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What should follow in 2016?

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author_source Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGDEV),

In September 2015, we will reach an end-point originally laid out in the 2000 United Nations Millennium Declaration. That is the date by which the declaration, signed on to by over 180 world leaders, calls for the world to have met a series of development targets that included halving the proportion of people living on a dollar a day, ensuring that all children completed primary school, reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and under-five mortality by two thirds. These targets, subsequently reformulated as the Millennium Development Goals, have become the primary yardstick by which development progress has been judged over the past decade.

And there is considerable good news to report regarding that progress - including that the goal to halve income poverty was met five years early, and that we have reached the target to halve the proportion of the world's population out of reach of clean water. Even in the goal areas where improvement appears too slow to meet the targets - including maternal and child mortality alongside primary education - progress over the past ten years has been heartening. In 2008, 10,000 fewer under-fives died each day thanks to progress in reducing mortality since the turn of the millennium.

But as the clock counts down to 2015, the discussion has begun regarding what should follow in 2016. And starting after the Rio +20 Summit, a high-level panel appointed by the UN Secretary General and chaired by Presidents Susilo Bambang of Indonesia and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia alongside Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK will start deliberations on a new set of development goals.

What should the three leaders learn from our experience with the first round of development goals? And what are the limits to what a new round can accomplish? It's worth starting with one undoubted success of the MDGs: we are still talking about them twelve years later. There have been countless UN declarations filled with poetic and important language on making the world a better place. Many are consulted or referred to as often as a decades-old phonebook moldering forgotten on a cellar shelf. The MDGs are different, and it is not hard to understand why: they were simple, consensual, numerical and time bound - truly a common, and commonly understood framework for development where success and failure was easy for even the mathematically challenged to follow.

In a paper I wrote with Andy Sumner on More Money or More Development: What Have the MDGs Achieved? We argue that it is plausible that this specific, comprehensible framework can take some credit for moving donor resources towards MDG target areas and (so) for somewhat more rapid global progress since 2000 in some of those areas. For example, average developing country child mortality was perhaps three per thousand live births lower in 2009 than would be expected on the basis of previous trends. That adds up to hundreds of thousands of kids surviving each year. If the Millennium Declaration can take just partial credit for that, it isn't a bad return on investment for a legally toothless document that wasn't binding on anyone.

If simplicity, numerical targeting and consensus were the strengths of the MDGs, what could have worked better? First off, people complain about the process. The MDGs evolved out of development goals agreed by the Development Assistance Committee - a club of rich-world donors. They did draw those goals from UN conference communique language over the decade of the 1990s, but the editing and selection process took place in the marbled halls of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. Meanwhile, the final form of the MDGs, with their associated targets and indicators, was an internal UN bureaucratic creation.

Second, a lot of things are missing. What about income, or jobs, or infrastructure? Survey people across the developing - or the developed - world about their major concerns, and those are the answers that come back. Meanwhile, the environment goal fails to address biodiversity or climate with any real targets. And where are democracy, governance, or security? Some even argue the whole MDG framework is misguided. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggests everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being - and that includes food, clothing, housing and medical care, necessary social services, security in the event of circumstances beyond a person's control and free (compulsory) elementary education. Some argue that the goal to halve malnutrition, for example, takes away a universal unalienable right and replaces it with an inadequate target.

Third is a concern about how the goals were interpreted. Although the original language of the Millennium Declaration talks specifically about global targets, they have been widely applied at the country level. But, as an example, there's considerable evidence that it is harder to reduce under-five mortality from 10% of births to 3.3% over twenty five years than it is to reduce that mortality from 3.3% to 1.1% - despite the fact that both are a two-thirds reduction. Most African countries are closer to ten per cent mortality than three per cent. And clearly it is easier to get from ninety per cent primary completion to one hundred per cent than from fifty to one hundred. So the MDGs are 'unfair' as a yardstick of the region's progress. Indeed, a number of African countries that have seen historically incredibly rapid progress on education and mortality over the past decade are nonetheless branded as 'MDG failures' precisely because of this problem.

So, by 2016, can we have simple, consensual, numerical and time bound goals that are also developed in a participatory process, cover more of the development waterfront, don't take away rights, and are not unfair to Africa? Probably not. Or at least, certainly not to anyone's full satisfaction. Take governance - there's no internationally agreed measure for the quality of governance like there is for child mortality, so there's nothing that 187 world leaders could agree to halve or double by 2030. And a human rights framework sets up as a failure any country that can't, today, provide medical care and 'necessary social services' to all. It isn't clear how that provides much in the way of a call to more rapid progress over the next fifteen years.

Having said that, there is a real opportunity to make progress towards goals that keep the consensual and numerical features, but do at least a bit better at the rest. Indeed, the 'more participatory' element is underway, with the UN organizing regional and national consultations. A further step would be a global representative survey asking the Earth's people what goal areas they would like to see included. That would all doubtless feed into the usual sausage factory of international treaty making, but at least it might start out more reflective of worldwide public opinion.

And even allowing for the political realities of a global consensus document, we can agree numerical targets in at least a few more areas. For example, the UN Framework Convention on Combatting Climate Change has already agreed we need to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade; it would only be a small additional step to set a global (aspirational, non-binding) target for greenhouse gas emissions based on that limit. Perhaps we could add numerical goals in areas from forests and biodiversity to learning and infrastructure. And finally, we can ensure that global goals are not immediately and inappropriately taken as country targets by building our global estimates of plausible progress by 2030 up from country-level forecasts - while including language in the post-2015 declaration on differentiated country-level goals and targets to be developed by UN members themselves.

In the best of worlds, any new UN framework for global sustainable development after 2015 is going to disappoint many people. But it is worth repeating that the first lot, for all of their aspirational non-enforceability, for all of their omissions, for all that they were mis-applied at the country level, still provided a valuable service in helping to hold world leaders to some level of account. If the new framework still manages to do that, the painful and endless rounds of consultation, draft review, preparatory committee meetings and paper production will be worth it. Just don't call me until you're done!