Reactions to the Secretary-General’s synthesis report

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

The post-2015 synthesis report was never going to be an easy task. No one can envy UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon his responsibility, mandated by UN member states last September, of writing a synthesis report of the many strands of the post-2015 development agenda. He certainly had his work cut out for him in bringing together the proposal from the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons, the Independent Expert Advisory Group, and the many other inputs, consultations and discussions on post-2015 over the past couple of years.

The report is a fine effort in the face of these challenges, but fails to effectively deliver key messages. The criteria for a successful SG report at this stage are that it: 1) bring everyone together around an inspirational narrative; 2) galvanize support around the message that it is time to roll up our sleeves, because the work is far from done; 3) bring technical expertise or conceptual clarity to a complex process; 4) move the process forward. While the synthesis makes progress on some fronts, notably in starting to piece together an inspirational narrative, it largely fails to accomplish these aims. Partially that is because the report is too lengthy, thus mixing a few more solid, thoughtful messages with other, seemingly hastily constructed ones. At times it is more of a list than a synthesis.

The first couple of sections bring much-needed positive energy to the process. The opening praises progress in development, points to the lessons of the MDGs, and paints a picture of shared ambitions for the future (though these are a bit vague). In later sections the tone becomes a bit more negative and potentially divisive.

Though a significant portion of the report is devoted to financing and means of implementation, the SG fails to convey the sense that now is the time to roll up our collective sleeves and that there is still much to be done. We are now 391 days away from January 4, 2016, the first working day of the new agenda. And yet how many Planning Ministers or Finance Ministers have seen the proposed goals and targets? I would bet that the answer is not more than a couple. The post-2015 development agenda will only be as effective as the extent to which it is owned at local and national levels. Yet I didn’t come away with a clear sense that this report will help motivate global leaders to turn their attention to this agenda now, well ahead of the Summit next September where they are meant to agree upon the future development agenda.

Ownership will need to come from the bottom up, yet the report makes it sound as if global-local is a one-way street, implying that the agenda will be crafted in New York and then the UN will ensure “the ambition expressed by Member States in the outcome of the Open Working Group translates, communicates and is delivered at the country level.” It would be helpful if the agenda were crafted with a greater understanding of existing national and local priorities and strategies, and the accountability of governments to their own citizens.

A real strength of the UN system in this process is the technical expertise and operational experience its agencies and departments can offer. One of the high points of the SG’s report is in his expertly crafted offer of support from the UN system (though of course support should not just be limited to the UN system). However, the SG misses an opportunity to provide clarity on the principles and practices which could guide such a technical exercise, stating “while many [targets] remain robust and responsive to the goals, others serve better the ongoing work of developing indicators for the agenda. A few of the targets are less ambitious than already agreed and some better placed where commitments to policy change can be ensured.” This appears to be an attempt to create space for member states to devise sharper, more technically sound targets, but the wording is so vague that it fails to strengthen the technical component of the framework. The report also implies that the speed for all targets should be determined at the global level: “where…no quantitative target has been specified, member states may wish to seek the input of the United Nations system”, without acknowledging that it may be best for individual member states to determine the speed at which they can achieve certain targets, given their varying circumstances and contexts.

Will the synthesis report help to move the process forward? The SG’s proposal for six essential elements is helpful in beginning to formulate an inspiring narrative, though whether it will be clear and simple enough to compel action and political support remains to be seen. The chapter on financing is just a long list of potential actions. Some of these recommendations are good ideas, but many lack sufficient technical rigor and taken as whole, the chapter lacks conceptual unity. Given that the FfD process is much more nascent than is the SDGs process, these shortcomings are understandable, but it does make one wish that section were significantly shorter.

The real question is whether the SG will be able to navigate the political and diplomatic landmines ahead to agree upon an ambitious, actionable agenda. Possibly more important than the substance of the report is the diplomatic legwork the SG is prepared to do in the 294 days remaining to the Summit. Member states will be in charge of the process, but can the SG effectively channel the UN system’s strengths to provide technical rigor and evidence to support their work? And most importantly, will he work diligently to ensure that the agenda gains prominence and traction outside of New York so that the post-2015 agenda doesn’t turn into yet another empty paper full of good intentions?