What sort of High Level Panel?

by | Apr 17, 2012

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.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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