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Sailing into harbour or drifting out to sea? Consensus and challenge on post-2015


There were some sharp challenges at the high-level plenary I moderated at the European Development Days in Brussels. Polite challenges, of course, and in the context of considerable consensus – but sharp nevertheless, and worthy of consideration.

The full debate can be seen here. Congratulations to the EDD team on making the full video available immediately. There was a large crowd in the room and a panel of six: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General of the UN; Andris Piebalgs, EUEuropean Union Commissionner; Winnie Biyanyima, Chief Executive of Oxfam International; Depapriya Bhattacharya; and Paul Collier.

We established the main points of consensus pretty quickly. The MDGsMillennium Development Goals had been useful and should not be abandoned before the goals had been reached. There should definitely be a post-2015 framework, with poverty reduction at its heart, but also dealing with sustainability issues. The new framework should apply to all countries, not just ‘developing’. The process of designing a new framework should be consultative and participatory, so that the final result was owned by all. Reaching a conclusion by 2015 would need both a strong moral drive and a high degree of political will.

What, then, were the challenges? I spotted four.

First, and despite the work of the High Level Panel and the UN Secretary General (see here for my summary of where they have got to), there is still a debate about what should be ‘in’ and what should be ‘out’. We heard pleas, from the audience as well as the panel, for topics as varied as: non-communicable diseases; illicit financial flows; institutions; inequality; and reform of the international trade and finance architecture. There were strong statements, too, about the need to include climate targets within the post-2015 framework. I had rather hoped we might be at the stage of closing down the agenda rather than opening it up. I’ve commented recently on the need to try and focus on the Goldilocks issues that are not too easy and not too hard, but ‘just right’ for a final push. I’m not sure that either the panel or the audience quite agreed that we had reached that stage. Indeed, both Debapriya Bhattacharya and Winnie Biyanyima were adamant that the debate should continue. Winne Biyanyima, in particular, spoke with passion about the campaigning intent of civil society. She referred specifically to the civil society walk-out at the climate talks in Warsaw. ‘We will refuse’, she said, ‘to be a party to unambitious goals’.

Second, there is still quite a debate about how to formulate goals and targets on the topics that are agreed, like poverty reduction, water and sanitation, or health. Obviously, they should be stretching and ambitious. And most people agreed that measurable targets had been a valuable feature of the MDGs. But some thought the proposals on the table were not ambitious enough, for example with respect to poverty lines. Debapriya Bhattacharya made that point. Others thought there was a risk that targets would become unrealistic and unachievable, and therefore not credible: the poor performance against education targets in Nigeria was cited as an example. Paul Collier rather bravely came close to arguing against targets altogether. He thought the main value of UN frameworks was normative, not operational. In this, he echoed a remark I often quote made by DFID’s former Chief Economist, Adrian Wood, that we should take the MDGsMillennium Development Goals seriously, but not literally. I should have mentioned that and seen what people thought.

Third, there was quite a challenge about how far to try and incorporate climate into the post-2015 process. Some, as noted, wanted strong climate goals in post-2015. Jan Eliasson reminded us that these were separate and complex processes. I shared my image of Ban Ki-Moon as Ben Hur, driving a chariot with three horses galloping in front: post-2015, climate and disaster risk management (the Hyogo process): his job was to try and keep the chariot on the track, and this could only be done if the various processes were managed jointly. Paul Collier spoke about the potential ‘train crash’ of development and climate being in competition with each other. Jan Eliasson also talked about competition between the two agendas, especially when it came to sharing out finance from a limited pot.

Fourth, there was a debate about what it would take to secure a deal, or set of deals in 2015. Participation and consultation were absolutely fundamental – President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made this point. If there was a ‘participation deficit’ as some claimed, then more work was needed to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard, and everyone felt ownership of the final outcome. But this might not be enough. Several people talked about finance as a key ingredient of a final package, one element of what the UN calls ‘means of implementation’. Refreshingly, many people said that developing countries themselves would need to carry a large part of the financial burden: the President made this point, arguing that Africa would meet many of its own costs. Paul Collier, too, talked about how to secure more development benefits from Africa’s natural resources. Others called on the BRICS to shoulder a greater share of the financial responsibility. Others argued strongly for more and more effective financial contributions from the rich countries, including by tackling illicit flows and closing down tax havens. Debapriya Bhattacharya was eloquent on this, and used the language of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ that has become familiar in the climate field.

Are there some lessons here, that will help Post-2015 into harbour rather than seeing it drift out to sea? There are some good pointers, I think.

First, as Andris Piebalgs and Jan Eliasson both argued, a global consensus can be built if moral fervour about poverty reduction and the ‘unfinished business’ of the MDGs, central to the development cause, can to be allied to national and individual interest. Reducing poverty is in everyone’s interest, because it reduces violence, crime, forced migration and many other ‘ills’ which affect the rich as well as the poor. Winne Biyanyima remarked that inequality is morally wrong, but also bad for economic and social progress.

Second, the environmental issues need to be handled with circumspection. Post 2015 needs to recognise the importance of good stewardship of natural resources, as Paul Collier suggested. Planetary boundaries matter. However, the post-2015 process cannot, as I have suggested elsewhere, set out to colonise the climate talks. Instead, it needs to take account of progress on the other side of the street, because how the Paris COP concludes will affect the design of targets for poverty reduction, social protection, health and education. And post-2015 needs to influence the climate talks: as Winnie Biyanyima argued, post-2015 should act as a political mobiliser for a climate deal.

Third, the multilateral process needs constant reinforcement. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made a strong plea for international cooperation, and Jan Eliasson reminded the audience that this means Ministers of Finance, Trade and Agriculture, as well as Development and the Environment. The EUEuropean Union has a key role to play, of course, speaking alongside its Member States, but also leveraging its partnerships in the developing world: Andris Piebalgs made this point.

Finally, and Debapriya Bhattacharya may be surprised to hear that I agree with him, unless, of course, he has read my Goldilocks piece, the Goal 8 issues remain the key ones where more work is needed – and the key issues that will be needed to secure a deal. In fact, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made the same point. That is a strong conclusion for all of us: that Post-2015 cannot just be about stating ambitious poverty and environment goals. The framework also has to deal with finance, trade, even, Debapriya Bhattacharya would argue, the governance of the global financial system.

Can we bring the boat safely into harbour? At the end of the meeting, a majority, a large majority, of the participants was optimistic. However, a significant minority was not. It is clear that there is a lot to do. Perhaps we should join Jan Eliasson, who said right at the end (quoting Madeleine Albright?): ‘I am optimistic. But I worry a lot!’.

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