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Will the MDGs survive beyond 2015?

16 Dec 2014
Jan Vandemoortele, Co-architect of the MDGs; formerly with UNICEF and UNDP; now independent researcher, writer and lecturer,
The MDGs show that a set of clear and measurable targets can be a driver of change. Despite valid criticism, the majority of stakeholders find them useful and most want a global agenda beyond 2015. The question is whether the current multilateral arena is conducive for setting a new agenda that is fit for purpose.

The two essential ingredients for success at this stage are time and leadership. The first thing to focus on is to define the process by which the post-2015 agenda will be defined. Discussions about content should be kept for later. One single process must be put in place and the UN must lead it. The process that was followed for creating the MDGs should not be repeated. Experts and technocrats should not set the new agenda. This time, it should be formulated through a participatory, inclusive and bottom-up process.

The proposal by the UN Secretary-General to set up a high-level Panel of Eminent Persons and an UN-wide Task Team to help formulate the post-2015 agenda is the right way forward. The Panel should be co-chaired by two 'former' Heads of State because effective leadership will only stem from their full-time engagement. Their task is to ensure that the design of the new agenda will be balanced, inclusive and disciplined. They will have to resist the pressure of having the new agenda ready and agreed upon at the next global MDG meeting in 2013. Considering the complexity of the task, it is essential to make use of the full period that remains till the MDGs expire, i.e. 31 December 2015. The watchword should be to 'hasten slowly'. That watchword assumes, however, that all parties are clearly informed about the steps that will lead to the post-2015 agenda. The UN should first outline the process and the timeline. This is important and urgent because the range of participants and the type of process will, to a large extent, shape the outcome.

The Panel should initially focus on conducting participatory consultations with leaders, stakeholders and the affected populations around the world. Most of the agenda is technical only in appearance, hence too important to be left to academics and experts alone. The Task Team should focus initially on reviewing the more technical aspects of the new agenda; e.g. benchmarking, fixing the time horizon, taking into account initial conditions, setting interim targets, etc. Both the Panel and the Task Team must caution against misinterpreting global targets as benchmarks for country-level performance. The MDGs are collective targets that need to be adapted to the national context. Numerical global targets cannot be used as one-size-fits-all yardsticks for measuring performance at the country level.

Clear strategic choices about the architecture of the post-2015 agenda will need to be made early on. Broadly speaking three options are available: either version MDG1.1 (an extension of the current MDGs with minor adjustments); version MDG2.0 (the current set with major modifications); or version MDG3.0 (a completely new design, possibly without goals or targets but focused on transformative structures and processes). The second option seems most relevant and most feasible because it combines change with continuity. The third option may not only be too fuzzy statistically but also too ambitious politically.

A key condition for success is to see global targets as good servants - for they are bad masters. Despite the gaps, the MDGs have served the cause of human development well; including those aspects that are not adequately captured. This requires, however, that the targets are seen as illustrative for all dimensions of human development, including the omitted ones. Yet those whose dimension is not included commonly push for new targets. In so doing, they implicitly turn the MDGs into the master, no longer the servant.

It will, therefore, be vital to have a strong gatekeeper so that the post-2015 targets will satisfy the conditions of clarity of concept, solidity of indicator, and robustness of data. Otherwise, the new agenda is likely to get overloaded. A comparison between the Millennium Declaration of 2000 and the outcome document of the 2010 MDG-summit proves that the danger of overload is not theoretical. Comprising not less than 124 commitments, the 2010 text is four times longer than the original Millennium Declaration. Brevity is a strength, not a weakness. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: 'A designer knows he has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away'.

The post-2015 world faces numerous challenges; the question is how to bring them into the development agenda without overloading it. Since complexity can paralyze, needless complexity must be avoided. The architects of the new agenda will need to apply Ockham's razor by asking the following questions: Is the concept clear? Is the indicator solid? Are the data robust? Does it concern an end and not a means? Only if the answers to these are affirmative should the issue be considered in earnest. It is of little use to formulate a new agenda that is conceptionally marvellous and technically unassailable but that is ignored by the public and most stakeholders.

UN agencies, multilateral organisations, bilateral donors, global NGOs and think-tanks will need to be herded in looking at the 'big picture' first before each of them pushes their single issue onto the post-2015 agenda. If these players maintain the mindset of a 'salesperson' then the process will be an exercise in futility.

To overcome a donor-centric bias, the post-2015 agenda should take a universal perspective, wherever relevant. Broadly speaking, development is about ensuring that all citizens in the country enjoy a decent life. No country has yet achieved that objective for all its citizens. Therefore, all countries can be considered to be 'in development'. Hence, the post-2015 agenda should not be limited to low-income countries, to sub-Saharan Africa, or to so-called fragile states. Not all targets will be applicable to all countries but several will have universal relevance. In other words, a 'One-World' view should be taken when setting the new agenda. Setting an agenda for nutrition, for instance, could deal with overweight as well as with underweight. Malnutrition is most prevalent in poor countries; obesity is growing in rich countries; they occur simultaneously in more and more countries. Youth employment, gender discrimination, disarmament, and climate change are other universal challenges that could be addressed by the new agenda.

Goals, targets and indicators are distinct. Goals can be formulated on the basis of the rights-language. Targets can then be seen as stepping stones towards the gradual realisation of these rights. Indicators will validate the objective measurability of the proposed targets. Many actors prefer numerical and doable targets because they are not stirred into action by normative standards or values.

The available evidence points to a systemic discrimination in human development. In the majority of countries, exogenous factors such as gender, ethnicity, birthplace, mother's education or father's occupation continue to determine an individual's participation in global progress and national prosperity. Hence, the new agenda must call for equitable development, which embodies the human rights principle of non-discrimination. It must address growing inequalities more forcefully, starting from the premise that equity begins with children. No separate target should be set for inequalities in order to avoid an insular or pseudo-scientific treatment of the issue.

Finally, it must be recognised that reaching international agreements has gotten harder in recent years. It took several world summits before the global targets were internationally accepted. It would be naïve to think that world leaders will now readily agree on a particular strategy for achieving global targets - even if such a one-size-fits-all strategy would exist. Therefore, the new agenda should focus on selected ends of human development. General guidance regarding the development narrative can be included as a kind of 'theory of change' but specific policy prescriptions should not be included. Global targets should enlarge the domestic policy space, not diminish it. Ultimately, the aim is to set a global agenda for development, not to prescribe one.

Thus, the dangers that loom large in designing the post-2015 agenda are overload, a donor-centric bias, and a prescriptive make-up. If not addressed adequately, they will lead to an agenda that is unfocused, unending, unattractive and unfit for purpose. Under that scenario, the agenda will suffer instant oblivion and neglect by everyone, despite a semblance of global political consensus. In that case, it would be better for the MDGs not to survive beyond 2015. Strong leadership will be necessary to avoid such a scenario.

Dag Hammarskjöld once said that we must choose between two concepts of the United Nations - either as a 'static conference machinery' or as a 'dynamic instrument' by which members together shape 'an organized world community' - e.g. setting a post-2015 agenda that is fit for purpose.