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Towards a New Post-2015 Development Agenda

21 Jun 2012
Ernest Aryeetey, Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana,
With the approach of 2015, most development practitioners wonder whether there will be a new Global Development Agenda similar to that behind the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There is considerable consensus that the MDGs helped to focus the world’s attention upon a number of issues critical to the well-being of poor people around the globe. For this reason, the momentum should be maintained.

In thinking about a new development agenda, it will be useful to consider what aspects of the current MDG framework may guide the next. The MDG framework has combined both economic and non-economic measures of well-being and this has attracted significant resources for meeting the set goals.

The first goal of halving the proportion of people living below the poverty line together with the seven other inter-related goals, including improving access to education, promoting gender equality, improving maternal and child health, ensuring environmental sustainability and promoting global partnership between developed and developing countries by 2015 were easy for most countries to associate with.

Another major attribute of the MDGs framework is that it has been designed to serve as a tool for advocacy, negotiation and development. This has been achieved through partnerships with civil society organizations (CSOs) and has been prioritized at the highest level of the UN system. For instance, a high level panel was set up to review the UN-civil society relations in 2003. The MDGs have become the major rallying call for actors with a common shared understanding of poverty with targets and indicators to guide and motivate policy decisions, all aimed at promoting accountability (Hulme, 2009; Manning, 2010). In its quest to promote accountability, the MDGs have highlighted the need for more data on poverty and inequality. This has been necessary because reliance on scattered household surveys for poverty indicators has not been very useful in tracking annual progress with MDGs.

Pursuing the MDGs obliged poor countries to make positive institutional and policy adaptations. This means there are major policies and institutional efforts that have to be sustained in the post 2015 development agenda. Prominent among them is the effort to align MDG targets to national development priorities and programmes. This has been the case in most African countries. In Ghana for example, the government linked the MDGs to the country’s development frameworks, particularly after 2003, as reflected by the Ghana Poverty Reduction Strategy and Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy (GPRS) (2003-2009) as well as the current Ghana Shared Growth and Development Agenda. As has happened elsewhere, in many African countries pursuing the MDGs has led to working in partnership with local CSOs including NGOs and the media. CSOs have helped to promote accountability and ownership of the MDGs.

It is also acknowledged that a clearly focused policy to promote sound public expenditure management is vital to achieving successful MDG outcomes. Thus, an improved capacity to manage resources, including the development of good public expenditure frameworks and domestic revenue mobilization, as well as aid policies that promote effective use of resources, have been considered vital in many poor countries. The improved public management systems in Africa in recent times have been acknowledged by several international organizations (Aryeetey et.al. 2012).

But the pursuit of the MDGs has not been without its challenges. It has often been argued that the MDGs have limited conceptual basis in defining development or progress and also the impact of the MDGs at the country level has been uneven. They have been criticized for targeting the near poor, who are easier to reach for targeting purposes, rather than the poorest (Summer and Tiwari, 2010). Another perceived weakness of the MDG framework relates to how it treats human development; it focuses on defining human development outcomes rather than the opportunities to achieve them. Also, the MDGs have a limited unifying theory on the structural causes of poverty and are weak on social justice (equity, rights, vulnerability and exclusion) (See Hulme (2009) and also Manning (2010)). The MDG framework in some cases does not prioritize policy actions and tends to provide generic prescriptions; for instance, whereas agriculture is the mainstay of many developing countries, the 0.7 GNP target for aid does not specify which priority sectors this should go to. For some better-performing countries it is not seen as ambitious enough.

A major gap in MDG-related policy and institutional effort is the lack of resources to implement the priorities as set in the national development programmes and actions. For instance, for Ghana to achieve the target of halving the proportion of people below the poverty line by 2015, the Millennium Project 2004 put the annual investment expenditure at about US$1.9 million over the period 2005-2015 with a per capita investment of $80. This was significantly above what the economy had been used to. Many African countries have found the required resource envelope beyond their reach. Meanwhile, the 0.7 GNP target has hardly been met by many donors.

The lack of up to date data to track progress is a major institutional or policy failure which has to be addressed in the post-2015 agenda. The institutional culture for collecting and storing data is weak in many poor countries and the lack of human resources and technology to do so poses a challenge to the MDGs. Poverty, education and health statistics are often at variance depending on the source institution. This has resulted from poor reliability in national data and hence the reliance on forecast figures for analysis by international bodies. Also, the lack of or poor accountability systems have been a major gap in MDG related policies. Whereas the MDGs track outcomes, there is limited focus on processes that will lead to better outcomes including enhancing proper accounting systems.

The limited engagement with the private sector will explain why unemployment remains a major challenge for all countries.

Looking ahead, what should the post-2015 development agenda look at? The new development agenda should be equally focused. It is the focus that made MDGs attractive. While setting new targets for current MDGs where these have not been met, considerable effort has to be made in developing clearer and more rigorous links for economic growth, poverty reduction and employment. The new development agenda should focus on employment creation and new jobs. Gina Bergh and Claire Melamed (2012) have recently published an interesting piece about how the pursuit of growth in the post 2015 agenda can be done without appearing to be advocating a return to the era of ‘growth or nothing’. They advocate among others that there should be a “post-2015 agreement to establish global norms on inclusive growth”. The purpose of such an agreement would be to address the centrality of economic transformation for long-term development as well as the need to consider distributional issues in the analysis of the impact of growth. For this purpose, developing the data base that would allow the determination of ambitious and yet realistic employment targets should be pursued now.

In conclusion, the post-2015 development agenda has to continue pushing for the completion of outstanding issues from the current MDGs, while strengthening that effort with a feasible agreement on how to include growth and employment creation. This will not be easy to design, but the debate on how it can be done needs to begin now.


Aryeetey, E., S. Devarajan, R. Kanbur and L. Kasekende (2012), "Overview", Oxford Companion to the Economics of Africa, edited by Aryeetey, E. et.al, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bergh, G. and C.Melamed, 2012, "Inclusive Growth and a Post-2015 Framework", Research Reports and Studies, Overseas Development Institute, London.

Hulme, D. (2009), "The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): A Short History of the World’s Biggest Promise", Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester, BWPI Working Paper No.100, Manchester.

Manning, R. (2010), "The Impact and Design of the MDGs: Some Reflections", IDS Bulletin, Vol.41, Issue 1, p.7-14, University of Sussex, Brighton.

Summer, A. and M. Tiwari (2010), "Global Poverty Reduction to 2015 and Beyond: What Has Been the Impact of the MDGs and What are the Options for a Post-2015 Global Framework?" IDS Working Paper, University of Sussex, Brighton.