10 Tips for a Bold & Ambitious Post-2015 Development Agenda

by | Dec 13, 2013

Climate negotiations in Warsaw made faltering steps towards a possible 2015 agreement. Trade talks in Bali were salvaged at the last minute. As global negotiations on trade, climate and development reach a crescendo between now and 2015, success or failure to reach agreement will be seen as signals of the future of multilateralism itself.

These talks remain fraught with complexity and technical and political disagreements that have considerable potential to derail agreement. As former chief of staff for the Secretariat of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, I know first hand how difficult it will be for these groups to arrive at consensus on the world’s most contentious issues- and how besieged they will feel by the demands of governments and stakeholders from around the world.

A number of lessons we learned from the Panel could improve the prospects for consensus and the ability to put forward recommendations that effectively address the challenges the world will face in the coming decades.

In this new commentary for New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, I outline 10 critical actions.

1. Build in diverse perspectives

Not only was the Panel itself diverse – hailing from all regions of the globe, from different professions and backgrounds – but it was also the first Panel in history to have as many women as men. The depth, strength, and thoughtfulness the women on the Panel lent to the discussions is representative of what gender parity can bring to the world. It was often the women of the Panel who pushed back against what they saw as the imposition of certain interests; they also played roles in bridging differences, and bringing the group to consensus. Gender equity isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.

The consultation process ensured that diversity went even further, aiming to ensure the panel’s findings reflected an increasingly diverse and complex world. Panelists listened to people from all over the globe. Such diversity and outreach brought a new level of understanding and depth to conversations, and influenced the decision-making process.

2. Personalities – and relationships – matter

People often think that political processes are linear, that one party wanted A and another wanted B and they negotiated and got to C. The reality is much more complicated, and defies straightforward explanation. Personalities matter – good ideas are only as powerful as the coalitions built to support the ideas, and building those coalitions with many different perspectives is challenging. To assume that one’s expertise or position can build a coalition is a mistake. To build coalitions requires a solid understanding of different objectives and constraints, the space to engage in real conversations and to propose innovative solutions.

The respect and trust Panel members developed for each other mattered greatly to their collective success. To create a climate of respect and trust required sustained interactions, especially in less formal settings, to establish and cultivate relationships.

3. Decision-making requires clear leadership

The co-Chairs’ leadership was a critical ingredient to the Panel’s success. The co-Chairs were engaged and committed; and they were willing to take responsibility for making tough decisions. When it came to the final days, the co-Chairs made the very last and most difficult decisions regarding the content of the report – based upon the input from Panel members, of course. But the co-Chairs absorbed the responsibility for the thankless task of narrowing a very broad agenda into a simple and cogent message and set of 12 illustrative goals. Demonstrating leadership is not always easy and doesn’t always make everyone happy, but the willingness to stand firm ensured a successful final product.

4. Evidence is crucial, but so is a healthy dose of political reality

As in any decision-making process, the report was the result of navigating and balancing trade-offs. The Panel report – at the SG’s instruction – is grounded in evidence. In discussions, pragmatism was prized. Over and over again conversations came back to: what will have an impact? What works? What will allow people to fulfill their potential?

Potentially the biggest surprise to those of us in the secretariat was the need for research and political arguments to interact to reach a consensus. The politicians in the group were keenly aware that the success of the post-2015 agenda hinges on implementation – and implementation requires people to get behind it.

The tension between evidence and generating a compelling political narrative can create trade-offs, but balancing both is vital. Without an empirical spine, the agenda is likely to be laden with an overabundance of demands, a list of ‘good things’ that we all agree would be wonderful if properly enacted, but which may not make a difference in empowering people to improve their lives, or which may lead to a diffusion of efforts. But bereft of solid grounding in political realities, the agenda will fail.

5. Listen carefully to the sound of silence

What is not said in open discussions is just as important as what is said. For many controversial issues, formal discussions do not reveal the full range of viewpoints. This is another reason why one-on-one conversations and creating space for real dialogue are essential. Official positions and prepared statements will never capture the full picture. Smaller, private conversations can allow parties to start from interests and objectives rather than redlines. And the more trust and relationship-building that goes into the behind-the-scenes conversations, the more likely it is that solutions can be found and negotiations brokered.

 6. Spend time crafting a narrative

Given a limited timeline, there was a desire to move ahead quickly. But crafting a compelling narrative is the central plank of any agenda. If there is no central argument, things quite quickly degenerate into a list. In the Panel, there was a push to adopt a vision, craft a report outline, and decide targets quite early on in the process. Quite rightly, there was a fair amount of pushback. Even with a tight deadline for report delivery, delaying these important decisions was the right call. Creating shared understandings and building common language is crucial to fostering genuine discussion, and better decision-making. A little flexibility early on in the process allows relationship building to take place, viewpoints to evolve and more sophisticated proposals to be put forward.

7. Don’t be afraid to have a real conversation

Too many international meetings become an opportunity for high-level officials to read from prepared statements in turn, without listening to each other or having any interaction to question, support, or challenge each other. After a few false starts, Panel meetings evolved to become more conversational.

The diversity of the Panel helped the conversation remain rooted in the real world and avoid grandstanding. Panel members, especially those who were not from government backgrounds, were willing to ask difficult questions and challenge common assumptions. “Can we really claim [bad governance] is the root cause of poverty? Poverty is too complex and has many causes. What about colonialism? What about different starting points?” was one important moment where a Panelist challenged a proposal. Panel discussions ranged from violence against women to health care to jobs, debating ways to measure, ways to affect outcomes, and the role of a goal framework in changing behavior. An open and honest conversation with the freedom to challenge platitudes and dig into the complexities – and often, unanswered questions – related to global challenges is essential to setting a transformational agenda.

8. Be ambitious, but have the courage to be practical, too

One Panel member, overwhelmed by a laundry list of demands including at least 43 goals presented by civil society representatives in London, finally burst out: “No, we can’t promise you all of these things! All I can promise you is that we will disappoint you. If this is the standard you are setting, then we are bound to fail.” This simple and honest moment did what so many post-2015 conversations fail to do: it interjected a sense of reality. Though the inclination is often to say what people want to hear, when you are tasked with decision-making, that mode of engagement just doesn’t work. Shaping a more realistic conversation with stakeholders was essential to the report’s reception, and ultimate success.

 9. Cultivate dialogue with external stakeholders

The Panel and secretariat dedicated time to building and maintaining relationships with external stakeholders, and especially key thought leaders. This engagement influenced not only the substance, but also lay the groundwork to launch the report to favorable – or at least fair and balanced – reviews. Communiqués and summaries were made available publicly, and to civil society and other groups who were interested in the process. There was a dedicated effort to meet with as many different people as possible, as Panelists and teams met with thousands upon thousands of different stakeholders. This proved crucial to impact, as groups were aware of inside discussions and debates, and were able to receive the report with a better understanding of the discussions and trade-offs that went into its finalization.

10. Be Relevant to a global audience

The Panel explicitly wanted to write a report for the larger public, to convey that this is truly a global and universal agenda. Practically, this meant avoiding UN jargon, and putting effort into global outreach.

First priority was outreach to a broad group of stakeholders. The Panel report became the first UN report in history to make versions available for those living with disabilities – there are now braille, audio, and large-print versions of the report, in addition to translations in all six official languages of the UN as well as Bahasa, a digital version of the report, and a forthcoming children’s version.

Second was supporting Panelists in a unified outreach effort. The communications and outreach focal points in the secretariat facilitated many in-person interviews, articles, and meetings to ensure that the release of the report was part of the ongoing conversation with stakeholders. The Panelists then spent the summer months speaking with people – in their own countries and elsewhere – about the discussions that fed into the report, and where the process is headed next.


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    Molly Elgin-Cossart is currently Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Non-resident Fellow at the New York University Center on International Cooperation. She was previously Chief of Staff to the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

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