Sunday 2 June 2013

Post 2015: Development redefined, but can we adjust?

Baton is passed
The High Level Panel report on the post 2015 development agenda has redefined development and placed the most difficult issues, that have robbed the poorest and most vulnerable from sharing in the progress enjoyed by some since the MDGs were first unveiled, centre stage.

We know that 1.5 billion people live in countries that have made the least, if any, progress toward the technical milestones of progress represented by the MDGs. Just stop to think for a moment about that number. 1.5 billion out of a global population of just over 7 billion.

The reason for this was that world leaders at the time simply avoided one of the most obvious reasons for extreme poverty in front of them – bad or non-existent governance and resource capture by rapacious elites, in many places – and opted for global measures that would allow them to maintain the pretence that you could somehow end poverty by massive financial transfers, in many cases to those same elites, while concentrating solely on technical projects that had nothing to do with the political factors lying at the heart of so much human misery. Vested interests, from donors and recipient governments, as well as the aid industry itself, won out. Progress, in some cases amazing progress, was nonetheless reserved exclusively for people living in areas that were already relatively stable.

The Panel have identified five “transformational shifts” to deliver radical change in pursuit of the goal to end extreme poverty by 2030. One of those is peace and security, both as an inalienable human right to which all should be entitled but also as a basic pre-requisite to growth. Sounds simple, and many have been saying it for years, but it’s going to mean some fundamental change – both for governments and the aid industry itself.

High Level Panel
Gone is the certainty of only responding to violence in a way that picks up the pieces, such as services for victims of sexual violence. In is the approach that also sees the active political participation of those communities – including women, the young and people with disabilities – as a non-negotiable part of the deal. Superb. And we have some of the more progressive voices from within the Panel, which inevitably had internal differences, to thank for it. Here’s Sweden’s Foreign Minister Gunilla Carlsson on the thinking behind it:
"We have had frank debates, and I have chosen to focus on areas that often encounter resistance around the world. I am therefore pleased that the panel was finally able to agree on strong language on, for example, political freedom, freedom from corruption and the importance of sexual and reproductive rights. It's a great victory, certainly for Sweden, but above all for people around the world living in poverty and exclusion…"
Not sure about the ‘victory for Sweden’ language, there, but you get the picture. Ms Carlsson was one of the stars of the Panel for me, diplomatically but very firmly rejecting the idea of some of her colleagues that all we needed to do was roll over the MDGs.

So what does this new world of political inclusion and active citizenship look like? Highlights from the report include:
  • More jobs and equitable growth
  • Improved political governance and effective institutions
  • Stable and peaceful societies
  • Sustainable management of natural resources
So in other words growth in which everyone can participate and freedom from violence tackled by giving people a say in the governance of their countries and communities. The logic was quite nicely summed up by Owen Barder in his weekend blog entitled “it’s the politics, stupid”.

No single lobby got everything they wanted out of this process. They were never going to. And it was clear from the two hour lobby-fest that the Panel were subjected to by the 200 or so lobbyists that took part in the London meeting that there were going to be some upset people. Oxfam, for example, is upset that there was no goal on inequality.

And while this may look like a paradigm shift from a peace and conflict perspective, which it is, for me the relegation of the New Deal for Engagement on Fragile States to the status of an annexe at the back of the report is baffling, particularly since its implementation represents much of this new agenda in action, right now. During the Africa consultation of the UN Task Team on Post 2015’s Global Consultation on Conflict, Fragility and Disaster President Johnson-Sirleaf dropped in for what I will never forget was called a “Fragility Dinner” (yes, really) – the first thing she asked the UNDP bods was “where is the New Deal” and the last thing she asked them was, er, “where is the New Deal”. Well, it doesn’t seem to be anywhere in the report that she helped co-chair, much.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the "Fragility Dinner": Where's the New Deal?
 So there will be obstacles. And they will come very soon and at times appear insurmountable. But while most people’s understanding of that is the power politics and inter-governmental negotiations that will now take place within the Open Working Group my own sense is that global civil society itself now needs to significantly up its game and, in some cases, work in very different ways.

I have been told by several officials closely involved with the High Level Panel, from a number of countries, that their greatest fear is that the momentum of this report is somehow lost or diluted. And that fear is well placed. Those elites in 2000 that opposed any reference to peace, security or political participation to the last set of MDGs are in many cases still there. And some of the newly powerful actors in global governance are at best ambivalent about the ideas. 

So what should we do? In my view, for what it is worth, we need to think about legitimacy, organisation and ideas.


The Open Working Group is a strange name for a group where the main business will be conducted, in classic UN style, behind closed doors. The meetings will not be where the action is at. It will be, to a large degree, a closed working group. In fact one senior official who will be representing their country at some of these negotiations told me that it is already known as the “open wound group” which at least shows that there is a good sense of dark humour among some of them!

Civil society needs to shine a consistent light on how the group is working, and the activities of its members between now and the conclusion of its work.

This will be actively welcomed by some, and very much resisted and resented by others. It may be that some civil society groups are actively intimidated by their own governments from speaking out. How is global civil society going to support them? One way, it strikes me, is through making information available using new technologies and old, in the way that the MyWorld consultation has apparently managed to do with a great deal of success. If MyWorld, as imperfect as it is, manages to generate a sustained public involvement in the debate which is demonstrably coming from the ground up, even the hardest nosed negotiators will find it hard to justify ignoring them.


The Beyond2015 coalition has been more effective than many of us I think expected it to be. Civil society recognised that we needed a platform and formed one. But networks need to be maintained and kept active, and what concerns me at present is that while the High Level Panel along with the UN Task Team events led to literally hundreds of opportunities around which civil society could interact and mobilise there is no obvious means by which the Open Working Group provides the same level of engagement. How do you interact, for example, if you are a grassroots organisation in a country who’s government is not even a member of the Open Working Group? The coalition will need to find a way to facilitate that active discourse.

Globally, despite all our disappointments at various elements of the report, we will need to recognise that this is the best chance we have to achieve a vision of development that actually works for everyone. And that will mean coming together and getting behind it in a co-ordinated way. 


We are in a new phase of global governance. New powers have risen as have new coalitions among them. The High Level Panel consisted of classic representatives of governments, but it also included a human rights activist and CEO of a global corporation. The Panel identified civil society, youth and business as their core constituencies with which to engage and the report is clear that the private sector, for example, has a key role to play.

I do worry, then, when I hear perfectly legitimate complaints about tax avoidance appearing to spill over sometimes into an anti business approach by some. I have been at numerous discussions in the last months at which “business” has been spoken about as if they are the enemy and a threat. They are not. In fact at local level they are often the same people who take huge risks to bring peace to their communities, while developing opportunities for people to pursue their own ambitions and provide for their families.

So just as governments will need to adjust to a new way of doing business, some of the old ideology of the aid industry may also need to change. The reality is that we all need checks and balances, business, government and us included, but we are all part of the solution.

Interesting times ahead.