Beyond 2015 – what comes after the MDGs?

Last week I spent a couple of days in Cairo at an ODI- and UNDP-organised conference (Chatham House rules, so no names in this post) catching up mdg-iconswith the state of debate on the ‘post-2015 agenda’ – aka what comes after the Millennium Development Goals (see graphic), which are set to expire on that date. I blogged on this a couple of years ago, but at that point the debate was muted because donors and others didn’t want to undermine pressure to achieve the MDGs by talking about their successors.

No longer – the post-2015 talkathon is gaining momentum fast and should peak in 2013 when decisions need to be made. So I’ve invited some of the interesting ‘southern voices’ at the event to contribute posts, and will run a couple of my own. Hey, that sounds like a series……

Claire Melamed from ODI set out the questions for the conference in an invaluable overview paper (38 pages) and an excellent two page opinion piece, in which she cautions against jumping into a discussion of goals, targets and indicators (the favoured topic of UN wonks and issue lobbyists), until we’ve talked about some more fundamental issues, which she divides up into three:

• What would a global agreement be for? i.e. which problems should it tackle – the same as the MDGs (mainly poverty and social spending) or ‘new’ ones (jobs, growth, migration, inequality etc)?
• Who would a global agreement  be for? If the MDGs were largely about improving the quantity and quality of aid, and the number of aid dependent countries is falling, how can their successor influence non-aid dependent countries, whether rich or middle income?
• How should a new global agreement link to national level? How can a global agreement be designed both to be ‘nationally owned’ and to influence national governments?

Excellent questions, but I would actually start even further back. The MDGs were gestated in the 1990s and are a child of their time. They epitomise both an expansionary moment when growth and aid were rising, and the latter could provide plenty of carrots to influence behaviour in aid-dependent countries, and the kind of ‘planner’ mentality epitomised by the incoming UK Labour Government, which on taking power in 1997 sprayed the public sector with targets that have since been heavily criticised and in many cases abandoned.

Contrast that with today: we are in a carrot-scarce environment where aid is more likely to fall than rise. That means simply extending the status quo for another decade or two won’t work. The principle driver of MDG progress – aid – is likely to be much less effective, and its targets fewer.

In addition, we have moved a long way from the world of ‘global planners’ in our understanding of development. Whether it’s through Dani Rodrik’s work in identifying a small number of ‘binding constraints’ to growth and attacking those one at a time, rather than concocting ever-lengthening shopping lists of reforms (or MDGs), or the focus on systems thinking, complexity and change as an emergent, inherently unpredictable, and discontinuous process, a lot of this new thinking seems pretty incompatible with the ‘goals, targets, indicators’ approach. Supporting development has to be more nimble and opportunistic – we need to get better at making it up as we go along, not implementing grand plans.

Which links to Claire’s third question. Development remains primarily national, born from the interaction between citizens, state, and other local actors like businesses, churches etc. So (especially given the poor prospects for aid), what kind of agreement is likely to exert effective positive pressure on that interaction, whether to nudge governments to do good things (or deter them from doing bad ones), or to strengthen citizens’ ability to hold them to account, or otherwise encourage development?

Here I think some input from other academic disciplines could really help – international relations, political science or whatever. What do we know about how international agreements influence national decision-making? Does that hold out any lessons for the post-2015 design?

And if there are any historians out there, what can we learn from the kind of reforms that occur at global or national level in or after a shock? Are they different from those that occur in a boom? My limited knowledge of the response to the Great Depression, or World Wars is that candidates include:

suffragettes• reregulation (e.g. of the US financial system after the Depression)
• the creation of new institutions (UN, G20)
• the enfranchisement of new social actors (e.g. women entering the paid labour force during wars, or getting the vote after war or decolonisation – see pic)
• new forms of revenue raising (eg income tax to pay for wars)
• the introduction of safety nets after widespread traumatic shocks (creation of the UK National Health Service after World War 2)

These might all be candidates and inform the kinds of changes we might seek in a post-2015 agenda. And yes I realize that all this crisis talk may be a bit Euro-centric and that the crisis is mainly affecting what one participant called the ‘formerly-rich countries’ (ouch), but there are few signs of others picking up the baton on the MDGs, and the old guard still dominates the UN and international system.

In getting traction on national leaders, I think one example of a non goal/target/indicator approach well worth investigating is league tables – I have a strong hunch that they have much more influence on policy. Whenever the UK comes bottom of some international table on child welfare or education, press and political opponents have a field day, and the same goes for developing countries, especially when it involves near neighbours. Whatever the issue, if India beats Bangladesh or Pakistan, or vice versa, it is big news.

For this purpose, league tables work best when they are simple – preferably a single number rather than some massive dashboard of indicators that can be mashed up differently by all the players to show themselves in the best possible light. Just suppose the massive investment of political and actual capital in the MDGs had actually gone into refining and promoting an annual index of multidimensional poverty and inequality – a single number (and in the big countries, broken down by regions or states too) that governments could then try and improve by influencing any one of its component parts (essential services, inequality, security or whatever). Every year a big hoopla, with global and regional tables, lists of fastest improvers and the worst decliners, a debate in the UN but a focus on national action. Wouldn’t that have galvanized a lot more activity than the MDGs, and not just in aid dependent states?

I’m sure there are lots of other alternatives, both in terms of non-aid carrots (e.g. a chance for countries to share and spread their success stories like India’s employment guarantee scheme or Brazil’s bolsa familia) and sticks (leaders required to report regularly to the UN or national parliaments on progress against whatever they promise to do, although that could of course also be a carrot if they are doing well). My fear is that the relatively tight timetable will squeeze these out and inertia will deliver a set of tweaked MDGs with relatively weak influence over national decision-making. As so often, I hope I’m wrong.

OK, that’s enough rambling for one post. More to follow on what a global agreement might look like if we stick closer to the current model.

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5 Responses to “Beyond 2015 – what comes after the MDGs?”
  1. I’d go further than “we need to get better at making it up as we go along, not implementing grand plans” and suggest that the idea of Open Development, promoted – with perhaps some irony – by the World Bank, ought to be at the heart of thinking re post-2015.

    As Twaweza’s Rakesh Rajani puts it: the purpose of development should not be to create and apply expert solutions, but rather to help enrich the conditions in which people can do more of what they already do well. By making it easier for people to get, compare and share information; to learn from each other and outsiders about how they have made things work; to search, experiment with, and craft solutions; and to team up to get things done (World Bank, Open Development report, September 2011 – slight paraphrasing).

    Policy lead on governance, transparency and accountability, ONE

  2. Duncan, nice piece. Very interested in this agenda.

    I would be wary about using WW2 as a comparator here. It was a very precise historical moment, with a precise and quite-well defined rationale for the massive social changes that came afterwards. The UK electorate in particular were clear that they undertook great sacrifices and suffered massive privations on the understanding only that the outcome would be a new kind of world, a new kind of society. This was summed up in the ‘cradle-to-grave’ promise of social protection; and women’s involvement in the war effort was always going to be linked to a payoff in peace-time involvement.

    One of the very sad and divisive aspects of our current crises (and they are crises and not one long crisis) is that there has been no implicit social contract involved in absorbing the pain from financial meltdowns – it’s this more than anything else that has motivated the Occupy movements.

    What’s more, the Governents and elites are not in agreement on what to do about it – the financial sector is very powerful, and different Governments have been exposed in different ways, and as such there’s no clear solution that lends itself to a new governing body for us all.

    In short basically, we might have all the bad effects of the crises without much of the regenerative potential.

    • Duncan

      interesting Ranil, I’ve been wondering if we cd come with something like ‘a world fit for heroes’, along the lines of the UK labour party’s post WW2 ‘a land for for heroes’ slogan, but your comment helps explain why that doesn’t really work

  3. Isabelle

    The playing field has certainly shifted. The exciting rise of citizen power and democracy in many more countries will surely have an influence on governments in less aid-dependent countries. It will be interesting to see how new initiatives such as ‘Africa 2.0’ and India’s launch of its own development institution will effect this.

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