Getting a group of people to agree anything is hard. Ask a room full of people the best way to make a cup of tea and you'll get a phalanx of opinions. So imagine how hard it must be to get 27 people to agree priorities for the future of the world. And then imagine them all being from different countries, from diverse backgrounds and with distinct interests.
That was the task (defining the future not making tea) given to the UN High Level Panel ten months ago when it was convened by Ban Ki-Moon the UN Secretary General.
This panel, co-chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the British Prime Minister was tasked with coming up with a set of recommendations to form the basis of a new set of development goals, when the current ones expire in 2015. These new goals need to respond to today's challenges, anticipate future trends and maintain global support. To put it mildly, it's not an easy task.
As if that wasn't difficult enough, rather than setting up a panel filled with people from similar perspectives, the SG nominated about as diverse a group as possible. Admittedly there was no North Korea or Iran at the table but even the co-chairs cover one of the poorest African countries in the world - just emerging from conflict, a European former colonial power/ G8 member and an Asian emerging economy.
In addition to this you had the rather different perspectives of the Cubans and the Americans to keep on board. The Latin Americans with their focus on environmental sustainability and the Africans and their focus on economic transformation. You had the Europeans pushing for human rights to be at the fore and China... pushing for them not to be.
All in all a fairly combustible mix. And the first couple of meetings did feel a bit like a multicultural big brother household. For the first couple of meetings members of the panel read out pre-prepared statements on their set positions while they sized each other up. Were the Brits really as right wing as they feared? Did the Brazilians just want to sabotage the process from inside? Will Unilever just bang on about soap?
Given all of this there were many people hugely and understandably sceptical that they would be able to agree anything of substance. In the early days of the panel we talked a lot about the likelihood that the panel would probably end up in one of three places. They would either agree everything (i.e. a long shopping list) without any prioritisation, agree nothing (if we don't get our bit, you don't get your bit) or agree stuff at such a level of abstraction it became meaningless (we agree we should be nicer to each other).
But things started to shift in the Monrovia meeting with real conversations of substance and surprising levels of agreement among the panel. Bali built on this and a consensus started to build about the core proposition of the new framework; people-centred, planet sensitive with eradicating poverty at its core. Good progress, but the devil was always going to be in the detail and in our view the early drafts weren't encouraging.
Today's report is hugely improved. In our view it gets three fundamental things right.
Firstly it has a clear focus on eradicating extreme poverty and underneath that a commitment to end core components of poverty like preventable child deaths, ensuring all children are learning in school. This focus had been contested and there was a danger there would be no clear focus at all.
Secondly the report and proposed framework includes key issues which the MDGs left out, including environmental sustainability, conflict and violence against children. In our view it strikes the right balance of including key issues that the old framework missed while avoiding the framework trying to do everything.
Thirdly the report tackles the very politically thorny issue of inequality. Whilst failing short of a standalone goal on income inequality, it says very clearly that targets will only be met if they are met within all key economic and social groups. This is critical progress and addresses a key failing of the previous framework.
Of course the report isn't perfect. We think there should have been more on income inequality as one of the critical blocks to making progress and it is odd that the growing consensus around Universal Health Coverage isn't reflected in the targets. But overall it's exactly the impetus that the next stage of the process needed.
Which is where we come back to the start. It turns out that getting 27 people to agree may have been the easy bit. We now need the 193 states of the UN to do the same. With multilateral politics as snarled up as it is this is a big ask. But the prize it worth it. The vision of eradicating extreme poverty is an inspiring one. For the first time it's also an achievable one.Suggest a correction