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The Post 2015 Development Agenda: Now for the Hard Bit

03/06/2013 18:17 BST | Updated 01/08/2013 10:12 BST

The eagerly-anticipated report of the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda was released last week. The HLP is the body charged with drafting recommendations for a new development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015, and includes David Cameron as one of the Co-Chairs.

Its title, 'A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development', gives several clues as to how the world has changed since the millennium. These are global goals; no longer targets that rich countries measure poor countries against. It is a partnership, essentially a deal between rich countries that are unusually weakened economically and poor countries that are unusually strengthened, at least temporarily. The aspiration is for economic transformation rather than technical fixes, in recognition of the economic pain that developed countries are feeling. Finally, it is aiming for sustainable development, although, as ever, the distinction between this and development that is sustainable is not drawn, despite this being critical to the debate.

The new framework specifically aims to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. This is different from the MDG target of halving extreme poverty, a target met largely by the millions of Chinese and from the other BRIC nations who left the ranks of the very poor. But halving extreme poverty is not the same thing as being half-way towards eliminating poverty altogether, in much the same way as halving crime rates is not half-way to abolishing crime. The hardest crimes to eliminate, and the most hardened criminals, are the ones that are most likely to remain.

Essentially the target now is to tackle the harder half of poverty, rather than just the next half. If it hadn't been for the progress of the last 14 years this aim would seem naïve. As it is, a number of key lessons are spelled out by the High Level Panel that should be internalised by all those involved in turning these recommendations into an actual framework.

First, governance needs to be a larger part of the development mix, and in this regard the experience of the MDGs has put this on the agenda. The proponents of the new framework add two new Goals that are entirely without precedent in the MDGs on Good Governance and Peaceful Societies but that restore the original intention of the Millennium Declaration. This is a seal of confidence in such Goals to tackle politically difficult issues, and provokes some interesting ideas in the report. The open data campaign score a good result in access and rights to information. The need for security-sector reform is a victory for those making the (sometimes difficult) point that well-run police forces and armies can be just as important to governance as democratic elections and freedom of expression.

Secondly, the report notes that the biggest failure of the MDGs was in not integrating the very different economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development originally envisioned in the Millennium Declaration. The new proposal certainly seems to mix these concepts up in interesting and novel ways. For example, the idea that there is an essential trade-off between some environmental goals and some developmental goals that can not be wished away, will lead to important horse trading between environmental and development interests that was too-often dodged in the MDGs.

Thirdly, it puts sustainable development at the core of the framework, but may disappoint some activists by not specifically rebranding the goals as Sustainable Development Goals. And while on the one hand the desire to weave sustainable development through all the Goals is a good aim, done badly or unthinkingly it could result in no specific commitments to sustainability or the environment at all.

Most worrying is what it says about Climate Change. A stand-alone commitment to limiting global temperature rise to 2C is curiously misplaced in the general 'Creating an Enabling Environment' Goal 12. (Let's charitably overlook that this whole Goal exists at all. One consistent criticism of the MDGs was Goal 8, a general 'leftovers' goal that didn't have a clear focus either.) Grouping Climate Change together with targets on finance and economic justice is an interesting synthesis, but Climate Change is at least as relevant to the Food Security, Energy, and Natural Asset Management Goals. Given the acknowledged importance of Climate Change to the success of these Goals, and the systemic nature of the Climate Change problem, it should have been enough for an individual climate Goal with multiple indicators on a range of impacts.

I have written on these pages before that a new development framework will only work if it gets the politics right first. It doesn't matter how noble the target, if the human systems that determine success or failure are not carefully managed it will have no impact at all. Particularly, a politically tone-deaf focus on inequality, when the task now is to ensure that gains on poverty are not reversed by approaching environmental and resource stress, would only hinder a new framework.

Look, for example, at the rhetorical bob-and-weave when it comes to reporting the success of the MDGs. Yes, lots of people were lifted out of poverty, but many were on the cusp of being middle-income anyway because they lived in countries such as China, India or Brazil that were going through massive economic expansion. Four of the MDGs in Africa weren't met because this is where most of the very poorest live and so any improvement experienced here (and there was some) was still not sufficient to bring many countries up to global minimums.

It is the relative progress of those who are below the poverty line that matters. In other words, if Niger and Afghanistan had improved at a relatively similar rate as China and Brazil, who have had massive commodity and agricultural booms in the last fifteen years, then the value added by the MDGs would be considerable. But they haven't. Much of the development gains have accrued to particular countries, typically those that were lower-middle income to start with, and that had mineral, agricultural and manufacturing resources to exploit. Kudos to the MDGs for helping to lift 1 billion people out of poverty, but let's be in no doubt about what really happened.

I was in Kampala recently, ten years after my first visit to Uganda, and it is fascinating to see the progress made over the last decade in one country and within admittedly its richest city. One very simple illustration of what has been going on is worth pointing out.

The number of 4x4s on the road has increased exponentially, but the state of the roads has increased only marginally. A booming economy means lots of people can afford 4x4s, but it takes time for a government to make the reforms necessary to effectively raise revenue through efficient, honest tax systems and institute public works to build proper roads.

Wealthy Ugandans buy 4x4s because the roads are so bad, but this effectively neuters them as an effective constituency for road improvements because they ignore the pot-holes in air-conditioned luxury. But this creates a paradox. Good roads are needed to keep the traffic moving to aid commerce and produce more wealthy Ugandans so that further tax revenue can be generated to build good roads.

Western taxpayers have a legitimate concern in ensuring that aid spent in places like Uganda goes to help the very poorest before funding public works, especially as Kampala's road users self-evidently form a constituency from whom taxes can and should be drawn. A new bypass is being built across Kampala. Progress is slow, it is very corrupt, but it is getting there. Guess who is building it? The Chinese.

Helping the next half out of poverty will require the slaughtering of certain sacred cows, but unfortunately the new framework has little to say about aid. The Europeans will fund the very poorest, the war-torn and the disaster-ridden. The Chinese will fund long-term investments that provide long-term results (and lets not paint too jaundiced a picture of the Chinese, they are willing to wait decades for a return on investment, and even to give away roads and infrastructure at a loss if it goes towards building long-term relationships). The incentives are not aligned in a country like Uganda to develop in the way that European countries (or even, ultimately China) developed, and the denial about the function of aid in long-term political economy is unchallenged by this report.

It has been said repeatedly and repeatedly, but the MDGs worked because they got the politics right, and sacrificed the desirable for the achievable. This is how an absolute target for poverty and any sort of gender target were incorporated into the MDGs, even against heavy lobbying. A target to reduce the next half of poverty is hard enough (and if the easier half of poverty hadn't been eradicated I would have said impossible), but an inequality target is politically impossible and practically immeasurable. It is the high-water mark of a Western NGO-worldview that imagines itself to the voice of the poor and powerless, and it has unfortunately only been further legitimised by the High Level Panel's report.