Special Pleading Will Destroy the Legacy of the Millennium Development Goals

An opportunity exists in the next two years to build on one of the most successful development projects, not to mention political projects, of all time: the Millennium Development Goals.

An opportunity exists in the next two years to build on one of the most successful development projects, not to mention political projects, of all time: the Millennium Development Goals. But hard-won progress can easily be squandered, because the Goals are in danger of death by a thousand cuts.

The lesson needs to be learned, quickly, that the process can't be an opportunity for special pleading by NGOs. The political climate in 2013 is very different to that in 2001 when the original MDGs were negotiated, a few months before 9/11 and a long time before global recession.

Good intentions are no substitute for good politics. David Cameron, a co-chair of the UN High Level panel negotiating the post-2015 framework, has not had much political cover in protecting overseas aid from the cuts. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact established in May 2011 to audit the work of DFID is no doubt doing important work, but it is at least partly political when many avenues already exist for scrutinising aid, principally the National Audit Office, Parliament, the OECD, and the International id Transparency Initiative. The knives are out for foreign aid, and stories about aid money going to meddling Eurocrats (Telegraph), and corrupt Indian bureaucrats (Mail) will keep up this daily pressure.

There is a significant political opportunity, therefore, to support David Cameron out on that limb he finds himself by constructing a powerful post-2015 framework that ensures civil society and government, both north and south, sing from the same hymn-sheet.

This, unfortunately, is not happening.

In addition to the UN High Level Panel, which is generally supported by the EU, US and OECD, a second process has been established by an Open Working Group of the G77 nations (a club for developing nations) who support the outcomes of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, specifically Sustainable Development Goals as successors to the MDGs. Further complicating the issue is the possible formation of Peace and Security Goals created by the Busan forum on aid effectiveness in 2011. A German think-tank has already called creating a single-track process to produce a bargain between the UN HLP and the G77 to be one of the most urgent issues for diplomats in 2013.

It is not just the structures that need coordinating, the issues do too. So far, Beyond 2015, a British campaign, has solicited suggestions ranging from more joined-up goals to 'weighting' depending on income. One theme that emerges from both multilateral bodies and civil society is the need to look at cross-cutting issues such as gender equality and social protection, more than specific technical targets such as curing particular diseases or improving water quality.

Dialogue is great, and consultation is important. Many critics have complained that the MDGs originally neglected the views of beneficiaries and intermediaries like NGOs and developing country governments. So it is good that the post-2015 process is starting with these groups. But another danger lurks, and that is to fail to learn the lessons of what the MDGs got right.

First of all, they had wide-spread support. The MDGs were the product of a pre-9/11 period of cooperation aided by a relative global peace and general economic good fortune. 192 countries eventually signed up to the MDGs this created enormous legitimacy in a way few international agreements ever achieve.

Second, it stuck to simple messages about achievable, but ambitious, targets. It confronted the big ones, such as those living on less than $1 a day (later extended to $1.25), education, and the major diseases of poverty, on the principle that if you get the big things right then other good things will follow such as women's rights and strengthening public health.

Third of all, it communicated its aims effectively. The mantra of eight concise goals was adopted by the media, reproduced over and over on the internet, and drummed into people the world over from African classrooms to Wall Street boardrooms.

Fourth, it got lucky. Food security didn't dramatically worsen. China, India and others lifted 1 billion people out of poverty, and Sub-Saharan Africa is today the strongest growing region in the world. Governance, whilst awful in certain places like Zimbabwe, N Korea and Libya, got generally better in many places.

However well intended consultations are, compromise just to keep people happy is in danger of obscuring the goals. Exciting and ambitious proposals have been proposed such as introducing a 'social floor' below which nobody should slip (an idea promoted by the ILO). The trouble with something like a social floor is that could unite rich and poor countries alike by implicating the poor in their own failure and suggesting that rich nations are obligated to pay for it.

Most countries have the opposite development experience. Inequality, and the poverty of a minority underclass, actually gets worse before it gets better. A social floor is a wonderful aspiration, but more work is needed on the balance of economic incentives and policy reforms needed for effective social protection.

The framers of the original MDGs (I have been trying to think of an appropriate description for them: James Madison scribbling hurriedly on the back of an envelope is closest) had the nous, or perhaps no other option, to focus on the politics first and the details second. Trying to fill in the gaps that the MDGs left, trying to keep everybody happy, or failing to read where the world might be in 2025 or 2030, will squander the legacy of the MDGs just as surely as not acting at all.

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