Simon Maxwell

Unpeeling the onion: reflections on the post-2015 High Level Panel report

The High Level Panel report has only been out for ten days, and already yields over 700 entries on Google News. There’s also an active market in summarising what others say: see David Steven on Global Dashboard, the BONDBritish Overseas NGOs for Development HLP site, and the Post-2015 site.

The authors must be pleased – even more so because most of the commentary is favourable. People like: the ambition of aiming to eradicate absolute poverty; the integration of development and environment; the universal coverage; the emphasis on political factors; the references to inequality; and the scope for country-led specifics. There are a few complaints (especially on inequality, which Oxfam particularly feel should have been given a higher profile, for example with its own target); and both Claire Melamed at ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) and Charles Kenny at CGD make the important point that the HLP report is only a staging point in a debate that will run until 2015, with many opportunities for dilution before the UN General Assembly adopts a final statement. Still, Homi Kharas, who led the writing team, must feel he has deserved a holiday. When he returns, perhaps he would like to take on drafting the UN General Assembly resolution for 2015, the successor to the Millennium Declaration?!

It will not be surprising to anyone who has read my previous pieces on this topic (most recently a commentary on the EUEuropean Union position paper) that I don’t dissent from the general view that the HLP Report is programmatically competent and politically astute. However, the Report is like an onion, and it is worth peeling back the layers to see what lies inside. Some interesting questions then arise, especially about the goals and targets. The key layers of the onion are:

  1. The five transformative shifts;
  2. The 12 goals; and
  3. The 54 targets

Note that the goals and targets are carefully placed in an appendix rather than the main report. This was apparently so as not to give the impression that the HLP was pre-empting discussion in the General Assembly or the Open Working Group on SDGs.

The text on the five transformative shifts from the Executive Summary is pasted in at the end for ease of reference, along with the key sentence that says that the agenda is universal, applying to all countries in the world. The five shifts are:

  1. Leave no one behind.
  2. Put sustainable development at the core.
  3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth.
  4. Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all.
  5. Forge a new global partnership.

I guess that this list is designed to set the mood music for discussion of the post-2015 goals. It is not a statement of values, of the kind that features in the Millennium Declaration (freedom, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature . . .); nor does it amount to an end-point definition of ‘human development’ (or indeed sustainable development). I read it more as a kind of diagnostic call to arms; the opposite of these statements are the problems we have to fix. Thus: people are being left behind; the development model is not sustainable; we suffer from jobless and unequalising growth; too many ‘institutions’ are not open and accountable; and rich countries are not pulling their weight.

One could easily add to this list. Capitalism is not working for the benefit of all . . . Growth does not necessarily lead to happiness . . Social bonds have weakened . . .The fundamentals of global collective action have been eroded . . .  It is quite a fun game writing one’s own list – and perhaps a little scary to imagine what some groups might propose (‘not enough fundamental religious belief in the world’ . . .).

Leaving aside the transformative shifts we don’t have, the ones we do have seem OK. I don’t know that ‘transforming economies for jobs and inclusive growth’ has quite the intrinsic salience of the others. I would also have made universality a transformative shift. It is important, very, that sustainability features so strongly. But in the end, I don’t know that the transformative shifts are make or break issues for the next generation of global goals. In the long run, which means in the run-up to 2015, the goals and targets will be more important. Eventually, they will have to emerge from the shadowy world of appendices and be agreed internationally.

Here, there is some valuable text in Chapter 3 on what can and cannot be achieved with a goal framework, on the criteria for choosing goals, and on the risks. The HLP notes that ‘a goal framework is not the best solution to every social, economic and environmental challenge’. A small number of SMARTSimple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent targets is needed, written in simple language and providing a compelling message. The targets should be widely applicable, and based on consensus.

Importantly, the HLP concludes that

‘whenever possible, goals and targets should reflect what people want, without dictating how they should get there. . . Given vastly different capabilities, histories, starting points and circumstances, every country cannot be asked to reach the same absolute target. All countries would be expected to contribute to achieving all targets, but how much, and at what speed, will differ. Ideally, nations would use inclusive processes to make these decisions and then develop strategies, plans, policies, laws, or budgets to implement them.’

That may be correct from a tactical point of view, but bequeaths uncertainty. What happens if adding up country commitments leaves the world falling short of agreed global targets? We are familiar with this problem in the field of climate change, for example.

When it comes to goals and targets, I have to start with a slightly pedantic complaint about the definition of terms, important because it shapes what we are actually trying to achieve. Annex 3 calls for a common terminology of goals, targets and indicators, as follows:


This seems odd to me, and not consistent with the usual practice in logical framework and theory of change analysis, which is to define a goal as an outcome state, with indicators of progress or success. For example, DFID’s 2009 guidance note on logical frameworks says that a goal is ‘a higher-level situation that the project will contribute towards achieving’. I would say that on this basis, a goal precisely does not ‘always start with a verb/action’. In fact, it never does. Certainly, that is what I have been teaching since I first ran a course on the logical framework in 1977. It is also an issue that we raised in 2008 with respect to the MDGs, in the very first European Report on Development, led by Francois Bourguignon and dealing with the MDGsMillennium Development Goals at mid-point: too many of the goals were really activities and focused on outputs not outcomes. ‘Reduce child mortality’, as in the table above, is surely an activity.

If that logic is accepted, then targets are really sub-goals. Indicators should apply to both goals and sub-goals. What a pity the HLP did not use a logical framework approach.

Putting pedantry to one  side (but these things do matter), the HLP suggest twelve goals, which are intended to contribute in a cross-cutting way to the transformative shifts. They also suggest 54 ‘targets’, which I prefer to call sub-goals. These are listed at the end. The twelve goals are:

  1. End poverty
  2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality
  3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning
  4. Ensure healthy lives
  5. Ensure food security and good nutrition
  6. Achieve universal action to water and sanitation
  7. Secure sustainable energy
  8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
  9. Manage natural resource assets sustainably
  10. Ensure good governance and effective institutions
  11. Ensure stable and peaceful societies
  12. Create a global enabling environment and catalyse long-term finance

It would be quite easy to rewrite these without opening verbs, as follows:

  1. No absolute poverty
  2. Girls and women empowered and gender equality achieved
  3. Quality education and lifelong learning for all
  4. Healthy lives for all
  5. Food security and good nutrition for all
  6. Universal access to water and sanitation
  7. Sustainable energy for all
  8. Jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth
  9. Sustainable natural resource asset management
  10. Good governance and effective institutions
  11. Stable and peaceful societies
  12. A global enabling environment and long-term finance

Doesn’t that improve the flow, make the goals more compelling and, perhaps less helpfully, show where the problems might lie?

Of course, there is lots to like in this list, not least the level of ambition required to end absolute poverty by 2030: the authors of Getting to Zero will be pleased. Sustainability has a higher profile than in the MDGs. The focus on educational and health outcomes rather than inputs is a step forward, as is the new emphasis on secondary education and vocational training. It is good to see food and nutrition higher up the hierarchy than before. Personally, I can live with the way inequality is handled, particularly the idea that progress against goals should be monitored for different groups and levels of income.

However, there is also lots to debate, as there has been on this topic since the International Development Targets, the precursors of the MDGs, were first formulated in 1996. Are all these items intrinsic aspects of a good life and a good society, for example, or are some means to an end? Thus, surely a job is a route to poverty reduction, rather than an end in itself. Probably the same applies to sustainable energy, which is a means to a variety of economic and social ends. Also, one might ask whether this statement of goals is complete, and what the indicators are. If ‘poverty’ means not just low income but also lack of agency and social exclusion, then either the indicators have to be written in such a way as to capture those elements, or other goals have to fill the gap. Does ‘good governance and effective institutions’ equate to (i.e. guarantee) power to the poor? Probably not.

How about the ‘targets’? The same kinds of questions arise about hierarchies and completeness, as well as about means and ends. In principle, every target should be essential to reach the relevant goal; and every goal should be underpinned by the sub-goals or ‘targets’ necessary to achieve it, as in a logical framework.

From this perspective, I don’t know that the table works as well as it should. Left to myself, I would certainly have moved items around – for example to link the poverty goal to sustainable livelihoods. In fact, I had a strong urge to write out 66 file cards for the goals and targets and shuffle them all into a logframe hierarchy. I’m sure there would have been fewer overarching goals and a different structure of contributing sub-goals. One day – although in the end that is just a matter of editing.

More important is the content. Are they sub-goals right? What is surprising? Is anything missing? Seven thoughts.

First, note that most of the 54 are incomplete, with the numbers still to be filled in. There’s obviously still a job to do at global level, even before translation to country plans. Some of this should be easy. Why, I wonder, did the Panel not bite the bullet and make social protection a universal target/sub-goal, as it will need to be if poverty is to be eliminated?

Second, on the positive side, it is not hard to agree that stunting, wasting and anaemia should all be reduced; or that women should be allowed to open a bank account; or even that global warming should be held to 2 degrees, difficult as that now seems. Of the 54 targets, I counted over half that seemed sensible, and of those quite a few that met the additional test of seeming feasible. Many of those (for example, in education and health) are in direct line of descent from the MDGs.

Third, in quite a few cases, the sub-goals identify important topics, but are formulated in such a way that definition and measurement is likely to prove difficult. Often this is because the goals are still imprecise – for example, end ‘preventable’ child deaths, or ‘increase the number of good and decent jobs’, or ‘safeguard ecosystems’. And how about target (1b), to’ increase by x% the share of women and men, communities, and businesses with secure rights to land, property, and other assets’. Define ‘secure’ anyone? Or ‘other’?

Fourth, there’s a problem with the formal sector bias of some of the goals and targets. The focus on ‘jobs’ is an example, though target 8a throws in livelihoods, which would be more appropriate for the informal sector. The reference to ‘start-ups’ is another, unless the intention is to count every small new business in the informal sector.

Fifth, there are some sub-goals which read as though they are place-holders, awaiting more detailed work. At least, they will not be much use unless there is more detailed work. I wonder what kind of reforms the Panel think are needed to ‘ensure stability of the global financial system’ – and how easy they think it will be to achieve a global consensus on that topic. Similarly with regard to the trading system, also probably climate change.  And it will be interesting to debate how to reduce the ‘external stressors that lead to conflict’.

Sixth, there are some missing topics. I would have liked to see more on holding business to account, perhaps by using rating systems such as the Global Reporting Initiative, GIIRS or IRIS – see my comments on that topic here, arguing for minimum standards rather than just exhortation. Someone should also cross-check the environmental content against the recommendations of the high-level panel on sustainability, which reported in 2012. There were specific suggestions there on oceans, mountains, waste and so on. It was a much better document than the Rio outcome text – a lesson in the dilution of which Claire Melamed and Charles Kenny have warned.

Seventh, a typical economist’s comment: what about the trade-offs? For example, did the Panel consider that there may (at the margin and in certain places) be a trade-off between growth and environmental sustainability? Or, given resource constraints, is there a trade-off between the last big push to achieve universality on one target and making a breakthrough in a less-developed area?

All in all, it seems to me that we haven’t quite finished with the goals and sub-goals. Perhaps this is where attention should now focus.

A final thought. If the new framework is to be ‘universal’, it will also apply to developed countries. Which country will be first to volunteer a national post-2015 framework? Which domestic think-tank will pioneer the application of the High Level Panel’s ideas?



Extract from the HLP Executive Summary:

These meetings and consultations left us energized, inspired and convinced of the need for a new paradigm. In our view, business-as-usual is not an option. We concluded that the post-2015 agenda is a universal agenda. It needs to be driven by five big, transformative shifts:

  1. Leave no one behind. We must keep faith with the original promise of the MDGs, and now finish the job. After 2015 we should move from reducing to ending extreme poverty, in all its forms. We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities. We should design goals that focus on reaching excluded groups, for example by making sure we track progress at all levels of income, and by providing social protection to help people build resilience to life’s uncertainties. We can be the first generation in human history to end hunger and ensure that every person achieves a basic standard of wellbeing. There can be no excuses. This is a universal agenda, for which everyone must accept their proper share of responsibility.
  1. Put sustainable development at the core. For twenty years, the international community has aspired to integrate the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability, but no country has yet achieved this. We must act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which pose unprecedented threats to humanity. We must bring about more social inclusion. This is a universal challenge, for every country and every person on earth. This will require structural change, with new solutions, and will offer new opportunities. Developed countries have a special role to play, fostering new technologies and making the fastest progress in reducing unsustainable consumption. Many of the world’s largest companies are already leading this transformation to a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. Only by mobilizing social, economic and environmental action together can we eradicate poverty irreversibly and meet the aspirations of eight billion people in 2030.
  1. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth. We call for a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities and a profound economic transformation to end extreme poverty and improve livelihoods. This means a rapid shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production--harnessing innovation, technology, and the potential of private business to create more value and drive sustainable and inclusive growth. Diversified economies, with equal opportunities for all, can unleash the dynamism that creates jobs and livelihoods, especially for young people and women. This is a challenge for every country on earth: to ensure good job possibilities while moving to the sustainable patterns of work and life that will be necessary in a world of limited natural resources. We should ensure that everyone has what they need to grow and prosper, including access to quality education and skills, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications and transport. We should make it easier for people toinvest, start-up a business and to trade. And we can do more to take advantage of rapid urbanisation: cities are the world’s engines for business and innovation. With good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.
  1. Build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all. Freedom from fear, conflict and violence is the most fundamental human right, and the essential foundation for building peaceful and prosperous societies. At the same time, people the world over expect their governments to be honest, accountable, and responsive to their needs. We are calling for a fundamental shift – to recognize peace and good governance as core elements of wellbeing, responsive and legitimate institutions should encourage the rule of law, property rights, freedom of speech and the media, open political choice, access to justice, and accountable government and public institutions. We need a transparency revolution, so citizens can see exactly where and how taxes, aid and revenues from extractive industries are spent. These are ends as well as means.
  1. Forge a new global partnership. Perhaps the most important transformative shift is towards a new spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability that must underpin the post-2015 agenda. Anew partnership should be based on a common understanding of our shared humanity, underpinning mutual respect and mutual benefit in a shrinking world. This partnership should involve governments but also include others: people living in poverty, those with disabilities, women, civil society and indigenous and local communities, traditionally marginalised groups, multilateral institutions, local and national government, the business community, academia and private philanthropy. Each priority area identified in thepost-2015 agenda should be supported by dynamic partnerships. It is time for the international community to use new ways of working, to go beyond an aid agenda and put its own house in order: to implemental swift reduction in corruption, illicit financial flows, money-laundering, tax evasion, and hidden ownership of assets. We must fight climate change, champion free and fair trade, technology innovation, transfer and diffusion, and promote financial stability. And since this partnership is built on principles of common humanity and mutual respect, it must also have a new spirit and be completely transparent. Everyone involved must be fully accountable.


Targets in the HLP Report

1a. Bring the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day to zero and reduce by x% the share of people living below their country’s 2015 national poverty line

1b. Increase by x% the share of women and men, communities, and businesses with secure rights to land, property, and other assets

1c. Cover x% of people who are poor and vulnerable with social protection systems

1d. Build resilience and reduce deaths from natural disasters by x%

2a. Prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against girls and women

2b. End child marriage

2c. Ensure equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register a business and open a bank account

2d. Eliminate discrimination against women in political, economic, and public life

3a. Increase by x% the proportion of children able to access and complete pre-primary education

3b. Ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, completes primary education able to read, write and count well enough to meet minimum learning standards

3c. Ensure every child, regardless of circumstance, has access to lower secondary education and increase the proportion of adolescents who achieve recognized and measurable learning outcomes to x%

3d. Increase the number of young and adult women and men with the skills, including technical and vocational, needed for work by x%

4a. End preventable infant and under-5 deaths

4b. Increase by x% the proportion of children, adolescents, at-risk adults and older people that are fully vaccinated

4c. Decrease the maternal mortality ratio to no more than x per 100,000

4d. Ensure universal sexual and reproductive health and rights

4e. Reduce the burden of disease from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and priority non-communicable diseases

5a. End hunger and protect the right of everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food

5b. Reduce stunting by x%, wasting by y%, and anaemia by z% for all children under five

5c. Increase agricultural productivity by x%, with a focus on sustainably increasing smallholder yields and access to irrigation

5d. Adopt sustainable agricultural, ocean and freshwater fishery practices and rebuild designated fish stocks to sustainable levels

5e. Reduce postharvest loss and food waste by x%

6a. Provide universal access to safe drinking water at home, and in schools, health centres, and refugee camps

6b. End open defecation and ensure universal access to sanitation at school and work, and increase access to sanitation at home by x%

6c. Bring freshwater withdrawals in line with supply and increase water efficiency in agriculture by x%, industry by y% and urban areas by z%

6d. Recycle or treat all municipal and industrial wastewater prior to discharge

7a. Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix

7b. Ensure universal access to modern energy services

7c. Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency in buildings, industry, agriculture and transport

7d. Phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption

8a. Increase the number of good and decent jobs and livelihoods by x

8b. Decrease the number of young people not in education, employment or training by x%

8c. Strengthen productive capacity by providing universal access to financial services and infrastructure such as transportation and ICT

8d. Increase new start-ups by x and value added from new products by y through creating an enabling business environment and boosting entrepreneurship

9a. Publish and use economic, social and environmental accounts in all governments and major companies

9b. Increase consideration of sustainability in x% of government procurements

9c. Safeguard ecosystems, species and genetic diversity

9d. Reduce deforestation by x% and increase reforestation by y%

9e. Improve soil quality, reduce soil erosion by x tonnes and combat desertification

10a. Provide free and universal legal identity, such as birth registrations

10b. Ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information

10c. Increase public participation in political processes and civic engagement at all levels

10d. Guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data

10e. Reduce bribery and corruption and ensure officials can be held accountable

11a. Reduce violent deaths per 100,000 by x and eliminate all forms of violence against children

11b. Ensure justice institutions are accessible, independent, well-resourced and respect due-process rights

11c. Stem the external stressors that lead to conflict, including those related to organised crime

11d. Enhance the capacity, professionalism and accountability of the security forces, police and judiciary

12a. Support an open, fair and development-friendly trading system, substantially reducing trade-distorting measures, including agricultural subsidies, while improving market access of developing country products

12b. Implement reforms to ensure stability of the global financial system and encourage stable, long-term private foreign investment

12c. Hold the increase in global average temperature below 20 C above pre-industrial levels, in line with international agreements

12d. Developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts towards the target of 0.7% of gross national product (GNP) as official development assistance to developing countries and 0.15 to 0.20% of GNPGross National Product of developed countries to least developed countries; other countries should move toward voluntary targets for complementary financial assistance

12e Reduce illicit flows and tax evasion and increase stolen-asset recovery by $x

12f. Promote collaboration on and access to science, technology, innovation, and development data


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