Anyone fancy a post-2015 wonkwar? Me v Claire Melamed on the biggest development circus in town

ODI’s growth andpost-2015 inequality supremo, Claire is deeply immersed in the ever-proliferating discussions, whereas I decided early on that I had massive reservations about the whole process. So for your amusement (and who knows, perhaps enlightenment), we’ve decided to air our differences in public. I’ll kick off, Claire responds, and we hope that will produce a load of comments and a life and death struggle for the last word (which I shall of course win, because it’s my blog). What’s my beef? The post-2015 discussion typifies the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that abounds in aid circles, in which well-intentioned developmentistas debate how the world should be improved. These discussions and the mountains of policy papers, blogs etc that accompany them, are often based on what I call ‘If I ruled the World’ (IRW) thinking. IRW, then I would do X, Y, Z – Rights for (disenfranchised group of your choice)! More Infrastructure! Better Data! Jobs! The high/low point of this for me came last year, when I had to MC an interaction between 250 civil society lobbyists and the High Level Panel on post-2015 – we managed to squeeze about 80 interventions into the allotted hour of consultation, which produced a Christmas Tree (Claire’s term, much copied) of issues that had no chance of making it onto the final post-2015 agenda. But in any case, so what if they do? Because what is missing from this is any consideration of power and politics. What, after all, is the point of the post-2015 process, beyond creating (another) international forum for debating development? The MDGs were primarily about improving the quantity and quality of aid, and arguably they were quite successful in this. What is much less certain is the extent to which they influenced government policy (as in, persuaded governments to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise). Rich country governments have systematically ignored MDG8 (the one on global partnership), while the evidence of ‘traction’ on developing country governments is really rather flimsy (more on that here). [caption id="attachment_14452" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Who exactly is 'we'? And what if 'we' don't agree?"]Who exactly is 'we'? And what if 'we' don't agree?[/caption] In particular, I was astonished to find that there is no rigorous research comparing the traction exerted on national decision-making by the various different kinds of international instrument (laws, conventions, regional league tables, norms, academic exchanges). So the post-2015 circus is busily debating what ‘should’ happen without first establishing whether/how its conclusions will affect national decision-making. And this blind spot is massive – you can go entire days in the bubble of post-2015 discussions without ever hearing anyone mention any other international instrument on development or rights. When I raised this at a recent OECD post-2015 conference, Claire wearily replied ‘There isn’t an answer – there is no single thing that we can say ‘if you do it like that, it will have traction’. It is very hard to predict beforehand which mechanisms for any given agreement will get traction.’ So that’s a relief then, can we just ignore these annoying questions about actual impact and get back to decorating the Christmas Tree? That really isn’t good enough. It is certainly possible to know much more than we do about attribution through more rigorous qualitative research. For example, in-depth interviews with policymakers could investigate the traction exerted by a range of external and domestic forces on their decisions. I have yet to locate such research. (And rocking up and asking developing country ministers leading questions like ‘how have the MDGs affected your decision-making?’ most definitely does not constitute rigorous research.) So if it can’t generate national traction, what could the post-2015 process achieve? –       Aid still matters, albeit to a diminishing group of countries, and post-2015 could bolster the case for aid (under siege from the Austerians), and continue to improve its quality –       Intellectual hegemony matters, so general debates on development are always good (hey, they’re my bread and butter) –       It may help break the logjam on collective action on everything from climate change to migration (but don’t hold your breath) But by ignoring the primacy of national politics and avoiding serious political economy questions on traction, it feels like the post-2015 process haspost 2015 consultaperhaps inadvertently relegated itself to the sidelines – a bit player in a drama that is increasingly national and beyond the reach of the aid industry. Over to you Claire (and for the sake of my peace of mind, and a natural urge to run away and joint the post-2015 circus, this is one argument I would really like to lose).]]>

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7 Responses to “Anyone fancy a post-2015 wonkwar? Me v Claire Melamed on the biggest development circus in town”
  1. Extrospecteur

    I can see where you are coming form Duncan, but I can’t agree.
    Having started in International Development pre MDGs, it was shocking what a kaleidoscopic array of projects we designed and ran in the name of “aid” – the MDGs may have encouraged us to focus on symptoms rather than causes, but they galvanised a lot of energy and focus onto some important issues.
    So, if the post 2015 process can have a similarly galvanizing effect, and adopt some clever systemic and “barometric” indicators (like inequality, or Kate Roworth’s doughnut) then we could be onto a winner.
    If we can also clarify the “How” through a resuscitated post Busan enforcement of good behaviour at country level, then it might all start to make sense.
    And look, look up there at that pig!!

  2. Thanks Duncan and Claire for starting this stimulating discussion – look forward to next chapter tomorrow.
    Today post by Ducan reminded me some of Ricardo Hausman’s article in the Financial Times where he criticised the current post2015 process for following an “Encyclopedia Britannica” approach (or only-one-vision framework), instead of what he called a Wikipedia approach (or a self-organizing alternative). Incidentally, there was a very interesting reply by Kevin Watkins arguing that the goals define “shared vision and broad priorities” but “do not set strategies, stipulate a policy approach, or limit the scope for priority setting at a national level”. This still seems a very relevant debate to have… look forward to hearing the contributions!
    The article by Ricardo Hausman “Time for a Wikipedia overseas aid policy”:
    The article by Kevin Watkins “Replacing MDG framework will not help the poor”:

  3. Sorry – Ricardo Hausman has just made me aware that he replied back to Watkins (the joy of twitter to correct your own mistakes!). The arguments are also compelling on how much binding on national policies the MDGs should have and who are they empowering, the poor or the international community. Just food for thoughts! This is the link: ‘Why the MDGs do more harm than good’
    So I wonder: 1) how much the process of setting up the next set of goals works in itself as a big participatory process that make the whole world to reflect and change?, and 2) how would the next set of goals fix the tension between global goals vs national priorities and political processes/mobilization?

  4. Sylvain Aubry

    Thanks Duncan for bringing a fascinating debate and a bit of critical thinking around the MDGs.
    I agree with your arguments, in particular on the lack of traction of the MDG framework and the lack of consideration of this framework within the broader legal and political context. I would even go further: I think that in some cases the MDGs have lowered down international standards, and national achievements. For instance, international treaties have made clear for decades that the right to education implies access for all, without discsimination, to free, compulsory and quality education; and for primary education, this is a core obligation that States have to fulfil as a matter of priority. However, what remains of this in MDG 2 merely is that States will “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling”.
    Similar remarks could be made for most other MDGs. In fact, what’s always struck me is that what “should” happen is already very clear: there are a number of (by the way, legally binding) treaties through which world leaders have already expressed what they think should be done and committed to realise it. These commitments include clear obligations regarding international cooperation.
    Would using human rights standards be more efficient than MDGs norms? International human rights treaties have without a doubt had a positive impact on the realisation of right / development. Studies such as the research conducted by Heyns and Viljoen ( have already shown it. Yet, there is no doubt that economic, social and cultural rights are far from being entirely realised, and many people, in particular in developing countries, suffer from a violation of their basic rights (health, food, education, housing…).
    Hence the usefulness of the MDGs you would think? Not really, since the MDGs are almost totally disconnected from the international human rights framework. In fact, the MDGs appear to be a convenient excuse to set lower standards and benchmarks than those set in international human rights law, and constitute an alibi to keep on violating people’s rights around the world with the apparent blessing of the international community.
    So, to me, the MDG framework would be helpful if it added a new traction, if it constituted a new tool to implement existing agreed standards. World leaders could, for instance, gather to discuss which technical and financial means they will take to fulfil their human rights obligations, discuss how their development aid can be reoriented to be in line with their human rights commitments, or envisage transparency and accountability mechanisms to ensure that there is a shared wold effort to realise the rights. Such an approach would also address the “Christmas tree” issue as the existing international framework already gives a good, legitimate, basis to rely on and some tools to think about the prioritisation of issues/groups.
    But rather than doing that, leaders meet to define new, low, standards, and avoid that way any sort of accountability that would question the current situation. In terms of power and politics, all happen as if a world elite (in developed as well as in developing countries) met to agree to do a bit of development, but not too much, so that everyone can keep their advantages – rich internationalised countries keep their dominant position and developing countries’ elites keep on ruling (and sometimes, pillaging) their country without too many challenges.
    So, to come back to the post-2015 debate, the key question to me is: Can the post-2015 framework/discussion be an occasion to gather momentum to implement existing international standards, rather than be a forum to create new lower ones? Some NGOs such as the CESR ( do try to integrate the different frameworks, but with much difficulties. Actually, it seems that many NGOs have shown much scepticism with international human rights standards, and may even sometimes defend their areas of interest (e.g. get an MDG on topic x prioritising group y because the NGO works on X and Y and its funding and perhaps its very existence may depend on having X and Y as a priority for donors, even though it may not necessarily be in the best interest of the rights holders) – thereby (involuntarily) joining the interests of the world elites.
    Yes, the discussions on MDGs are like a Christmas tree, and yes, they probably have far too little political effects. But what’s our responsibility, as civil society? Do we push for right things? Are we demanding enough with the governments, and with ourselves? Maybe if all CSOs demanded, together, that the post-2015 framework be the flesh of the international human rights bones, we’d avoid having these many emaciated development bodies.

  5. kieran

    Perhaps the central conceit of most in AID is that people do listen and care about what we have to say?
    My sense is the truth is we can from time to time add momentum to an idea, or prevent suffering but overall change tends to come from host of interlocking factors most of which are well outside the work of the Aid community and as Duncan argues very often linked to politics and power..
    Does not mean we are useless but “humility” and sense of “perspective” might help us be more realistic?
    Plus the more we talk about inequality the more we are talking about politics.I wonder if the real place for a post 2015 developemnt thinker is active involvement in the politics of their country?
    So Duncan time to stand for election?