Post-2015: is there any point?

This month, the UN High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda moves in to the home straight, with its report due to be submitted to the Secretary-General on the 1st of June. So is it going to amount to anything? Well, Duncan Green certainly isn’t holding his breath:

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!

Owen Barder, for his part, observed a month ago that “it would simplify my twitter timeline if people would tweet things they think should NOT be a central plank of the post 2015 framework”.

And it is indeed becoming increasingly apparent that in NGOs, UN agencies, foundations and, yes, governments all around the world, a coterie of aid industry hacks is having a lovely time playing ‘fantasy development goals’ without feeling any particular pressure to consider what exactly is supposed to happen as a result of a glossy new set of targets.

This irks Duncan, who observes acidly: “What, after all, is the point of the post-2015 process, beyond creating (another) international forum for debating development?”

This is what the NGOs like to call ‘good challenge’, and this is the right moment to be asking it. The post-2015 agenda needs (more development jargon incoming) a theory of influence. So here for what they’re worth are five possible (and not mutually exclusive) answers to his question.

First, global agenda-setting does matter. The first MDGs arrived not long after the end of the era of structural adjustment, and arrayed the whole international aid architecture – including the international financial institutions – around a development agenda that centred on human development.

This time around, post-2015 is likely to match continuing focus on areas like health and education with more emphasis on areas like economic growth, the role of the private sector in development, and conflict prevention – all areas that were largely overlooked in the first MDGs. I also hope that the post-2015 agenda will be the moment at which we finally start to connect the dots between development and environment in a way that’s eluded policymakers ever since the first Rio summit, fully 20 years ago – making clear that development that isn’t sustainable is just building castles on sand, and that global development paths need to respect and remain within planetary boundaries. (See this think piece of mine for more on this.)

Of course, Duncan’s right that just because something is on the global agenda, that won’t magically unlock the politics of difficult issues. The last few years have not exactly been encouraging on the collective action front. But while that remains the case, multilateral issue agendas act as a sort of policy in-tray for when policymakers are ready to get more serious about global public goods – and it matters that the right issues are set out on the desk for their attention.

Second, though, Duncan is also right to suggest that policymakers (and campaigners) need to be clear about the international political deal that post-2015 is supposed to tee up. The architects of the first MDGs always saw them as a means to an end – that end being a political deal whereby developed countries would spend more on aid, and low income countries would allocate it heavily towards health, education, and other social sectors. Kofi Annan duly made sure that the Millennium Summit was swiftly followed by the Monterrey summit on financing for development.

This time around, there is a lot less clarity over what the equivalent political deal is supposed to be – and, by extension, who will deliver it, when, and where.

Initial enthusiasm for a post-2015 ‘beyond aid’ agenda seems to have given way to an eerie hush about issues like migration, trade, climate or intellectual property. That was perhaps to be expected, given the general difficulty of agreeing any kind of collective action in recent years at the UN, G8, G20 or elsewhere, although it’s pretty discouraging if, 15 years on, we really can’t improve on MDG8’s limp nod towards global partnership. (One thing that ‘policy coherence’ advocates could usefully get on with over the next few months would be to develop a ranked list of their key asks in the ‘beyond aid’ space.)

Instead, a lot of the talk seems to be about financing, and in particular official development assistance flows. That’s a shame, given what a traditionalist and reductive vision of development this would lead us back towards. But aid does matter, as Duncan observes; and if this is where the post-2015 agenda is going to pitch its tent, then its proponents should at least be specific about exactly what kind of additional political action on aid (i.e. action that would not have happened anyway in the absence of a post-2015 agenda) is supposed to be taken, when, by whom, and with what intended effect.

Third, post-2015 can be significant in the sense of who’s in the conversation as well as what they’re talking about. While the UN’s imprimatur was crucial to the success of the first MDGs, much of the political heavy lifting was done in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which brought together a lot of the key donor players. This time around, the emerging economies are clearly essential for any successful agenda – and it would be welcome in itself if the post-2015 process managed to engage them as real architects.

But that will depend partly on finding the right forum for serious, political level discussions analogous to those in the OECD DAC last time. Neither the UN General Assembly’s Open Working Group, nor the post-Busan process, nor the UN High Level Political Forum, nor the G20 development working group, looks like the right platform for this discussion (or at least, not yet). So what is? We need an answer to that question pretty fast if the post-2015 agenda is to tee up any sort of new political deal.

Fourth, post-2015 is a great chance to get serious about the quality of the data we use for development. Sure, this one’s pretty nerdy, at least in the abstract. But the last few years have given us plenty of examples of how exciting this can be in applied contexts – look at Ushahidi.

And the standard of development data we use today is often breathtakingly bad. Take the most basic baseline for the MDGs: how many people lived in absolute poverty in 1990. Early on in the MDG era, the estimate was 28.7% of people around the world. A few years later, that same 1990 figure was recalibrated upwards – to 41.6% of people. Hardly a rounding error.

Or take hunger. At the height of the 2008 food spike, FAO estimated that the global hunger total had shot up from around 850 million to over a billion. But by the last State of Food Insecurity report, they re-estimated that hunger had remained more or less level throughout the spike.

How are policymakers supposed to gauge the effectiveness of their efforts if they don’t even have a proper benchmark for where they started out from? This isn’t a glamorous aspect of the development agenda, but it is a big deal even so. And post-2015 gives policymakers a chance to harness the open data revolution to start getting much more serious about data quality.

Fifth and finally, there’s what post-2015 means for national level politics. There are two debates here – whether global goals actually influence national priorities and resource allocation or not, and if they do, whether it’s right that they should. Finding clear answers to the first one is especially difficult, given the data gaps, but notwithstanding Duncan’s scepticism, most development practitioners I know do think that the MDGs prompted low income governments, at least, to spend more on health and education than they might have otherwise.

So – is that a good thing? Here’s Harvard Professor Ricardo Hausmann:

The idea is that the MDGs are a way to empower an international bureaucracy with the ability to constrain governments and donors in defense of their idea of what the priorities of the poor are. It is not about empowering the poor with the voice they need to set their own priorities.

Which is a fair point. In defence of the post-2015 agenda, there’s a lot of talk this time around (both in the UN High-level Panel on post-2015, and in the larger UN General Assembly process) of countries being able to adapt the global framework to their own situation – we’re all going to hear a lot about ideas like “global goals, national targets”, or the post-2015 goals acting as a “global dashboard” (what a good name!) from which countries can select their priorities.

Even so, it would be great if post-2015 were based as much as possible on what poor people – who haven’t exactly been terribly conspicuous in the process so far – think and want. The UN has launched a big consultation entitled World We Want 2015, but its thematic consultations are in practice limited largely to those who are online (i.e. not the extreme poor); and while the exercise does include 27 national consultations, only 4 of them are low income ones. What happened to doing a new version of Voices of the Poor?