provide an adequate framework for societal development complete with genuine incentives. Only 13% felt that it would; 52% felt that the vision might be adequate but the incentives would not; and 27% felt that neither the vision nor the incentives would be good enough; with 8% undecided. That range probably reflects how I feel about it myself.

I don’t really think we need global goals, though if we are going to have them, they should be as useful as possible.  We are living in an era when global agreements are becoming both more important and harder to achieve, so perhaps there won’t be enough agreement to reach a post-2015 consensus in the end. But as I have said before, whatever the outcome of the post-2015 process, the conversation about what constitutes human progress is an important one, at a time when the technocratic post-Cold War era is thankfully giving way to a more politicised era.

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