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What will happen when the MDGs expire?

Development (Aid)
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The UN High Level Panel report has a universal focus USAID, under a CC License

The UN High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Development Agenda has reported. The UN General Assembly is expected to agree on something to replace the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September 2015 and the HLP’s report has ignited the debate.

The report focuses on a universal agenda. That is, it is about development of and for all countries, not just low income countries. And it brings peace in from the cold where the current MDGs left it.

Five shifts & twelve goals

To drive the new agenda forward, the HLP features five ‘transformative shifts’:
1. ‘Leave no one behind’ – end extreme poverty ‘in all its forms’
2. ‘Put sustainable development at the core’
3. ‘Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth’
4. ‘Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all’
5. ‘Forge a new global partnership’

The HLP has finessed the argument about how concrete to get in explaining the big vision by setting out twelve ‘illustrative’ goals, themselves broken down into 54 ‘illustrative’ targets.

The twelve goals are:
1. End poverty (meaning extreme poverty – people living on below $1.25 a day)
2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning
4. Ensure healthy lives
5. Ensure food security and good nutrition
6. Achieve universal access to water and sanitation
7. Secure sustainable energy
8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
9. Manage natural resource assets sustainably
10. Ensure good governance and effective institutions
11. Ensure stable and peaceful societies
12. Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance

There will be plenty of back and forth about whether they have included everything. But by focusing on the big issues, the HLP has focused the debate on development as an overall process rather than on aid and the technical details of implementing aid projects.

$1.25 a day

But there is need for much more discussion. The report makes the global clarion call to end ‘extreme poverty’ by 2030. That would indeed be a great achievement. However, a poverty line is an odd thing. The $1.25 a day level is the average poverty line of the 15 poorest countries in the world calculated in 2005 prices (for comparison, the US poverty line is $63 a day).

Today about 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. So beware: if the effort to ‘lift’ everybody above the $1.25 mark is narrowly focused, there is likely to be some statistical bunching not far above the $1.25 line, with the goal achieved yet the number living below $2 a day staying almost static.

How to avoid this seems to me to be a major issue for poverty alleviation in the coming few years. The HLP’s answer is to go for ‘equitable economic growth.’ I’m not quite sure I remember what that is: in Britain, three years under the coalition government headed by one of the HLP’s co-chairs have given us 1.1 per cent economic growth and an increase in youth unemployment from 20 to 22 per cent.

If the HLP has neatly set out what the aim is, it remains to discuss how to get there and what things have to change so that we can get there.

Peace and the institutions of security

The four targets for the peace goal offer a partial combination of the what and the how:
1. Reduce violent deaths and eliminate all forms of violence against children
2. Ensure justice institutions are accessible, independent and fair
3. Stem the external stressors that lead to conflict
4. Make security forces, police and judiciary more capable and accountable

Even reading these alongside the accompanying goal and targets on good governance, it is clear that the HLP’s work on building peace has looked more at the formal than the informal institutions and focused more on authority (and the mechanisms that make authority accountable and responsible) than on social interaction.

The HLP’s implicit theory of peace thus omits dialogue, mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation, whose necessity is underscored by experience. As debate proceeds, while protecting what is good about the HLP report – especially its political rather than technocratic focus and its universalism – we need also to strengthen it in places.

This is an edited version of a post published on Dan Smith’s blog. Read the full version: ‘International development post-2015’ here.

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