The Future is Unwritten: engaging with the post-2015 development agenda

Elizabeth Hosier

Which route to 2015 and beyond?

Which route to 2015 and beyond? Image source.

Predicting the future is impossible.  Driving future change surely sounds an even more daunting prospect.  But it is a task that is being faced as we engage with the post-2015 development agenda.

The current set of human development goals, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is set to expire in 2015: what will follow hinges upon consultation occurring throughout this year.  The focal point will be the UN High Level Panel, formed in 2012.   Working alongside the Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an outcome of Rio+20, the Panel will set the development agenda culminating with a report to the UN General Assembly in September.  So, the early months of this pivotal year provide an opportune moment to reflect upon the post-2015 development agenda; what can we learn from the past, how should we look to the future and what is the UK’s current position?

Learning from the past

A good starting point is reviewing the current MDGs.  What lessons have we learnt and how can we employ this knowledge moving forward, in order to capitalise on the current opportunity for agenda setting?

There is consensus that progress towards achieving the MDGs has been both partial and uneven.  That is to say only some goals in some countries are likely to be deemed successful.  We must move beyond applauding or lamenting progress and demand a rigorous assessment of the reasons why some goals are being achieved and why some are not.  This requires engaging with the underlying processes of an individual country’s development route and exchanging models of best practice, and indeed worst practice.   Although the invested political capital in development goals may render this a moot point, some further insight may be gained by comparing current development to levels that may have occurred in the absence of the MDGs.

Common criticisms that have been levelled at the MDGs relate to their vagueness, particularly with regards to MDG8 (global partnership for development), and the concurrent ambiguity of whether goals have been successful.  Further, initial justification for each goal has been deemed thin; and content has further been the target of much debate, for example, the high weighting of goals relating to health grappling with the arguably under-addressed agricultural sector.

Developing the future

Such criticisms point towards what may be included in future goals.  However, it should not be a remote blogger nor a table of elites pushing a particular agenda: a bottom-up approach is key.  There is a need for canvassing grassroot voices, those who will most be impacted by these goals; it may come as a surprise to some that crowdsourcing techniques are not a work of fiction, but present a plausible option in this ever interconnected world.  Indeed, at the very least, including locally-based civil society organisationswithin the decision making process is a must.  There have been whispers of a grassroots centred agenda; this will need to be translated into practical engagement in the coming year and not be left as a mere nod in the right direction.

Alongside a bottom-up methodology to determine the content of the future development goals, there is need for a streamlined approach; merging the SDGs and the MDGs to form one development agenda.  All three facets of sustainability should be included: environmental, social and economic.  These should not be summarised in one future goal, but filter through to become a staple part of the majority of future human development goals.

The underlying process should be key to future development goals.  That is to say, we must move beyond ticking boxes and working to an outcome based delivery and instead look to wider impacts in order to promote improvements.  While universal goals should be adopted, country specifications and targets can be added; again sourced via a bottom-up approach.  To exemplify: MDG2 (enrolment in primary education) has largely increased the numbers initially attending primary education but in doing so ignored connected factors such as; education quality, completion of education and making the transition to secondary education.

The golden thread

In terms of the UK’s stance, Cameron has advocated a golden thread narrative relating to good governance; suggesting that a stable government, a lack of corruption, a focus on human rights and transparent laws can act as the ‘enablers of development’.  As one of the heads of the UN High Level Panel, Cameron is likely to have some voice in development talks.

Going forward, however, to avoid fashioning a noose from this golden thread, a more coherent definition will be required.  Cameron and Co should engage with a number of criticisms in order to avoid falling back on an outdated doctrine of good governance; and in doing so run the risk of  regurgitating economic liberalism, saying the what without the how and ignoring developed countries’ roles in supporting a global system of development.

There is no doubt that driving future change through determining development goals is daunting, however it should be embraced as an opportunity.  I believe that a bottom-up approach is necessary and should involve transparent and joined up processes.

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