Will the Post-2015 report make a difference? Depends what happens next

An edited version of this piece, written with Stephen Hale, appeared on the Guardian Poverty Matters site on Friday

Reading the report of the High Level Panel induces a sense of giddy optimism. It is a manifesto for a (much) better world, taking the best of thepost-2015 Millennium Development Goals, and adding what we have learned in the intervening years – the importance of social protection, sustainability, ending conflict, tackling the deepest pockets of poverty, even obesity (rapidly rising in many poor countries). It has a big idea (consigning absolute poverty to the history books) and is on occasion brave (in the Sir Humphrey sense) for example in its commitment to women’s rights, including ending child marriage and violence against women, and guaranteeing universal sexual and reproductive health rights.

The ambition and optimism is all the more welcome for its contrast with the daily grind of austerity, recession and international paralysis (Syria, Climate Change, the torments of the European Union). In response, the report is clearly designed for a no/low cost environment, downplaying the importance of aid, talking up access to data, and revenue raisers like cracking down on tax evasion.

But then the doubts start to creep in. What’s missing is always harder to spot than what is in the text, but three gaps are already clear: The emerging global concern over inequality is relegated to national politics, and otherwise dealt with through the ‘data default’ of requiring any target to be met amongst the poorest fifth of a population, not just the population as a whole. The concept of poverty is pretty old school – income, health, education, and fails to recognize the considerable progress made in measuring ‘well-being’ – the level of life satisfaction people feel. Finally there is too little recognition that the earth is a finite ecosystem, and that we need to make a reality of the concept of planetary boundaries if we are to sustain progress in tackling poverty.

But the elephant in the room is not the text, but how this text will or will not connect to the struggles to achieve the many very laudable aims set out in the report.

Five or 10 years down the line, will the High Level Panel report be food for termites, or a watershed in human development? The shelves of international bodies are piled high with forgotten reports by distinguished panels. Do any readers remember the 2012 High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability or the UN High Level Advisory Group on Climate Financing? Thought not.

These reports sank because they failed to connect with more permanent international processes and did not tackle the critical underlying issues of power and politics that determine what good ideas make it into policy, and what are ignored.

thanks guys, now what?
thanks guys, now what?

Here the HLP report risks going the same way. It is written in the name of an imaginary ‘we’ (as in ‘it is crucial that we ensure basic safety and justice for all’), ignoring the reality that ‘we’ may not all want the same thing (which is why we need politics, after all).

The post2015 process could have lasting influence in four main ways: Firstly, making the case for improving the quality or quantity of aid (the major achievement of the MDGs). The HLP report does pretty well on that, as you would expect.

Second, international agreements can be effective in triggering long-term, under-the-radar changes in public norms and values. This is more subtle, but very important – research is piling up to show that international conventions to end discrimination against women, or on the rights of children, have permeated people’s heads (and national laws) in many countries, changing in fundamental ways, perceptions of what it is to be a woman or a child. It is very unlikely indeed that this report will have that effect, but it’s still possible if there is sufficient pressure.

That brings us to a third pathway to impact: directly exerting traction on national governments. Will the post2015 process persuade national governments to do things differently, for example by creating a ‘race to the top’ between governments, highlighting the heroes and zeroes (like the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings). Promisingly, the report urges regional reports and peer reviews – nothing annoys a leader (or wins press coverage) like being trounced by a neighbour in a league table.

Finally, the post2015 process could create stronger and broader alliances of civil society organizations, trade unions, faith institutions and others who take whatever comes out of the process and use it to put pressure on their governments, as they have done with some of the ILO conventions, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The report now enters the treacherous waters of a ‘UN Open Working Group’. With two and a half years before the MDGs deadline, the task of those concerned with development should now be to defend the good stuff in the HLP report from dilution, while focussing far more strongly on how a new set of global goals can lead to lasting change at national level.

The report’s publication inevitably triggered an avalanche of opinion pieces. The ones I liked included Charles Kenny, a round up of reactions by Global Dashboard and (of course) Claire Melamed. Any others stand out?

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3 Responses to “Will the Post-2015 report make a difference? Depends what happens next”
  1. Extrospecteur

    Thanks for the useful summary and analysis Duncan, and i agree with your concerns, particulalry a failure to accept planetary boundaries, an the unaccpetable skew in consumption patterns.

    Other responses of note are from Alex Cobham and Andy Sumner – the absence of a target for reducing income inequalities will be seen as a major error (or betrayal) by the many who see this growing problem as critical to development and sustainability; including such dangerous radicals as the OECD. Hopefully this can be rectified in the next stages when a less ideologically zealous chairmanship is in play.

    Also disappointingly missing is the opportunity to endorse Universal Health Coverage as the key commitment in health. There is now broad consensus that this is exactly the sort of noble goal that all countries should aspire to. If we are going to adopt a focus on improving population health status, then as well as the unfinished business of the MDGs we need to start seriously tackling NCD. This is a task way beyond the health sector, and calls for sensible policies in education, transport, tobacco, food etc. I am very much in favour of all that, but it will need real teeth to make the right people in government sit up and act in a way that is absent at present, and is resulting in runaway NCD burden in rich and poor countries alike.

    Finally, there is feeble lip-service to effective development cooperation. I accept that we needed to move beyond a rich/poor : donor/recipient paradigm for “aid” but it seems that post-Busan we have really lost a lot of the clarity and momentum of Paris Declaration. (Was this accidental? or was it engineered to let donors off the hook?)
    A clear focus on the duty of governments to set out credible, costed inclusive and evidence-based plans and strategies, and for partners (foundations, donor countries and even private sector) to align behind these and support national systems; all this seems to have lost momentum.

    A strong reaffirmation of these principles and the duties of all partners to adhere to good development principles would have been welcome – and that would mean a moving away from the short term, attributable results obsession that currently defines much donor behaviour.

  2. The report says little on reforming Global Economic Governance, the role of Multilaterals/IOs in an environment of increasing number of donors, or how aid should be reformed.

  3. Chris

    On the whole I was impressed with the report – particularly in the areas of gender, sustainable development (although agree about the lack of a mention of unsustainable consumption) and governance (was nice to see they the report emphasise the importance of active citizenship and participatory governance as key aspects, rather than soley focusing on the technocratic elements of governance as espoused by the NPM etc agenda).

    My biggest gripe with the report was basically summarised in Pierre Jacquet’s post on this blog (http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=14389) – namely that there was too much focus on outcomes rather than the process needed to reach those outcomes (although I do wonder if this is a bit of an unfair critique for a preliminary report whose intention is clearly to provide a first step in a process of ongoing dialouge…)

    For example, the report talks a lot about how national governments need to drive processes of poverty reduction within their countries (creating decent jobs, supporting agriculture etc), but says very little about the policy constraints that are imposed upon national governments to pursue such policies through global institutions such as the WTO (something that has been addressed in length by people such as Ha-Joon Chang, Dani Rodrik and reports like the IAASTD).

    Simiarly, the report talks a lot about achieving equality of opportunity but doesn’t really mention how income inequality plays a hugely important role in this, and how countries that have been able to reduce income inequality have on the whole done a much better job in enhancing equality of opportunity (seen, for example, in the statistics presented by Kevin Watkins in his Kapuściński lecture comparing income inequality vs MDG progress).

    But on the whole, I thought it was a good first step and I do think perhaps that such criticisms are asking a bit too much from a preliminary report. Or not…?