Guiding Principles for Delivering the Post-2015 Agenda

This post is adapted from What Happens Now? Time to deliver the post-2015 development agenda by Alex Evans and David Steven. The report serves as a guide for all those interested in the post-2015 debate. This blog post is a companion to the authors’ tactical playbook to delivering the post-2015 agenda. Upcoming posts will address the history of the post-2015 process, key events coming up in 2015, and the political dynamics of the debate. For more detailed information and complete citations, please see the full report here.

2015 presents an intensive period of agenda-setting and negotiation. How can high-ambition leaders best approach the next nine months? Four principles should be followed.

1. Stop fighting losing or pointless battles.

Despite the shortcomings of the Open Working Group’s proposed SDG framework, there appears to be no real prospect of reducing the number of goals and targets. The post-2015 co-facilitators have said that “it is clear that there is no support for re-opening the exhaustive negotiations we all had in the OWG.” This is now a red line for the G77, and support for major changes from other countries is patchy at best.

This does not mean that no improvements should be sought. If there are targets that could be improved through rewording, or that would not be missed if they were dropped altogether, then specific proposals should be made – rather than general exhortations to make the framework SMART-er (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound).

In any case, it would be helpful to leave the window open for targets to be revised and strengthened in 2017 or 2018 after the agenda has begun to bed down. By then, it will be clear where delivery is being held back by a poorly structured target that does not motivate stakeholders to act or cannot tell them whether or not they are meeting their objectives.

2. Put concerted energy into narrative and communication.

The post-2015 agenda needs a resonant political narrative if it is to excite, inspire, and engage in the way the MDGs did. But as with arguments about the size of the agenda, the debate around narrative and communication remains nebulous and unsatisfying: there are many more exhortations about the ‘need to resonate’ than practical suggestions about how this can be done.

Credit is due to the Secretary-General for making a concrete recommendation: his ‘clustering’ proposal may not have attained launch velocity, but at least it put an option on the table. More of these options are now needed.

One way forward would be to ask an informal group of development, campaigning, and communication professionals to spend a week together exploring various ways of wrangling the goals and targets into a more compelling format. Options could then be properly tested – both with policymakers and the public in a representative set of countries – providing an input for negotiators that would inform their deliberations.

3. Tackle the ‘long crisis’ of globalization.

In the Millennium Declaration, leaders argued that “the central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people.” Global systems were capable of producing great prosperity, they believed, but the benefits and costs were unevenly shared, while patterns of development were frequently unsustainable.

15 years later, it is clear that globalization’s ‘long crisis’ has deepened. The world has suffered the latest in a string of financial shocks, inequality has become a central political challenge, and elites in many countries are increasingly seen as compromised or corrupt. The environment, in particular, is under severe stress, with the climate reaching the point where “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” seem close to inevitable. Crisis, and the widespread public anger that has accompanied it, has created political space to address these challenges seriously. The Financing for Development outcome document is deeply unconvincing on how the world can build a more resilient financial system. It also needs to go further on illicit financial flows and corporate tax avoidance, setting a stretching target for how far and how quickly they can be released. This is most likely to provide the Addis summit with its most important outcome, and would also form part of a political bargain where greater domestic resource mobilization is complemented by better quality aid and a reduction in globalization’s tendency to suck resources away from already fragile governments.

4. Above all, switch the focus to delivery.

Apart from the communications challenges, a danger of having a large number of goals and targets is that governments will regard the new agenda as a ‘menu’ from which to pick and choose, rather than the “indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development” that negotiators say they have devised.

The bigger risk, though, may be not a failure to implement all the goals, but a slow start in delivering any of them. Few governments or international organizations have even begun to plan for implementation, and more or less all of them – including donors, who have a key stake in ensuring a smooth transition from the old to the new development agendas – are underestimating the strategic challenges of switching from the MDGs to the new agenda.

Delivery is an underrated part of the narrative and communications challenge. At the UN Summit in September, the media will – quite rightly – be deeply skeptical of a laundry list of aspirational targets. Without high-profile commitments to delivery over the first five years of the new agenda, the longer-term vision to 2030 will struggle to gain credibility, while the world’s capacity to undertake collective action will continue to erode.

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Apr 23, 2015
Ashley Skiles