Lessons Learned from the UN’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda

CIC global development, UN High Level Panel, post-2015

© UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office/Patrick Tsui

Part 2: The Panel’s Process

This post is part 2 of a 3 part series. CIC Senior Fellow Molly Elgin-Cossart served as chief of staff to the High-level Panel Secretariat. In this series she reflects on her experience, highlighting key lessons learned as the international community heads into two years of intense multilateral negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda. Part 1 addressed the High-level Panel’s composition.

In 2015 the Millennium Development Goals expire and a new development framework will take their place. As the debate on the new development framework continues, it’s useful to consider the lessons we’ve learned so far in the post-2015 process.

Lessons Learned on the High-level Panel Process

Evidence is crucial, but so is a healthy dose of political reality.
As in any decision-making process, the report was the result of navigating and balancing trade-offs. The Panel report – at the SG’s instruction – is grounded in evidence. In discussions, pragmatism was prized. Over and over again conversations came back to: what will have an impact? What works? What will allow people to fulfill their potential?

Potentially the biggest surprise to those of us in the secretariat was the need for research and political arguments to interact to reach a consensus. The politicians in the group were keenly aware that the success of the post-2015 agenda hinges on implementation – and implementation requires people to get behind it.

The tension between evidence and generating a compelling political narrative can create trade-offs, but balancing both is vital. Without an empirical spine, the agenda is likely to be laden with an overabundance of demands, a list of ‘good things’ that we all agree would be wonderful if properly enacted, but which may not make a difference in empowering people to improve their lives, or which may lead to a diffusion of efforts. But bereft of solid grounding in political realities, the agenda will fail.

• Listen carefully to the sound of silence.
What is not said in open discussions is just as important as what is said. For many controversial issues, formal discussions do not reveal the full range of viewpoints. This is another reason why one-on-one conversations and creating space for real dialogue are essential. Official positions and prepared statements will never capture the full picture. Smaller, private conversations can allow parties to start from interests and objectives rather than redlines. And the more trust and relationship-building that goes into the behind-the-scenes conversations, the more likely it is that solutions can be found and negotiations brokered.

Spend time crafting a narrative.
Given a limited timeline, there was a desire to move ahead quickly. But crafting a compelling narrative is the central plank of any agenda. If there is no central argument, things quite quickly degenerate into a list. In the Panel, there was a push to adopt a vision, craft a report outline, and decide targets quite early on in the process. Quite rightly, there was a fair amount of pushback. Even with a tight deadline for report delivery, delaying these important decisions was the right call. Creating shared understandings and building common language is crucial to fostering genuine discussion, and better decision-making. A little flexibility early on in the process allows relationship building to take place, viewpoints to evolve and more sophisticated proposals to be put forward.

Don’t be afraid to have a real conversation.
Too many international meetings become an opportunity for high-level officials to read from prepared statements in turn, without listening to each other or having any interaction to question, support, or challenge each other. After a few false starts (and complaints from Panelists about too many external speakers), Panel meetings evolved to become more conversational.

The diversity of the Panel helped the conversation remain rooted in the real world and avoid grandstanding. Panel members, especially those who were not from government backgrounds, were willing to ask difficult questions and challenge common assumptions. “Can we really claim [bad governance] is the root cause of poverty? Poverty is too complex and has many causes. What about colonialism? What about different starting points?” was one important moment where a Panelist challenged a proposal. Panel discussions ranged from violence against women to health care to jobs, debating ways to measure, ways to affect outcomes, and the role of a goal framework in changing behavior. An open and honest conversation with the freedom to challenge platitudes and dig into the complexities – and often, unanswered questions – related to global challenges is essential to setting a transformational agenda.

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Dec 06, 2013