Beyond 2015: MDGs, SDGs and Busan’s Global Partnership

Despite a still-struggling global economy, one in which contagion from the developed world is now enveloping emerging economies, there is a boom in international donor-recipient diplomacy. Globalization is forcing us to recognize that there is no longer easily divisible rich and poor, North and South, but a new universality, a multi-layered world, with complex, often spaghetti-like cross-linkages.

Three distinct processes are in play. The first is about defining the next generation of goals to replace the existing Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that terminate in 2015, with their UN-mandated focus on poverty and access to basic health and education.

“A key question for Canada and Canadians is whether we are ready to contribute creatively to this process.”

The second, running for now on parallel tracks, is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposed at this summer’s Rio+20 UN conference as the way out of the international impasse over climate change. Since developed countries would no longer agree on specific direct actions to be financed largely by those who had historically burnt the carbon that caused global warming, they agreed, as a poor compromise, to create a set of largely aspirational goals, a listing of principles and best practices.

The third, known as the Global Partnership (GP) for Development Cooperation, is a key addition to the architecture of global governance. Replacing codes framed by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the official club of Western donors, it could provide new legitimacy and inclusiveness for development cooperation in international fora such as the UN Security Council and the G20. It is very much a work-in-progress, created as a result of the 2011 High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Busan, South Korea. The Partnership will bring together, old and new donors, and recipients, both more successful ones such as India as well as those still very poor, plus leading civil society organizations.

The Busan conference was the latest in a series of global multilateral conferences to tackle a flawed aid system and the persistence of widespread poverty. It revisited the failure of donors and recipients alike to change their ways. From the 2005 Paris Declaration onwards, they had committed to work in a partnership driven by policies and goals ‘owned’ by recipient countries. Many made best efforts, but their best was not good enough: donors would not let go (‘accountability’ became the cover for continuing control), and many developing countries did not have the confidence and technical competencies to drive the agenda. Meeting in the midst of the global economic crisis, in Busan countries struggled to find a path forward against a context of declining aid from traditional DAC donors and ‘new’ donors (notably BRICS countries such as China) who had become powerful forces but did not ‘obey’ the old etiquettes.

The need for a functionally viable and legitimate Global Partnership is the key Busan outcome, one intended to take aid governance out of the exclusive hands of Northern donors and the DAC.  A new institutional framework is to be created, but as yet it has no substance. However, if Busan’s partnership aspirations are really to succeed—if new donors from amongst the emerging economies are to become co-leaders—then the DAC donors must start to walk the talk (maybe even offering to move from their comfortable Paris HQ with the OECD).

Convergence and cohesion should be the guiding principles for this triad, but chaos and competition still seem better descriptors. It is no longer acceptable for a collection of DAC donors to decide goals for others. This is true even if poverty, embedded in social inequality, remains the main developmental challenge for poor countries and even some rich but unequal ones. The failure of the present MDGs lies in their weak implementation. The poor and vulnerable are still left behind.  Any new framework needs inclusiveness as a central principle for both the most vulnerable of individuals and the weakest of countries.

While universal in concept, the new MDGs (known as MDG++) should formally allow differentiated approaches for distinct classes of countries. Individual countries, reflecting the new understanding of country-ownership, could choose to customize these goals to match local realities. Key issues in framing the new goals are likely to be a stronger focus of resources and livelihoods for the poor (especially the unemployed), along with other explicitly pro-poor policies; a ‘do no harm’ approach to the environment; and resilience in face of disasters.

This brings us to those SDGs. They cannot continue as a rival UN agenda drafted by a disgruntled South angry at the undermining of Kyoto (a process to which Canada significantly contributed). Instead they hopefully will bring back to the table the key elements of any meaningful Kyoto 2.0. We hear words such as ‘transformational’ from the promoters of this new triad; but today’s geo-politics are unavoidably shaped by the flawed recovery from the global economic crisis. Realistically, we should be talking about decade-long, incremental actions.

Because this more complex agenda will bring challenges of political legitimacy, the Global Partnership arm of the triad will require carefully structured membership, effective and inclusive governance, and probably a new institutional base. It will also need strong competence in monitoring performance of what will be a complex set of goals and indicators. At the moment it is being left to fester; a bad move or lost opportunity. It cannot just be an add-on to the guest-list for DAC meetings. It might operate as a sub-group of the G20, but as a development forum it will need a credible voice of fragile states.

A key question for Canada and Canadians is whether we are ready to contribute creatively to this process. The question is only secondarily financial; more central is whether the political will exists to share global governance more equitably. We should be an energetic partner, strengthening rather than lambasting the UN, if only to protect our own future in this new multi-polar world. By rebuilding our past credibility as consensus-facilitator, we could become again a voice of constructive reason in multilateral processes—even perhaps enhancing the like-minded group approach by including key Southern nations such as India and Brazil.

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