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On the Road to Replacing the MDGs

As the 2015 target date for the UN Millennium Development Goals approaches, Kate Higgins considers what should come next.

By: /
4 February, 2013
By: Kate Higgins
Theme Leader of the Governance for Equitable Growth program at The North-South Institute

In the year 2000, at the UN Millennium Summit in New York, world leaders adopted the Millennium Declaration. A commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and just world, the declaration included a set of targets for development and poverty reduction, to be reached by 2015. These goals came to be known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), eight goals on poverty alleviation, education, gender equality, child and maternal health, HIV/AIDs reduction and environmental sustainability in developing countries, as well as a ‘global partnership for development’, covering rich countries’ commitments to aid, an open and non-discriminatory trading and financial system, technology transfer and debt relief.

According to the UN’s 2012 Millennium Development Goals Report, some goals look set to be achieved by the 2015 target date. For example, the share of people living in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.25 per day, has fallen globally from 47% in 1990 to 24% in 2008. This is largely thanks to China’s phenomenal growth and poverty reduction, but is also part of a global trend. The world is on track to meet the targets set on access to safe drinking water and achieving parity in primary education between girls and boys. But progress in other areas has been disappointing. Hunger remains a global challenge and decreases in maternal mortality are far from the 2015 target. Progress on the ‘global partnership for development’ has been slow. Indeed, the most recent MDG Gap Taskforce Report says that in 2011, Official Development Assistance, or aid, from rich countries to poor countries fell for the first time in a number of years.

As the 2015 target date approaches, attention is turning to what should replace the MDGs. This is the focus of this series, and The North-South Institute’s ongoing working on the post-2015 global development agenda. Internationally, the agenda is receiving much high-level attention.  Last week, the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda met for its third meeting in Monrovia, Liberia. The panel, co-chaired by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, has been asked by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to “prepare a bold yet practical vision … on a global post-2015 development agenda”, with the fight against poverty and support for sustainable development at its core.  It is expected to submit its report in May 2013, which will serve as a key input into a UN special event on the MDGs and the post-2015 agenda in September 2013. In addition to this, the UN has convened 11 thematic consultations and a number of country-level consultations to get feedback on what should come after the MDGs, and a recently launched global survey for citizens, called MYWorld, is seeking to capture people’s voices, priorities and views on what the post-2015 priorities should be.

If the MDGs are anything to go by, the post-2015 development agenda will have much influence over international development priorities in the decades beyond 2015. It is likely that the High-Level Panel, and others attempting to influence the post-2015 process, will suggest that some elements of the MDG approach be kept. For example, the clear, quantifiable and time-bound nature of the MDGs helped galvanize political and public support for global poverty reduction efforts like never before, and served to unite the world around a common set of development targets. Given this success, building the post-2015 agenda around a set of global goals that can be clearly communicated, and that resonates with the public, makes sense.

But to be relevant and meaningful not only in 2015, but also the decades following, the post-2015 agenda will need to go further than the MDGs. To really tackle extreme poverty, and capture a vision of development that is environmentally sustainable, it will need to focus on more than poverty reduction in developing countries, and will require policy commitments from developed countries, such as Canada, that go far beyond aid. Given the planetary crisis of global warming, and the implications of this for the world’s most vulnerable people, the post-2015 agenda will need to prioritize sustainability and climate change and incorporate targets on these for all countries. With trade such an important driver of development in developing countries, a global development framework that does not expect rich countries to commit to fairer trade rules will fall short. With inequality on the rise in many countries, as the Occupy movement and entrenched poverty in middle-income countries attest, incorporating inequality into the framework could recognize and seek to tackle one of the biggest problems that many rich, emerging and poor countries face.

Ultimately, the post-2015 agenda will be a political agreement, negotiated by member states of the United Nations. Given the world’s recent track record on global governance – the failure of Doha and disappointments in Copenhagen on climate change and at Rio+20 on sustainable development – stakeholders will need to balance ambition with pragmatism. The changing nature and composition of global politics will also need to be taken into account. The line between rich and poor countries is more blurred now than it was in 2000, and a global agreement that does not reflect the views and commitment of emerging economies would be a disappointing outcome. Non-state actors, such as philanthropists, business, international NGOs and anti-poverty youth movements, are much more prominent in global affairs today than they were at the start of the millennium, and the framework will need to make sense to them and clearly show that they can contribute.

2015 may seem like a long way away, but the wheels for establishing the post-2015 development framework are well and truly in motion. The process itself will consume a lot of time, energy and money, and critics will surely question its relevance in a context of diminishing aid resources. But this is a process that shouldn’t be ignored. Based on the MDGs experience, the post-2015 agenda will play an important role in framing global development for decades to come.

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