The opening of the United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York each September is celebrated with as much verve by multilateralist groupies as the start of each autumn's new season of the X Factor is by fans of pop culture. Both 'shows' are filled with stars at various points on the azimuth, giving grandstanding performances that appeal to voters. But there the analogy ends. A Christmas number one may be a worthy prize but it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from matters of UN concern.
This year's General Assembly debate and gathering of world leaders has been overshadowed by the ongoing crisis in Syria and the nascent threat of Iranian nuclear capability. Both these issues pose significant risks for the Middle East and beyond, yet they also serve to underscore the difficulties the UN has in being able to successfully manage specific security threats. Simultaneously, however, a parallel process in New York has begun, which highlights the UN's arguably more successful role as a body capable of generating global norms. This process was the first meeting of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on the post-Millennium Development Goals framework. The panel not only has the laudable objective of setting a new framework for the eradication of global poverty, but in so doing, also has the potential to reduce some of the drivers of conflicts which the principle organs of the UN find so difficult to address.
The Panel does not have an easy task. However it is a task that will be more manageable if three things happen: the right people are involved, the right questions are asked and the timing is right.
In terms of the people, alongside David Cameron as co-chairs are the presidents of Indonesia and Liberia. This should give a suitably strong and balanced leadership to proceedings. Cameron is a pragmatist who can be expected to excel in this opportunity to perform on the world stage. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the president of the fourth most populous country in the world and he has for the last eight years successfully engineered impressive Indonesian growth while having to balance diverse domestic opinions. President Johnson Sirleaf, as the first democratically elected female African head of state, a Nobel Laureate and former Finance Minister, also commands huge respect. The co-chairs have been carefully chosen to balance geography, gender and phase of economic development.
The remaining 23 panel members represent an impressive array of professors, ministers and bureaucrats. While expertise will therefore not be lacking, achieving the Secretary-General's ambition of being "bold but practical" may be challenging. For any new framework to gain political support it will have to be practical but without the participation of those directly involved in poverty-focused social movements and campaigning, there is a question as to whether the panel will be sufficiently bold. It is reassuring, therefore, that a process is in place for engagement in 50 developing countries so that the voices of the 'global south' are embedded in any recommendations.
As for asking the right questions, here the panel's choice will ultimately define whether a new framework focuses on the ends or the means. Are we going to see an emphasis on specific improvements, targets and goals, and if so will these repeat, re-cast or replace those of the current MDGs? There are a number of potential issues, such as disability, human rights, energy and non-communicable diseases, each having missed out first time around and each with an entourage of lobbyists, bidding for contention if current goals are to be widened. Or will the panel focus more on creating the right policy contexts, both in rich and poor countries, that allow pro-poor and equity-focused growth? Alongside this, a major question for the panel will be the extent to which the new framework encompasses sustainability. It is encouraging to note that in the press conference following the first meeting of the panel, David Cameron acknowledged poverty would not be eliminated if development was unsustainable. It is now imperative that the panel works alongside the expert group tasked, following this year's Rio+20 Summit, with producing new Sustainable Development Goals. If this happens there is a good chance that sustainability will genuinely be placed, where it should be, at the heart of any new poverty reduction paradigm.
In terms of the timing, the panel has a relatively short period in which to gather evidence, consider options and make recommendations. The panel is due to report to the Secretary-General at the end of May 2013. Wisely, sufficient time has been allowed to garner political support for the new framework before the current MDGs expire. Any danger that developing a post-MDG framework now will detract from the final phase of achieving the current goals has to be offset with the risk that momentum in efforts to reduce poverty will falter if there is a void between global agreements.
So what are the chances of the panel discovering the X Factor in poverty reduction? Well, taking a leaf out of Mark Malloch-Brown's book would be a good start. Malloch-Brown, a former UN Deputy Secretary-General, is credited as one the architects of the MDGs and has said his ambition was to have something so simple that anyone in the world could understand the goals and hold their governments and donors to account. After the panel's first meeting it appears that there is an emerging consensus that the overarching goal should be the eradication of extreme poverty by 2030. There are still a billion people existing on less than $1.25 per day and focusing efforts on addressing this in a sustainable way would win my vote.