What sort of High Level Panel?

While everyone’s assuming that the forthcoming UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 agenda will focus almost exclusively on the content of whatever is to replace the Millennium Development Goals after they expire in 2015, it’s worth pausing to remember that no-one’s seen the Panel’s terms of reference yet (indeed, it’s unlikely that they even exist in draft at this stage) – so the Panel’s remit might range considerably broader than that.

After all, the UN hasn’t done a major panel on development since 2005-6, when the High Level Panel on System-wide Coherence looked at how the UN could connect the dots better on development, humanitarian assistance and environment.  (That Panel was set up Kofi Annan rather than Ban Ki-moon, moreover – and most people thought its recommendations, primarily on how to make the UN development system better joined-up within countries, were pretty limited.) So if the new Panel were to look at development more broadly, rather than just making recommendations on new Goals, what kind of Panel might it be?

I tend to think there are basically six models for a blue ribbon commission of this kind. Here’s a quick overview of them – lifted direct a note I did back in 2009, before the Global Sustainability Panel was launched (at pretty much the same stage, in fact, as the new post-2015 Panel is at now). The core question for any Panel, I argued, was: what is this Panel going to be remembered for? Here are the six options I set out – in roughly ascending order of ambition:

  1. An analytical Panel – like the Millennium Project. (This can’t be the whole story for a Panel on sustainability; and in any case the Millennium Project, the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have most of the ground covered between them. The one analytical thing the Panel could do is an integrated assessment of climate finance AND finance for development needs; we always stress that the former must be additional to the latter, but as we all know well, in fact they overlap hugely. So far we haven’t been able to talk about this for fear of undermining 0.7.  But since 0.7’s now forty years old, and clearly doesn’t take account of climate, it may be time to update it.)
  2.  A Panel that sets out a new narrative – like the Brundtland Commission. (Clearly needs to be part of the story – but not the whole story. The real challenge: is there anything new to say, given that the High Level Panel on Threats Challenges and Change covered the interdependence story pretty comprehensively? Part of the answer to that  is clearly the post-2015 story on development, where we clearly have a lot to do to build in climate and also resilience more broadly.)
  3.  A Panel that concentrates on moderate institutional reform – as the Panel on System Coherence did. (A more achievable option than 4-6 below, but risks making the UN appear obsessively introspective rather than tackling the issues themselves.)
  4.  A Panel that tees up 4-6 political deals in particular areas – much as the Threats, Challenges and Change did on Responsibility to Protect, the new Peacebuilding Commission, reform of the Human Rights Council, and a formal Security Council definition of terrorism. (I think this looks like the best option at this stage, offering a balance of ambition and realism – but further work would be needed on mapping out the full range of options from which to select the 4-6 key areas. More on that below.)
  5.  A Panel that sets out what a comprehensive approach would look like on one or two key issues (e.g. climate or food security – looking at all key dimensions of the issue, e.g. trade, finance, technology, institutions, on-the-ground development, etc. This is attractive in theory, but in practice risks either appearing to reinvent the wheel, or becoming bogged down in existing debates. It may be more ambitious than it seems at a glance.)
  6.  A Panel that agrees a way forward on a key area of high disagreement – as Threats, Challenges and Change tried to on Security Council reform, before falling back to option 4 above. (Probably the leading candidate for such an approach would be the question of the level at which to stabilise greenhouse gases in the air, and how to share out the global emissions budget that would keep us below it: while the Panel couldn’t quantify what the ceiling or the allocation should be, it could conceivably set out how those questions will be settled – as the UNFCCC process has failed to, over the last 20 years. Hard to discern the political conditions for anything approaching this level of ambition, especially post-Copenhagen. But political  space on climate has always been driven by surprise events – e.g. the fact that Jim Hansen’s Senate testimony in 1988 was in the middle of a freak heatwave – so may be worth having a very high ambition option ‘on the shelf’, that could be offered to the co-chairs if the conditions arise.)

Of course, the list I wrote in 2009 is more focused on environment, and less on development, than the post-2015 Panel would need to be. But the basic headings still represent the choices that the new Panel’s chairs and members will face as they sit down for their first meeting and figure out what they’re going to try to do together.

As you’ll have realised if you read my post yesterday on the kinds of goals the Panel could recommend, or David’s post last week on what will make for an effective set of goals, one thing we both feel strongly about is that this Panel needs to think through its approach in a structured waynot fall into the trap of plunging straight into the detail without a plan for what the Panel’s trying to achieve, what its approach will be, what kind of evidence base it needs to assemble and what it wants to be remembered for.

Why a Focus on Inequality in the MDGs (and in Fragile States) is Wrong

With the appointment of the United Kingdom’s prime minister, David Cameron, as one of the chairs of a forthcoming UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals (the existing ones expire in 2015), debate on the issue is expected to heat up in the months ahead.

Many in the development field think the reduction of inequality in poor countries should be a high priority. But this shows a misunderstanding of the problems the poor face in these countries—and what steps must be taken to help them. Continue reading

After the MDGs: what kind of goals?

Following the British government’s announcement that David Cameron will be one of the co-chairs of the UN’s forthcoming High Level Panel on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals after they expire in 2015, we’ve been setting out some thoughts about the design principles of any new set of goals. Last week, David set out some of the criteria that will make for an effective set of goals. So what about the actual content of the goals?

Amid widespread enthusiasm for the new idea of Sustainable Development Goals (see this briefing), there’s a marked lack of clarity about what such goals would actually look like: what they’d cover, how they’d work, how they’d relate to the existing MDGs and so on. Some people want to see environmental considerations like planetary boundaries in the new framework. Others want to see enabling conditions for development, like growth or governance. Lots of people are talking about access to energy as an area where a new goal could be agreed. Lots of others would love to see a new goal on reducing inequality.

Before the SDGs debate goes much further, these kinds of debate need to become a lot more structured if we’re to avoid getting a ‘Christmas tree’ of goals (weighed down with everyone’s baubles, lacking focus or any sense of priorities). So what are the key questions we need answers to, and in what order should we be asking them? Here’s our take on the five core questions that will shape the post-2015 agenda:

  1. Do we need new goals at all? Not enough people have stopped to ask whether new goals are really needed in the first place. But it’s essential that the approach to post-2015 be thought through from first principles: the case for new goals won’t be persuasive unless it sets out clearly why it is that quantified targets are likely to be an effective tool to accelerate development or increase sustainability, especially given that evidence for the impact of the existing MDGs isn’t conclusive.
  2. Should goals be universal? The current MDGs are designed to apply to the world’s most vulnerable people – in other words, about a billion of them if you use $1.25 a day of income as the benchmark, or 2 billion at $2 a day. Should a new set of goals continue with this basic principle? Or should it take a radically different approach, and aim for goals that would be genuinely global in coverage - in other words applying to 7 billion rather than 1 billion people?
  3. How broad should goals be? New goals after 2015 could be tightly defined (a small set of headline targets in a few specific sectors, say), fully comprehensive (covering all aspects of society, economy, and the environment), or somewhere in between (like the current MDGs, which cover a representative set of issues).
  4. Do we need one, or more than one, framework? While an all-singing, all-dancing package of SDGs would logically subsume MDGs, it’s also possible to imagine slimmed down SDGs living alongside revised MDGs (‘twin tracks’), or a variety of hybrid models (a loose ‘family’ of goals, that could apply just to poor countries or be universal in nature).
  5. Should the framework be binding? The MDGs were designed to be global targets – not to apply to individual countries. While many donors have increasingly tracked MDG progress at country level (and some countries have incorporated them into law or in some cases even the constitution), it’s also the case that the MDGs probably couldn’t have been agreed if they had imposed binding obligations on governments. So should future goals be applied at national as well as global level? And should they define rights or desired outcomes?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you end up at one of a range of different kinds of outcome:

Full SDGs – universal, comprehensive, covering all 7 billion of us and with nationally specific targets – have some momentum right now. But it’s hard to see major powers signing up: India’s against, China’s keeping quiet for now, and it’s hard to see the US agreeing to anything that looks like global direction of the US’s domestic agenda. Don’t hold your breath.

SDGs-lite – which is where we might end up if the full SDGs agenda gets progressively diluted (e.g. controversial goals get dropped; targets become aspirational or voluntary and fail to be matched with a hard-edged delivery plan). This option runs the risk of failing to satisfy anyone (governments, campaigners, the media) - while also losing the MDGs’ focus on the poorest.

MDGs Plus – This option would start from the core MDG principle of focusing on the poorest, but built outwards from there. The risk is that reopening the framework could lead to a ‘Christmas tree’ outcome. But strong leadership could also keep the agenda tight – perhaps complementing goals with a set of key capabilities open to peer review.

Hybrids – Another option would be to combine SDGs and MDGs in a hybrid – for example, the approach proposed by Oxfam’s Kate Raworth. This approach would allow an evolutionary approach under which the poverty elements of the goals would be agreed early on in the process – thus safeguarding the MDGs’ poverty focus before moving on to the politically more challenging ground of sustainability goals.

Car crash – Finally, of course, it could all go pear-shaped. This is a risk that deserves to be taken very seriously indeed; after all, it’s not as though the last few years are short of example of sustainability and climate summits going wrong in one way or another. Remember: the MDGs took ten years to emerge, during a period of history that was a lot more warm and fuzzy than today’s context – and the MDGs were politically much easier than goals on politically charged areas like sustainable consumption. A car crash scenario could lead to the loss of the MDGs’ poverty focus with no countervailing win in another area.

(This post is based on a forthcoming Brookings paper by David and I on the post-2015 challenge, which will be published in the next few days.)

A complex coup in Guinea-Bissau

Last Friday, just as West Africa watchers were recovering from the excitement of the coup d’état in Mali a couple of weeks back, little Guinea-Bissau piped up with a putsch of its own. A group of soldiers attacked the residence of the prime minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Gomes Jr, and arrested him and the country’s interim president, Raimundo Pereira. They subsequently declared that they were forced to take action after discovering a secret document signed by Gomes Jr that gave a detachment of Angolan soldiers permission to “annihilate” Guinea-Bissau’s army. Said soldiers had been in the country, at Gomes Jr’s request, for a few weeks, ostensibly to restructure and reform the bloated military.

The secret document is quite likely to be a fabrication, but it seems probable that the coup happened because the army had had enough of Gomes Jr’s meddling and wanted to re-establish its authority. Indeed, the Transitional Council it has set up to run the country while the putschists decide its long-term future includes 22 opposition parties but has explicitly excluded Gomes Jr’s ruling party, the PAIGC.

The invitation to the Angolans was a provocative move. Downsizing the military would reduce its access to the lucrative drug trade which for the past few years, as Guinea-Bissau has become a staging post on the cocaine route from South America to Europe, has filled the coffers of the country’s top army, navy and air force officials. It is not known whether Gomes Jr was himself involved in the trade and wanted to weaken the competition (his late predecessor Nino Vieira almost certainly enriched himself with a spot of narcotrafficking on the side), but his removal from power – and he was very likely to win the presidency in the second round of voting later this month – leaves the way clear for the army to continue to profit from the cocaine boom.

Who is behind the coup is not clear. My immediate thought was that army chief-of-staff Antonio Indjai, a shrewd operator who has sidelined rivals such as former navy boss Bubo Na Tchuto and who a couple of years back briefly arrested Gomes Jr and labelled him a criminal, was masterminding things, and it seems Indjai attended the first two post-coup meetings between the junta and opposition leaders. Guinea-Bissau’s leading blogger, Antonio Aly Silva, was of the same opinion, and was arrested shortly after posting that the army chief was in control (he was later released after receiving a beating and having many of his valuables stolen).

But reports have recently emerged that Indjai himself has been arrested, and that his number two Mamadu Ture Kuruma is in control.  This made me wonder if Bubo Na Tchuto, a popular and influential figure who has attempted at least two coups in the recent past, was taking his revenge on his former ally, and at the same time eliminating another rival in Gomes Jr. Investigating, I found a single article from the Spanish news agency EFE claiming that Bubo, who has been described as a drug kingpin by the US, had indeed been released from prison over the weekend, that “military sources” said he had been collected from his cell by a group of uniformed men. This, I thought, confirmed my suspicions, but just as I was congratulating myself for my detective work I was shocked to read the last few words of the article, which stated that  ’according to unconfirmed rumours, Bubo was executed in the early hours of the morning.’

So we still do not know who is really in charge. Guinea-Bissau’s foreign minister is convinced that Indjai holds the reins and has dismissed rumours of his arrest as ridiculous. Bubo may or may not be alive, and may or may not be the coup mastermind. Indjai’s number two is also on the list of suspects, as is opposition presidential candidate Kumba Yala, who looks like benefiting from the political agreement (although at least one source says he too has been arrested).

But although speculating is interesting, to a large extent it does not matter who planned the coup. The real power in the country is held by the drug barons from South America, and this coup, like several before it and no doubt many more in the coming years, is really a squabble over who gets access to their gifts.

Update: Kumba Yala has denounced the coup and refused to join the “Transitional Council“, which coup leaders say will run the country for the next 1-2 years.

Update #2: This report (in Portuguese) suggests that Antonio Indjai had threatened to attack Angolan troops on 5 April, at a meeting of  the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abidjan. Indjai complained that the Angolans had heavy armaments, including fourteen tanks, and warned ECOWAS that its emergency forces would soon have to go into Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali.


Highlights from the 2012 Kazakhstan-China-Russia Table Tennis Friendship Tournament


The Washington Diplomat, a magazine focusing on diplomats in Washington, brings us exciting sporting news:

On Feb. 25, Asia’s time-honored tradition of “ping-pong diplomacy” took on a whole new meaning when [Chinese ambassador to the U.S.] Zhang Yesui and fellow diplomats representing the neighboring countries of Kazakhstan and Russia converged on the Kazakh Embassy to anoint a local ping-pong champion.

The formal-sounding “Kazakhstan-China-Russia Table Tennis Friendship Tournament” was anything but. The host team donned bright yellow “Kazakhstan” T-shirts that quickly became soaked in sweat; the Chinese wore red. In between action-packed games, these weekend warriors quenched their thirst with ice-cold Stella Artois beer and snacked on Costa Rican bananas and gala apples from Washington state.

All that sweat, beer and fresh fruit erased the diplomats’ daily cares:

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the diplomats’ attention was focused not on the war in Afghanistan, or Iran’s nuclear buildup, or the recent U.N. Security Council resolution imposing economic sanctions against Syria that was vetoed by both China and Russia — but on the fierce ping-pong battle being played out among three teams representing the world’s largest, fourth-largest and ninth-largest countries by size.

China won by a big margin.  But the Washington Diplomat would like to reassure readers that the Kazakh ambassador Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov was not downhearted:

Even if his country doesn’t produce the world’s best ping-pong players, it’s an undisputed champion when it comes to vodka.

After the lavish Kazakh-style buffet dinner following the tournament, Idrissov handed each of his guests a goodie bag containing, among other things, a 750-ml decorative bottle of potent Snow Queen. This rare spirit, named “Top Vodka” at the 2008 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, sells for $70 a bottle and is the international winner of 10 gold, seven silver and eight bronze medals for excellence — a spirited end to a long day of hands-on diplomacy.

I for one would have needed a few shots of Snow Queen after all that.

Newt Gingrich’s big multilateral idea: guns for all!


Newt Gingrich, who is still hanging on to his presidential ambitions, has a long record of interest in the United Nations.  In the post-Iraq era he was, by Bush-era Republican standards, a bit of UN-booster and led a commission that recommended increasing funding for the organization’s peacekeeping and human rights monitoring.  Over the last year, however, he has mainly mentioned the UN when he’s needed an easy political target, and talked about stopping its funding.  Yesterday, he adopted a third strategy: advocating positive engagement at the UN as a way to spread guns.

Newt Gingrich accused the National Rifle Association of being “too timid” in a Friday speech to the group.

Desperate for attention and trying to get back into a conversation that has passed him by, the still-technically-running candidate said he will submit a treaty to the United Nations that would make the right to bear arms a universal human right.

“Far fewer women would be raped. Far fewer children would be killed…and far fewer dictators would survive if people had the right to bear arms everywhere on the planet,” Gingrich said, earning a standing ovation from a crowd of thousands. “We should say the second amendment is an amendment for all mankind.”

“Let’s take the George Soros’ and the Hillary Clintons’ head on,” he added.

Now, that’s what I call arms control.

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