The Post-2015 Development Agenda: A Test of the UN In Its 70th Year

This article, initially published here by MUNPlanet as part of Fridays With MUNPlanet, is part of a special series dedicated to world politics. The aim of this series is to bring you the analysis of global affairs by the established and upcoming scholars, decision-makers and policy analysts from various world regions.Sarah Hearn argues that the negotiators on the Post-2015 Development Agenda "must forge a common political vision" and meet four critical conditions before the UN Summit in New York this year.

This year, the UN turns 70. But 2015 is much more than a birthday. The year also marks a moment when the UN will either succeed or fail to secure a meaningful deal on a post-2015 development framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), alongside overlapping and crucial deals on climate change, financing for development and trade in the same year. The political stakes could not be higher for international development, and for the planet. Failure along any one of these four negotiation tracks could sour progress along the other three and the pressure is on negotiators and Ban Ki-moon this year to keep all four processes on track.

So far, the post-2015 development negotiations have rolled out pretty smoothly. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development hosted by Brazil in June 2012 (also known as Rio+20) mandated the UN General Assembly to negotiate new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the MDGs. An intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) comprising 70 countries was subsequently established to negotiate a draft framework. This level of developing country inclusion in shaping an international development framework is (disturbingly) unprecedented - the MDGs were drafted in a small group before the Millennium Summit in 2000.

In July 2014, following extensive global consultations and intergovernmental negotiations, the OWG proposed a universal set of post-2015 goals and targets. The draft consists of 17 ambitious SDGs and 169 targets for social, economic and environmental development to be achieved by 2030. Through the negotiations so far, countries have agreed that the framework should be: universal – applying to all countries, high-, middle- and low-income alike; voluntary – there is no enforcement mechanism for the framework; “transformational,” focused on achieving multiple grand ambitions to eradicate poverty, transform societies and economies, and protect the planet by 2030; and leave no-one behind – by eradicating poverty in marginalized communities and in conflict-affected countries. The latter ambition is “mission critical” for meeting global development ambitions. By 2030, 1.9 billion people, or roughly 20% of the world’s population, could live in conflict-affected countries (CIC, forthcoming).

Although there is a lot of room for improvement to the draft SDGs and targets, significant change is unlikely because many countries consider that the document has already been developed through political compromise and international good will. At the end of 2014, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon therefore tried to summarize the grand ambitions of the framework into 6 more memorable “essential elements”: dignity, people, prosperity, planet, justice, and partnership.

International efforts will now focus on clarifying the “means of implementation” for the post-2015 development framework which will feed into the final deal framed in a Declaration to be adopted by world leaders at a UN Summit in New York in 2015. Focusing on implementation ahead of the Summit is a sensible course of action. UN agreements can work when there is a clear understanding of how to move from paper commitments to action. Negotiators must now forge a common political vision by: (1) ensuring they find enough wins for enough constituencies, (2) use the sequencing of negotiations to arrive at a convergence of views and package of priorities, (3) sell the vision much harder, at home and around the world, and (4) ensure accountability for follow-up and implementation.

Finding enough wins for enough constituencies. Who wants what from the post-2015 agenda isn’t yet as clear as it could be, but the main elements of a deal are starting to emerge. High-income countries may aim to allocate a greater share of aid to the poorest countries, and to leverage more private finance for development. Still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, more aid from the EU in the future is unlikely. Low-income countries want to secure aid commitments, attract foreign direct investment and boost their own domestic revenues. The asks and offers of middle-income countries are very diverse because they range from the BRICS to countries that just graduated from low-income status. Scaling up infrastructure loans, speeding up technology and knowledge transfer, and reforming global governance (for example, by reforming the appointments system for heads of the IMF and World Bank) are likely to be some of their priorities.

Sequence negotiations to arrive at a convergence of views and priorities. A new global partnership for development in the post-2015 era will recognize that aid is a small piece of the pie, and draw more coherently on private sector investment, technology, migration, trade, and climate finance. In 2015, negotiators have the opportunity to build coherence across international agreements through four overlapping international negotiations: the Finance for Development Summit in Addis Ababa in July 2015, the post-2015 negotiations and UN Summit in September in New York, and the WTO and UNFCC Climate Change climate summits in December 2015. There are significant risks that failure along one track will send the other three off track. I recommend listening to CIC’s Alex Evans here about the pressure on the multilateral system to deliver on all four fronts in 2015.

Sell the vision at home and around the world. The political vision at the heart of the post-2015 framework needs to be sold to the global public. The MDGs made intuitive sense because the richest countries transferred resources to the poorest, but countries in the South complained of a “West lectures the rest” dynamic. The post-2015 framework needs to be sold as a new way of doing business because it makes universal commitments to more inclusive and sustainable globalization across every country. The problem is that this is complex and conceptual and barely any citizens in rich countries have heard about it. Leaders need to sell the vision much harder – at home and globally. Ban Ki-moon’s 6 proposed essential elements, or a version thereof, might help explain what the framework is to the public.

Ensuring accountability and follow-up. Data need to improve dramatically. For many countries, there is no baseline of data for measuring progress towards achieving the SDGs. The world will need to get much more systematic and transparent about collecting data and measuring progress in the post-2015 era. The UN Statistical Commission has been tasked with developing global indicators, but countries at the UN appear reluctant to agree peer review or high-level oversight mechanisms for tracking progress. Without some sort of high-level accountability or peer review in the post-2015 era, it is hard to imagine how long global momentum will be galvanized behind 17 voluntary goals.

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Feb 27, 2015
Sarah Hearn