This post was also published today on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog
I attended an ‘expert panel’ discussion recently on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Originating in a proposal by the Colombian government for what comes after 2015, when most of the Millennium Development Goals expire, some initial progress on the SDGs is being increasingly seen as one of the few wins from a rather forlorn-looking Earth Summit in Rio next week. The essence of the proposal is that global goals help focus leaders’ attention and galvanize aid, but that this time around, they need to bring together development and environment into a single set of targets.
The most likely result in Rio is a paragraph or two in the final summit document, kicking off several months/years of talks to design and approve a new set of goals before the MDGs’ sell-by date arrives. But I’m worried that much of the discussion is taking place in a political vacuum, ignoring the political and economic context that will shape any decision and opting instead for the comforting-but-illusory safety of wonkish debates about indicators and metrics. Here’s the gist of my pitch to the meeting.
Firstly, the context is totally different to when the MDGs were agreed (late 1990s). The rich countries are in recession (compared to a long boom) and the US is in a presidential election campaign; there is no prospect of EU leadership to rival that of the Utstein group and (later) the UK and US governments in the late 90s; there is G-zero drift at the multilateral level (i.e. no-one taking global responsibility, contrasting with post Cold War dynamism in the 90s); and poverty is now mainly a middle income country phenomenon (and so ending it becomes more an issue of domestic redistribution). Finally, any agreement is likely to be more shock-driven, in terms of needing crises (political or economic) to generate the necessary momentum for agreement and implementation.
Secondly, the MDGs were largely about increasing the quantity and quality of aid. That is an implausible mission in the next 10 years. The graph shows World Bank research on the impact of previous banking crises on donor aid flows – aid typically rises for a couple of years and then falls of a cliff, not returning to its former levels for 15 years. The latest global aid numbers suggest a repeat of that pattern could be under way, so goals and targets are unlikely to have the same impact this time around.
So third, we need to think about what instruments have historically been born out of, or worked in, a downturn. Candidates include:
- Long term norm setting
- New sources of revenue, whether international or national, eg the financial transaction tax, closing down tax havens, increased royalties from natural resources, or domestic tax reform
- Re-regulation of financial sectors and introduction of social safety nets (cf the New Deal, born out of the Great Depression.)
- Creating the ‘enabling conditions’ for local people’s movements and others to put pressure on governments, eg access to good quality data, reporting requirements on governments
- Low/zero cost forms of pressure, eg league tables or peer review that use name and shame to create a race to the top between neighbours and rivals.
Add all this together and I think the most sensible approach to the SDGs is to aim for an ‘inspirational envelope’ in Rio, accompanied by low-cost commitments that will become sources of progressive traction (rather than explicit targets), primarily on national governments, forcing them to pay increased attention to issues of poverty eradication and sustainability.
Using Claire Melamed’s handy typology, that means agreeing a big ‘Bulls Eye’ end goal – zero hunger (Ban Ki Moon); zero poverty (WEF); human security (IDS); universal basic services; sustainability (or hey, how about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?). That could build on Kate Raworth’s doughnut framework (see yesterday’s post), combining development goals and planetary boundaries (see graphic).
Add to that, agreements on data and process to put in place the enabling conditions for future progress. Finally, and hardest to pin down, is it possible to create mechanisms that allow governments, the multilateral system or citizens to respond to shocks by accelerating progress? Not sure quite what this would involve, but the current MDG-type construct is very incremental/steady-state, whereas we know that a lot of social progress comes during and after shocks – can that be reflected in the SDGs in some way?
One other thought: it will soon be 20 years since the World Bank conducted ‘Voices of the Poor’, a ground-breaking study of more than 60,000 poor people in 60 countries that changed our understanding of the nature of poverty. Could Rio agree that it is time for a re-run to see how much has changed/remained the same?
This is all light-years away from the kind of SDG lists that are circulating, which more closely resemble Claire Melamed’s ‘Christmas Tree’ category. My concern is that this is more due to intellectual inertia (let’s take the MDGs and add some more) than a real attempt to understand the possibilities in the current political and economic context.