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Post 2015: why we need a new development agenda

16 Dec 2014
Rob Vos, Director of Development Policy and Analysis, UN-DESA and coordinator of the UN Task Team for the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda,
The international community has set 2015 as the deadline to meet a common set of development targets, commonly known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Even before having reached the finish line and knowing whether all goals have been met, talks have already begun for defining the "post-2015" development agenda. Is this timely? Do we actually need a new agenda? And, if so, what should it look like?

The short answer to the first question is yes. That to the second one is also yes, while preserving the present focus on human development. The answer to the third question is more complex, but one key feature of the new agenda should be that it is one for all people and all countries, not just one seen to be for poor people in poor countries only.

Why would it be timely? Some have questioned this for various reasons. One position is that the discussions about the post-2015 agenda could become a distraction from efforts to achieve the MDGs. A more contrarian perspective is that it is not timely because we may not need any globally agreed agenda at all, because - in the words of one commentator - the MDG agenda has proven to be "a most distracting gimmick"(1). In the latter view, the MDG agenda was no more than "flawed targetism", unmet commitments, and failure to address the root causes of poverty and deprivation. The MDG agenda has been far from perfect, but such comments are exceedingly one-sided. The MDG agenda did manage to rally unprecedented support for a human development-focused agenda at a moment in time (2000) when the predominant thinking focused on economic growth and open markets. Even if uneven, a lot of progress has been made towards poverty reduction, access to education, reduced child and maternal mortality, and access to basic sanitation. For lack of a counterfactual, we will never know how much progress would have been made without an agreed MDG agenda, but there is plenty of country-level evidence suggesting that the agenda defined a strong policy focus on achieving the goals. The time-bound targets helped improve accountability.

But, as said, progress has been uneven and many remain left behind. Hence, coming back to the original question: with the existing agenda still unfulfilled and so much more to be done, is now the time to focus attention to the post-2015 agenda? Yes, it is. Good governance is looking ahead. The year 2015 is still a few years away, but consensus-building around a new agenda will and must take time, because many stakeholders will need to be involved to avoid mistakes made when setting the MDG agenda. The latter was based on the inspirational Millennium Declaration adopted by all UN member states, but the related goals and targets were by a small group of UN technocrats and, as a result of a lack of consultations, those often have been misinterpreted as global targets to be pursued equally by all developing countries, independent of their initial conditions. A more consultative process will be needed for this reason, but in particular also because to meet today's global challenges, a genuinely transformative agenda is needed.

This brings me to the second question: do we really need a new agenda? The answer is a qualified yes. Clearly, the focus on human development will have to stay, not just because of the outstanding deficits, but as an ultimate objective of any development agenda. However, the post-MDG framework should express an international development agenda fit for the world of today; a world that is not only different from the one that existed at the start of the millennium but one that has learnt lessons from the MDG framework. Thus, the purpose of formulating the post-2015 agenda is quite different from the original one. While the first decade of the 2000s showed considerable economic success in a broad range of developing countries, the global food, energy and financial crises of 2008-2009 underscored both the interconnectedness and systemic weaknesses of the global economy. The threat of climate change and other environmental risks have brought to the fore that past and present economic progress has come at the expense of our natural environment. Continuation along trodden pathways will exacerbate inequalities and pressures on the Earth's resources and natural environment. Next month, at the Rio+20 Conference, world leaders will need to agree how to change our ways and secure a liveable planet for future generations. A "liveable" planet is not just a matter of staying within environmental limits, but also means providing a secure and decent living for all. This is a huge challenge and Rio+20 may only take first steps into a new direction.

Securing a decent living for all will require a lot more resource use giving existing deficits and knowing that by 2050 another 2 billion people will have been added to the world's population. It is hard to see how we can achieve this without much better sharing of existing resources and fundamental changes in production and consumption patterns to reduce resource use and pollution. Persisting inequities and struggle for natural resources are also key determinants of conflict, insecurity and violations of human rights. We thus need to strive for an agenda that balances the objectives of equitable human and economic development with those of environmental sustainability and security. Balancing all these demands will not be simple and likely will be politically challenging, but - as said - there is no other way.

The good thing is that the world community has already agreed on a vision that has all the right ingredients: the Millennium Declaration. So, as 2015 draws closer, it is a good moment for world leaders to renew their commitment to that shared vision for the future we want for all. But the challenge will be to translate that vision into a new operational agenda providing a framework to integrate human development goals more explicitly with those of inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability and security. These issues are a main concern for developed and developing countries alike. This answers in part the third question. The post-2015 agenda should be actioned with defined responsibilities for all countries.

Difficulties of getting to an agreed outcome on Rio+20 could signal it is not going to be easy to build consensus towards an even more encompassing, truly global, post-2015 development agenda. But there is still time to work in that direction. The MDG agenda has shown how goals - well defined and packaged - can focus political attention on a few problems. But it will have to be done right, or the end result will be a list of unattainable aspirations that make the politics more complicated rather than less.

Keeping this in mind, a UN-wide Task Team will propose a vision and possible format for the new global development agenda in a report it will release in June 2012. The report is to serve as a starting point for further deliberations. Next, a High-level Panel of Leaders and Eminent Persons, to be appointed by the UN Secretary-General after Rio+20, is to seek bases for a political consensus, while through a large number of thematic and national consultations the views of many more stakeholders will be taken on board.

It is most timely to get on with this process, but we should "hasten slowly": a transformative agenda is needed, but it will only work if people around the world can believe in it, which will take time and careful consensus building.



(1) Antrobus, P. (2003) in DAWN Informs, September 2003 (dawn.org.fj/global/mdgs.html).