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Op-Ed

A Guide to the Post-2015 Debates

John McArthur

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been a remarkable global political success. As targets established in 2000 to cut extreme poverty in its many forms in half by 2015, the MDGs have focused the world’s attention on tackling the integrated challenges of the poorest billion people on the planet – those who live on less than $1.25 a day and lack reliable access to food, safe drinking water, sanitation, or even the most basic education and health care. The MDGs have been fruitful enough in focusing attention that they have prompted a burgeoning global debate on what international goals should come next.

The post-2015 arguments have so many dimensions that any subset of global constituencies focused on resolving its own piece of the puzzle risks spending large amounts of time finding “solutions” that are untenable among players working on other key pieces. Even the jargon is tricky, since labels like “sustainable development goals” that took hold around the 2012 Rio+20 summit are loaded with disparate embedded meanings across a range of key constituencies, with some deeming the term essential while others consider it politically toxic. Meanwhile, in a case study of political semantics, the notion of setting “goals for sustainable development” has broader agreement as a more impartial conceptual starting point, surpassed by the even more neutral term of “post-2015 development agenda.”

To help distill the issues as the post-2015 debate grows, here is a cheat sheet describing what is on the table, who is involved, a typology of perspectives, the rough contours of a roadmap, and the implications for Canada.

The Substance

The post-2015 deliberations include four basic categories of topics, any or all of which might be included in a final intergovernmental agreement. First is the core MDG extreme poverty agenda, which has been most effectively advanced in recent years in areas of health and education. The world has made tremendous gains towards improving living standards and cutting the many forms of extreme poverty in half over the past generation. Many believe the time is now ripe to finish the job and set a goal of “getting to zero” on extreme poverty by 2030.

Concerns over the shortfalls have grown over the past decade as fast-growing emerging economies have struggled to manage their environmental footprints and we have seen an increase in global awareness of the threat of climate change.

Second is the issue of environmental sustainability, for which the MDGs have prompted less success, even though one of the MDGs’ eight headline goals draws some attention to the issue. Concerns over the shortfalls have grown over the past decade as fast-growing emerging economies have struggled to manage their environmental footprints and we have seen an increase in global awareness of the threat of climate change. Neither climate nor so-called “green growth” issues are addressed in the MDG framework, and many believe planetary boundaries can no longer be ignored in any global development strategy, especially as the world’s population is slated to grow by two billion people by mid-century. The politics around climate issues are particularly tricky, since the post-2015 discussions cannot outrun the UN intergovernmental process for climate negotiations, which has a 2015 deadline for a new agreement but faces formidable challenges to reaching a comprehensive global policy solution.

A third category focuses on governance, broadly defined. The term means many things to many people, from transparency to fiscal accountability to human rights to democratization to system building in fragile states. The MDGs did not include governance targets, in order to avoid ideological debates and focus on ends rather than means. But many think the global views have evolved to a point where at least issues like budget transparency can be agreed upon by all countries.

A fourth category focuses on inequality and social inclusion, in line with the growing concern that the spoils of global development are disproportionately benefiting the most privileged – whether the top 10 per cent, one percent, or even 0.1 per cent of any society – while the less privileged are either left behind or directly excluded. Many advocates worry that global goals based on country averages overlook primary concerns of discrimination, whether by gender, ethnicity, or age. Others are focused on jobs and unemployment, especially among youth. Concerns around inequality reflect perhaps the deepest zeitgeist of the post-2015 discussions, even if they remain among the most difficult to tackle through internationally agreed-upon targets. Everyone agrees, for example, that less child mortality is better, but there is ample room for debate on what counts as an optimal level of income inequality, and countries like the U.S. are unlikely to endorse an internationally agreed-upon number as a benchmark any time soon.

Who Is Involved

The MDGs took shape at the turn of the millennium, when concerns were rife over the divisions between the rich and poor countries. Amidst the ongoing transformation of the global economy, today’s world can no longer be neatly geopolitically divided between developed and developing states. Accordingly, there are big debates as to which countries should even be implementing post-2015 goals. There are still three-dozen low-income countries with annual per capita incomes of $1,025 or less. This includes an array of fragile states where governments still struggle to provide even the simplest services and progress is generally stuck. But the majority of the world’s extreme poor now live in relatively fast-growing middle-income economies, which face rapidly changing social and environmental pressures, with enormous consequences for the entire planet. Most of those emerging economies want to tackle domestic challenges, but have little patience for rich-country dictums on governance or the environment that might form roadblocks to shared prosperity. Meanwhile, many of the high-income countries are struggling to balance domestic and global priorities amidst long-term fiscal strains. Countries like the United Kingdom stand out for their courageous ongoing leadership on the MDGs, including the forthcoming achievement this year of the longstanding foreign aid target of 0.7 per cent of national income.

It remains to be seen whether a global intergovernmental framework of goals can foster a consistent yet decentralized system of goals for actors outside of government, too.

At the same time, there is a growing sentiment that global development goals should no longer be the preserve of governments alone. Companies increasingly want to contribute, and want transparent and predictable metrics for holding themselves accountable. Non-governmental organizations similarly want a voice at the table, and seek to ensure that powerfully resourced actors are accountable to citizens of all forms. Meanwhile, some key players like the Gates Foundation play a unique role in catalyzing and bridging innovations across governments, civil society, and scientific communities all at once. It remains to be seen whether a global intergovernmental framework of goals can foster a consistent yet decentralized system of goals for actors outside of government, too.

A Typology of Views

Across the complex range of issues and stakeholders, four distinct types of perspectives seem to be taking shape.

  • A “conservative” view wants to stay focused on the specific challenges of extreme poverty, tweaking the MDG targets as needed, but warning that broadening the agenda weakens the focus on one of the greatest successes ever to come out of the United Nations.
  • An “upgrading” view wants an MDG-plus agenda, modestly expanding the existing goals to include one or two other top-tier global priorities, like governance, inequality, or climate change.
  • A “geostrategic” view wants to focus on the priorities of the rapidly growing large economies like Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia that account for nearly half the world’s population. Such countries face, in varying degrees, the middle-income challenges of managing very modest domestic resources, rather than the low-income challenge of having incredibly scarce resources. Their voices are increasingly heard in venues like the G20. In many respects, these countries’ forthcoming challenges of economic transformation amount to the world’s overarching challenge of sustainability.
  • A “comprehensive” view sees 2015 as the one big chance to forge an integrated global agreement tackling all countries’ challenges of extreme poverty and social inclusion while operating within planetary boundaries. In this view, the fates of people and planet are too deeply interwoven to be subject to separate agreements.

How Will the Arguments Be Resolved?

It is impossible to predetermine political outcomes on any contemporary global issue. Nonetheless, there are a few key players and checkpoints on the road to 2015. The first is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is responsible for convening the global political negotiations and using his good offices to help distill and shape the agenda among UN member states. He has a talented team helping to guide the process, including Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson and Assistant Secretary-General Amina Mohammed. He has also commissioned a high-level panel co-chaired by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. That panel is scheduled to recommend its priorities later this spring, in time for the General Assembly’s consideration before a major MDG-focused event in September.

Concurrently, the General Assembly has formed its own “expert group” to recommend a path forward on sustainable development goals (however those end up being defined), in line with the agreements of the Rio+20 conference. Meanwhile, the UN Development Programme is actively engaging in country-level consultations in more than 60 countries, alongside the “MY world” online collaboration with NGOs to solicit citizen votes on priorities from around the world. It remains unclear how all of these pieces will fit together, and how they will align with the practicalities of negotiation among global powers. But there is a good chance that 2013 will bring clarity on the substantive priorities to be tackled through post-2015 goals, and that 2014 will then see gradual convergence around specific goals. By September 2015, there needs to be enough convergence for an intergovernmental agreement with teeth. Hopefully, this will include a serious agreement on climate change, either as part of a post-2015 deal or as a parallel UN agreement.

How Does Canada Fit In?

The post-2015 negotiations prompt two key questions for Canada, each of which merits significant public analysis and debate. First, how has the country performed on the MDGs? Canada has supported the MDGs rhetorically, and has made important contributions to global health and, more recently, hunger. But by any quantitative standard, the country has fallen short in matching the MDGs’ core issue of scale. The divergence between Canada’s relative stasis and the U.K.’s leadership path over the past decade is striking in this regard.

Second, what does Canada want to prioritize globally and how does it want to position itself in a post-2015 world? A senior government official recently told me, for example, that the further the post-2015 negotiations delve into climate issues, the less supportive Canada will be. Will the government ramp up its efforts on extreme poverty in order to divert attention from environmental issues? Will it latch onto governance as either a legitimate priority in development or perhaps a bargaining chip with emerging economies? Is there a possibility of changing course on climate and environmental policy if the second Obama administration takes a new approach? Everything is on the table.

Canada’s political leaders have ultimate responsibility to set these policies on behalf of the nation. But their decisions must be the product, rather than simply the driver, of active societal debate. Such deliberations require years to evolve and take shape. Canadian voices need to be heard, and to engage with the broader world. The year 2015 is fast approaching, but there is still time for rich discussion. On that note, let the deliberations begin!

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