A Post-2015 Development Agenda: Into the Last (Long) Lap

Post-2015 is becoming the biggest development game in town, especially New York. A flurry of activity in the summer months climaxed at the end of September with a UNGA ‘Special Event’ at which leaders from both developed and developing countries rose to praise their successes in delivering the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to set out the path forward. But there is a lot more to do, and key outcomes are far from resolved. The Special Event was just the warm-up lap to a year of activity shaping a next generation of goals, some centred on directly ending poverty and others embracing broader Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Despite all the hoopla, MDG ‘success’ is uneven. It did succeed in focusing attention on basic but essential development goals. However, its central achievement of halving poverty is based upon the success of one country, China, with some help from India. For most low-income developing countries (LICs), success is very partial. 2015 targets for basic essentials like nutrition, child and maternal mortality and access to education are looking seriously at risk.

In these days of Canada-centric coherence within a new DFATD, is Canada ready for a partnership approach to development co-operation?

Much of this slippage represents flawed implementation, in the form of uncertain and inadequate aid flows, weaknesses in government effectiveness, and a focus on low-hanging fruit that left behind the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in countries and communities.

The original MDGs were designed behind closed doors by technocrats. This time, the UN has led off with a massive effort of consultations (regional and thematic) as well as policy thinking.  It has a Systems Task Team and an MDG Gap Task Force. The UN Secretary-General received his High Level Panel report  in June, and by late-July issued his own synthesis. A committee on development finance is hard at work.

Maybe most important, but still in learning mode, is the UN’s Open Working Group. This is tasked with fleshing out the new SDGs and blending them with the ideas for the next generation of MDGs (many of which are already explored in the High Level Panel report). The Working Group is due to finish its deliberation by next spring and deliver a consensus report by September 2014.

Global politics are an unavoidable part of this process.  The Open Working Group is itself a committee of New York-based UN diplomats; most are not development experts or practitioners. Most are G77 members, the UN grouping  for developing countries. The ultimate decision-making step is to be a Summit for heads of state in September 2015.  The UN Outcome document endorsed in September’s Special Event by UN members (including Canada) said that this Summit would adopt (not re-debate) the ‘Post-2015 Agenda’. Yet some—especially vulnerable LICs—fear that this process could become a battle of global titans in which the central goal of ending poverty, ‘leaving no one behind’ might be trampled under foot.

Which trip-wires could disrupt the desired Post-2015 consensus?

  • With the global financial crisis still far from solved, the old G8 titans have domestic political worries and are unready for change. The Emerging Economies are also now hurting and more self-occupied.
  • New power brokers at the table (the Emerging Economies, notably the BRICS) make for a very differentiated developing world in which low-income economies and the poorest individuals are feeling left behind.  The BRICS seem hesitant to take a share of a leadership burden increasingly neglected by OECD countries.
  • The new development agenda requires blending a list of relatively specific and measurable goals (e.g.  access to sanitation) with transformational ones such as a cap on global temperature change. The G77 leadership insists on these new SDGs, while many OECD countries, including Canada, are wary.
  • Development is costly, and transformational goals demand innovative financing. Declining ODA logically should be only temporary. Global economic recovery, hopefully in the next few years, should easily permit restored aid levels. A key policy perspective now entering into conventional wisdom is that grant aid should be reserved overwhelmingly for the poor and LICs, e.g. for a Nepal not Colombia. Moreover even LICs now demand to be in the driver-seat for their own development.
  • Other means of development financing will need more attention—but must be seen as complementary to a recovery in aid flows and not as an excuse for countries such as Canada to let aid levels stagnate. Remittances are not aid, but the private funds of typically poor individuals.  Donors can encourage, but not direct, their private sectors to be more developmentally sensitive. The key goal of strengthening domestic resource mobilisation in developing countries will often demand governance reform (including moves to end tax evasion).

A much more ambitious post-2015 agenda is emerging.   There are as-yet unanswered technical questions on how to handle more complex and comprehensive targets. Statistical systems need upgrading both to measure progress and to enable governments to better understand their needs.  While greater inclusiveness is the correct approach to ending poverty, it demands major advances in governance and the willingness to hear the voices of the poor and empower civil society.

Conflicts on some issues will inevitably arise among decision-makers. Actors outside a sometimes creaky UN system will likely be needed to build consensus and force compromise on bottlenecks. These facilitators could perhaps be within a G20 freed from its obsessive focus on the global financial crisis,  supported by the new Global Partnership.

Finally, where is Canada’s government on a transformational Post-2015 Agenda? So far, it seems to be tucked away discreetly under a more positive U.S. policy wing. It has signed on to the process so far—but in these days of Canada-centric coherence within a new DFATD, is it ready for a partnership approach to development co-operation?  Maybe controversially, the next generation of development goals will be universal, meaning that Canada’s national targets will be on the table just as those of Cambodia. Are we ready for the needed shift in mindset?

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