What would a post-2015 agreement on development actually be for?

Pardon the existential angst, but as I’m about to spend the next few years of my life obsessing about what comes after the MDGs, and as the same question is finally aired in the UN’s General Assembly, I’m having a moment of – not quite doubt but certainly wondering – what exactly would a new agreement on development after 2015 be for?

There is, to say the least a certain fuzziness about this question among those (like me, let’s be honest here) who are regularly to be found airing our views on the subject.  It seems to me there are three possible, not necessarily mutually exclusive, reasons to have a new agreement on development post-2015.  Each implies a different pathway from a global agreement to changes in actual people’s real lives – which is after all the whole point of the exercise..

Firstly, there’s the resources track.  For many people the main benefit of the current set of MDGs has been the impetus they provided for increases in aid budgets among traditional donors, with the promises made at the 2005 G8 in Gleneagles probably the high point.  The causality is simple: MDGs provide the objectives, the achievement of which can then be costed, the aid provided, the objectives reached.  Bingo.  So would a new agreement be all about mobilising resources for development?  Maybe for some - the contribution made by China on behalf of the G77 to the General Assembly discussions last week was at least in part about aid, and also talked about trade and technology transfer, other examples of how a new agreement could be used to give developing countries something from the OECD that they don’t already have.

It’s easy to see why that might seem like the most important thing, given the current fears about declining aid budgets among traditional donors.  But a post-2015 agreement that was all about aid wouldn’t chime very well with current thinking about what’s important for development, within low income as much as high income countries.  And even less with the realities of current development politics – witness the obsession with what China did at the aid effectiveness bonanza in Busan last week.  Something that was just about traditional flows of resources or other goodies from North to South would seem very old-fashioned indeed and not very interesting in this new climate.

The more academic and wonkish discussion at a workshop I attended in Bonn a few weeks ago focused less on resources and more on how a post-2015 agreement could provide an incentive for policy change at the national level in developing countries.  On this model, the main way that a post-2015 agreement would improve people’s lives would be through encouraging their own governments to do things differently.  This fits with what we know about the importance of country ownership for development, but where the current MDGs have been influential nationally, it’s been more because of adapting the MDGs to national realities than becasue of slavishly following globally agreed goals.

A third approach is to see a post-2015 agreement up as a set of global norms for development.  In this approach, you throw in everything that’s important, and hope that it percolates slowly through into thinking and policy making – rather along the lines of the original Millennium Declaration.  The focus then is less on trying to make a successor agreement concise and specific like the MDGs, but more on broadening it out to reflect the totality of progress as people see it.  The danger, of course, is that without specific indicators and a timeline, the urgency goes out of the whole project and it becomes just another well meaning piece of UN paper.

At the moment, the debate is rather frustratingly skipping between these three models.  But the difference between them matters, because the right agreement to raise resources might not be the right agreement to encourage changes at national level.  Take the globally determined goals and targets approach enshrined in the MDGs.  Great for raising resources as you can calculate the gap between the target and reality, make an estimate of how much money it would take to fill it, promise your taxpayers that that’s where their money will go, and hey presto, more aid.

But that approach might not work so much for changing policy at the national level.  For that you might want a more flexible system of nationally determined targets.  Or, instead of targets and goals, an approach based on league tables (like the Human Development Index or the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators), for example, where a country can see how well – or badly – it is doing compared with its neighbours might be more effective in concentrating political minds on making improvements.  Or the threat of peer review by those same neighbours, as is the case in the WTO’s Trade Policy Review mechanism.

And if, in the name of reflecting all current norms about development, a new agreement were to expand the range of indicators to include everything that’s important, the danger would be that both of these routes to improvement would be closed off by the sheer number of goals and targets, and the complex and confusing nature of the agreement – preventing anyone from being held to account at all.

Like everything to do with the post-2015 agenda, the question of what a new agreement would be for will be resolved slowly and gradually through a process of discussion, consultation and the hard grind of negotiating to destruction and seeing what’s left.  But for now, asking what’s the chain of events from each current idea or proposal to changes to someones’ life is the right question and one that’s asked surprisingly rarely.