After the MDGs – avoiding the curse of the sequel

As David Cameron prepares to chair the High Level Panel charged with designing a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, he should be in no doubt that he faces a tough job.

The original goals have been remarkably successful. Even in a single organisation, most targets are agreed and then quickly forgotten. The MDGs, which took a decade to stitch together, have prospered since their final agreement in 2002. Most developing country governments, and nearly all donors, have at least partially aligned policies to them.

Poverty rates have also dropped remarkably quickly (and not just in China) and progress towards social development targets seems now to be accelerating. How much of the good news can be directly attributed to the MDGs is hard to prove. But if you accept that goals can only ever be a part of the answer to a complex problem, then the British PM should start by asking why the MDGs did so well, not by assuming that his Panel is easily going to come up with something better.

His first question should be to ask what makes for an effective set of goals. I’d identify five criteria. They should:

  • Be resonant – powerful, simple and clear enough to communicate with politicians, media, public.
  • Form the main elements of a common strategic language, enabling different types of organisation to understand and work with each other.
  • Be amenable to implementation, not just on a technical level, but given likely political and resource constraints.
  • Have sufficient authority and clarity that it matters whether or not they are delivered fifteen years down the road.

Conversely, effective goals avoid:

  • Too much complexity – every interest group in the world will want ‘its’ target included and for technocrats more is usually more. Resisting a ‘Christmas Tree’ framework will require a willingness to pick tough political battles.
  • Straying into areas where consensus doesn’t exist – goals make countries more likely to do difficult things they believe are in their best interests; they can’t be used radically to change their identification of those interests.
  • Distorting incentives in a way that is significantly counterproductive. Goals will inevitably have at least some adverse consequences, but the detail and balance of the framework will determine how serious a problem this is, as will the quality of the data on results (to avoid cheating).
  • Making promises that aren’t really meant – some countries will be happy to sign up to goals they have no intention of doing anything to meet and it is possible to imagine leaders embracing a set of empty promises in 2015 just so they can have a big announcement to make.

So my advice to David Cameron would be to take three types of failure very seriously:

  • A failure to agree – lots of talk that leads, ultimately, to another multilateral car crash.
  • A framework to forget – we get agreement in 2015, but it’s largely ignored thereafter.
  • A strategic realignment to no great purpose – we get goals, try to implement them, but it doesn’t work out due to a lack of will or because the goals are the wrong ones.

None of this is to say that I think that, as Chair of the Panel, the PM has been handed (or worse, lobbied for) a poisoned chalice. Sequels are usually worse than the original, precisely because of the complacent assumption that the original’s success will easily be replicated. Cameron – and his team – need to make it clear from the beginning that they are intent on avoiding this error.

(This post is based on a talk I gave to a seminar recently at Brookings. Alex and I will publish a Brookings paper on the post-2015 challenge in the next few days.)

David Cameron to chair new UN Panel on what happens after the MDGs

News in the Guardian today:

David Cameron has been asked by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to chair a new UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals to follow the present goals, which expire in 2015.

Some initial reactions:

– It’s a major political coup for the UK, and especially of course for DFID, who’ve been working behind the scenes to secure this outcome for months.  (The UK may not have been supposed to announce the appointment just yet – there’s nothing on the appointment in the last briefing of the Secretary-General’s spokesman – but you can see why they couldn’t wait…)

– The immediate question now is who will be the other co-chair – or co-chairs. Two co-chairs is the norm for this kind of UN exercise, one from a developed and one from a developing country, but three co-chairs is not unheard of (e.g. the 2006 High-level Panel on System Coherence). If there were three, expect one to be from an emerging economy and one from a low income country.

– It’ll be safe to assume that the other co-chair[s] will be serving heads of government too. If I had to make a guess right now on people, I’d go for Dilma Rousseff from Brazil as the emerging economy candidate (especially as the Rio+20 summit in June is the launchpad for the Panel), and maybe Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia. Meles Zenawi would be another obvious choice, but he chaired a recent UN panel on climate finance so may be out of the running, plus the UN will want to have gender balance among the co-chairs.

– Another big question is who will head up the secretariat that supports the Panel. The recent trend has been for the secretariat head to come from within the UN: this was the case on both the Global Sustainability Panel last year (which I worked on), and the 2006 system coherence panel). But there’s also precedent from them to come from outside (Steve Stedman’s role on the 2004 panel on Threats, Challenges and Change being the obvious example).

– In terms of substance, the direction of the post-2015 agenda is currently heading towards the idea of Sustainable Development Goals. The Rio+20 summit will probably call for SDGs as a key summit outcome, but duck the issue of what those Goals should cover – passing the political heavy lifting straight to the Panel that David Cameron will be co-chairing.

– Expect the politics of this agenda to become very challenging and complex over the next 12-18 months. We did a backgrounder on SDGs a couple of months ago, which gives a quick overview; we’ll also be publishing a more up-to-date analysis paper through the Brookings Institution very shortly.

– On the domestic political aspects, Patrick Wintour’s analysis in the Guardian is undoubtedly right that this will firmly lock in the government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on aid. At the same time, David Cameron’s chairmanship of the Panel will also allow him to argue to domestic audiences that he’s pushing internationally for a more hard-headed approach to aid – an argument that Conservative Home is already running with approvingly.

Update: if you’re wondering about how David Cameron sees the development agenda, take a look at this speech from last year.

What would a post-2015 agreement on development actually be for?

Pardon the existential angst, but as I’m about to spend the next few years of my life obsessing about what comes after the MDGs, and as the same question is finally aired in the UN’s General Assembly, I’m having a moment of – not quite doubt but certainly wondering – what exactly would a new agreement on development after 2015 be for?

There is, to say the least a certain fuzziness about this question among those (like me, let’s be honest here) who are regularly to be found airing our views on the subject.  It seems to me there are three possible, not necessarily mutually exclusive, reasons to have a new agreement on development post-2015.  Each implies a different pathway from a global agreement to changes in actual people’s real lives – which is after all the whole point of the exercise..

Firstly, there’s the resources track.  For many people the main benefit of the current set of MDGs has been the impetus they provided for increases in aid budgets among traditional donors, with the promises made at the 2005 G8 in Gleneagles probably the high point.  The causality is simple: MDGs provide the objectives, the achievement of which can then be costed, the aid provided, the objectives reached.  Bingo.  So would a new agreement be all about mobilising resources for development?  Maybe for some – the contribution made by China on behalf of the G77 to the General Assembly discussions last week was at least in part about aid, and also talked about trade and technology transfer, other examples of how a new agreement could be used to give developing countries something from the OECD that they don’t already have.

It’s easy to see why that might seem like the most important thing, given the current fears about declining aid budgets among traditional donors.  But a post-2015 agreement that was all about aid wouldn’t chime very well with current thinking about what’s important for development, within low income as much as high income countries.  (more…)

Putting the ‘sustainable’ and the ‘development’ into the Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable Development: more than just windmills?

A few months ago, the Colombian government created what passed for excitement among international climate and development types, with its proposal for ‘sustainable development goals’.  In a paper that is surprisingly short given the talk it’s generated, they proposed a set of goals which, in essence, incorporate the current Millennium Development Goals, but go well beyond them in including a range of possible goals on sustainability and the environment.

At the time, Alex raised a set of important questions here on GD about the what, the who and the how of any future SDGs.  And over at CGD, Charles Kenny made a plea for the SDG and the MDG people to start talking to each other to provide some of the substance to underpin these ideas. 

And since then?  Global negotiations are funny things.  In the absence of almost any of the substance that Charles was asking for, and without answers to any of the questions posed by Alex, the SDGs have continued their onward march.  Representatives of thirty countries recently met in Bogata to agree some objectives for SDGs, based around reconciling poverty reduction and sustainability.

 The SDG train has clearly left the station – even though no one really knows what they are.  This is a little disheartening for innocent folk like me who like to believe that facts matter (yeah, I know, hopelessly outdated – I may as well be writing this on a Smith-Corona). 

Given that no one really knows what SDGs are, but they sound good and people seem to like them, what might they actually be?  Where is the meeting ground between environment and development that could form the basis of a set of goals, and what difference would it make to go about things this way? 

Putting sustainability into poverty reduction:

If the MDG project has been about putting forward a set of positive things that need to happen for poor people: more money, more health, more education, what are the sustainability goals that could fit into this sort of framework?  The things we need more of, from a sustainability and a development point of view, are, among others, more clean energy, more sustainable sources of water, and more food grown in ways that does not irrevocably deplete natural resources.  These are things one could imagine putting into a new set of goals to go alongside the more traditional MDG concerns of health, education and income.  Some of them, like water, are even in there already, though almost ignored.

So far so good, but the poverty reduction bit is actually the easy bit. (more…)

A post-2015 Global Development Agreement: why, who what?

Debate has started in earnest about what should come after the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.  This paper from ODI and UNDP, authored by Claire Melamed and Andy Sumner, summarises the evidence on the impact of the MDGs, looks at current trends in poverty and in global governance that will affect the shape and the scope of any future agreement on global development.

Download Report