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One thing we emphasized in the Karver/Kenny/Sumner paper on MDGs 2.0 was that the MDGs are far better remembered, and have been far more influential, than the rest of the Millennium Declaration from which they were drawn.  We suggested that was because the MDGs were easy to understand, self-evidently important, numerical and time bound, and we called for any follow up goals to keep those vital features.  That point seems to be widely agreed, and discussion over numbers in the post-2015 period is getting more specific.

Zero is Nice, But…

Two of the co-chairs of the HiPoPoDomAe* (British PM Cameron and Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono) explicitly called for an end to world poverty to be part of the post-2015 agenda last week in New York.  That will be music to the ears of those calling for a new set of MDGs that ‘finish what was started’ by the Millennium Declaration and focus on ‘Getting to Zero.’

Zero is a particularly attractive and simple numerical goal.  And in the case of absolutely poverty, it might be a reasonably plausible one, too.  Karver/Kenny/Sumner suggest that, under what we label as a ‘moderate’ growth scenario and no change in income distribution within countries, 4.1% of the world’s population –about 341 million people-- would still live under $1.25 a day by 2030.   That compares to about 1.4 billion in 2005.  Imagine a scenario where growth is a little faster, income distribution within countries gets a little flatter, and governments and aid agencies use new technologies like mobile cash transfers to boost the incomes of the poorest.  It is surely possible to imagine a world pretty much free of absolute poverty.

But, for all the image is a powerful one, with ‘getting to zero’ a wonderful framing device, I would be a little less sanguine about zero goals in some other areas.

One of the problems with the current set of MDGs is that they have set some countries up to be labeled failures despite making historically unprecedented progress over the past fifteen years.  Setting over ambitious targets for the next fifteen years could lead to the same problem, and to international cooperation fatigue.  For example, a recent Guardian story on the incredible halving of global child mortality in just twenty years was titled “World not on target to meet millennium development goal on child mortality.”  Five million fewer kids dying each year is branded as bad news, and one more case where the international community didn’t deliver.

So, let’s get to zero on absolute poverty, and let’s set ambitious stretch goals where recent technological change suggests we can make far more rapid progress (access to electric lighting, perhaps –thanks to advances in solar, battery and bulb technology).  But let’s pledge zero only where we plausibly can.

Take secondary education.  Getting to universal completion by 2030 would involve expansion of education systems at a historically unprecedented pace –and these are systems that are struggling to actually teach anything to students already there.  Or universal access to modern cooking technologies --where we appear some way from figuring out how to roll those out in a sustainable manner.  Or universal health coverage (‘no-one uninsured’) –where there’s far from an international agreement as to what that might entail.

A big chunk of the Karver/Kenny/Sumner paper is spent trying to come up with stretch, but plausible, targets.  On the basis of ‘realistically faster than historical progress’ we propose, for example, increased global average life expectancy to 75 years by 2030, reduced global maternal mortality to below one per thousand births,  reduced global under-five child mortality to half its level in 2010 and increased global secondary completion in the population 25 and above by 50 percent.

Aspiration Without Numbers?

Meanwhile, given the need for the Goals to be agreed by a consensus meeting of the UN, Karver/Kenny/Sumner suggested the ‘long-list’ for politically plausible simple numerical and time bound Goals beyond what was already included was in fact comparatively short.  Reading the great work of the Bellagio Group looking Toward a Post-2015 Development Paradigm, which discusses goals in areas including security, governance, and rights, I’m still pretty much convinced that’s correct.  It is difficult to imagine a numerical target on national governance that would be signed up to by all of China, the US, Sudan, France and Venezuela, for example.  (The Bellagio Group will be coming to CGD to discuss their work November 7th –more on that soon).

Having said that, I’ve changed my mind on non-numerical goals.  On reflection, I think there’s another reason the rest of the Millennium Declaration fell away beyond the MDGs.  It largely (if poetically) rehashed sentiments that the global community had already signed on to.  Things like reaffirming the importance of the UN Declaration on Human Rights, or encouraging countries to observe the Olympic Truce.  That may be important, but it is not terribly exciting.  So, there might be a space for non-numerical, timeless statements in a post-2015 declaration to make a difference and have a lasting impact if they actually said something new.

What about declaring, as it might be, the right of every human to a documented legal identity and registration at birth? Or perhaps  language along the lines of “recognizing the immense power of the movement of people as a force for development, and the arbitrary nature of nationality at birth, we recognize the more free movement of peoples across borders as a goal towards which we should aspire.” Or “recognizing that the most common form of violence worldwide is domestic violence, we commit to the prioritization of measurement, monitoring and response to the scourge of violence within the household.  We affirm the right of women to control their own bodies, and the legal parity of rape within marriage and other forms of rape.”

Surely there are other cases where the declaration of a new global norm even without numbers or timelines attached might make some small difference to a pressing social or economic issue.  Combine that with a few powerful ‘zeros,’ and you have a post-2015 document that will stand the test of time.

*That would be the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.