The Post-2015 Development Agenda: New Goals, New Questions

On 30 May 2013, the High-Level Panel assembled by the UN Secretary General published its recommendations for the post-2015 development agenda. The document outlines both a general view on the future of global development (culminating in the five ‘big, transformative shifts’) and a list of goals and targets to follow up on the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The new list is longer than the original: there are now 12 instead of eight goals, and 53 instead of 21 targets. Two clear observations can be drawn from this sheer rise in numbers. First, the increase may be interpreted as an indication of a wider and higher level of ambition. Coming from this group of eminent persons, including many political leaders, this is a positive factor. Despite attracting various critiques, the MDGs have been a positive focusing device for policy and thinking about policy. By increasing the scope of goals, this focusing function is potentially stronger because it will affect a larger set of relevant issues.

Women and girls displaced from East DarfurSecond, the MDGs have been criticized for making arbitrary choices on narrow indicators, that do not reflect the full spectrum of developments that are required to address the broader goals of development. Looking at the targets, the new list of 53 items is likely to remain subject to such criticism. While most targets are relevant to development, they do not form an exhaustive list of dimensions for the goals to which they are linked. The new goals themselves are certainly broader than the original MDGs (for example, ‘Ensure healthy lives’ has a wider scope than focusing on particular diseases or issues such as child mortality). But these broad goals are not directly measurable and so less subject to the strong focusing function of the original MDGs. The (53) targets mostly are, but they are hardly exhaustive.

The more relevant questions relate to the BlockQuoteBVJun13content rather than the quantity of the new goals and targets. There is little that can be brought against the ambitions that speak from the list of goals as such. All of these dimensions are relevant and commendable. However, a comparison between the old list of 21 targets to the new list of 53 does provide some insights that may lead to more criticism. We can reach such insights by categorizing the two (old and new) sets of targets into three categories: those that are new (new targets not related to any specific old target), those that have vanished (old targets not related to any new target) and persistent targets (old targets that are more or less related to new targets, or vice versa).

Let us start with a brief discussion of the vanished targets. I count five: 3A, and 8B-8E. 3A is related to gender disparity in education, and 8B-8E are all related to specific groups of countries (Least Developed Countries, LDC; Small Island Developing States, SIDS) or specific problems (national debt and access to medicine). Without being able to provide a full survey here, it is fair to say that the specific problems that these indicators point to, have not generally been solved. Progress has been made, for example in access to medicines, but it is not complete. My assessment is that specific attention to LDC is still necessary, and perhaps we should even be more specific than this (for example, land-locked countries or Sub-Saharan African countries). There seems to be little reason to remove these five topics from the list of targets.

 Polio Vaccination Campaign in Darfur

I would categorize the other 16 targets on the original list of 21 as persistent targets. In the new list, they do not appear in the same formulation, their level of ambition has often been increased, and sometimes they have been put under different goals. I would interpret these persistent targets as a strong list of focusing devices, indicating both (by their reformulations) the progress that has been made, and the need for continuing efforts.

My strongest criticism liesBlockQuoteBVJun13b in the list of new targets. There are 41 of these new targets, and they can be classified under a number of labels, of which ‘institutions’ and ‘sustainability’ are the two that attract most items. On institutions, the report notes that “[t]hey are both means to an end and an end in themselves”. Although no specific comment is made in the text, it seems that this statement both reflects a justification (the list of goals and targets generally only includes ‘ends’, which is indeed what gives it a large part of its power as a focusing device), and an excuse (most scholars, including most economists like myself, would primarily see these institutions as a means to an end).

Having (specific) institutions on the list makes it hard to ignore them as a means to an end. And this is exactly where the list becomes problematic. The institutional issues on the new target list include social protection policy; control of violence (specifically against women and girls, against children, and related to conflicts and crime); child marriage; women’s rights and women’s economic position; financial systems and investment; boosting entrepreneurship; legal institutions; freedom of speech, civic engagement; transparent governance, corruption; justice, law enforcement; development policy; and taxes. This is a long list, and usually the targets are much more specific than the general formulations I have reproduced here.

A mother and child at the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul.

By including this list, and presenting it as both an end and a means to an end, the report strongly implies that there is a consensus about what institutions matter for development. But certainly there are caveats to this idea. First, there are clear examples of cases where development is or was proceeding at a strong pace, but large chunks of the above list remain to be implemented. For example, development of many Asian countries that are now among the richest in the world had little to do with entrepreneurship (in the sense of startups). Much more controversial from a human rights point of view, but still undeniable: there are clear examples of countries that are growing very rapidly, but which have not (yet) implemented basic democratic values. And there are examples of very developed countries which still clearly lack some of the items on the above list.

Second, there are strong issues about the direction BlockQuoteBVJun13cof causality between institutions and development. Are institutions a means for development, or is development a means for ‘better’ institutions? The economic profession has occupied itself with this question over the last decade, but despite fancy econometric techniques the evidence remains scarce. This is because available data do not cover a large enough part of what institutions stand for, and because theory can hardly keep up with the intricacies of the methods.

From this point of view, mixing the ends and the means to ends on the list of targets does not seem a constructive idea. The MDGs made specific choices, and perhaps other choices would have been better. But at least there could be little controversy about the ‘intrinsic value’ of the topics that they addressed. As an end, there will be little controversy about the institutional items on the new list, but as a means, controversy will be abound, both politically and scholarly. It would be wise to avoid such controversy in exactly the same way that the original MDGs avoided controversy, i.e., by not being specific about the means to the ends.

A rice farmer stands in his field, East Timor

A final word about the label of sustainability. This is a much more credible ‘end’, although it can probably also be seen as a ‘means’. But here the problem lies elsewhere. To me sustainability seems to be a topic that is beyond ‘focusing’. It has been on the international policy agenda at least since the inception of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988, albeit with rather varying support from the various governments around the globe. Efforts are still lacking in a major way, and it is very doubtful whether the attention given to the topic on the list of new targets will make the hoped for difference.

Perhaps this is a case where the ‘means to the end’ have to be made more specific. I am thinking of science, knowledge and innovation. Obviously, knowledge is closely related to development, and sustainable development in particular. But the old MDGs and new targets are remarkably silent on knowledge. The only mention of knowledge comes as a general plea for access to scientific results and data (12F in the new list), and the same plea for technology in the old list (8F). Large scale investment, public and private for developing the knowledge necessary for sustainable development, in all its dimensions, may be the better way to bring the topic of sustainability back to life. Knowledge is a means to an end, but, from the UN University perspective, it is also an end in itself.

by Professor Bart Verspagen, Director of UNU-MERIT. Images: UN Photo / O.Chassot / A.González Faran / F.Waezi / M.Perrett.