Save UK Director of Policy and Advocacy Brendan Cox is in Monrovia, where the UN High Level Panel on post-2015 is meeting. He files the following…
As political, corporate and academic leaders meet this week in Liberia to discuss the development framework for the next generation, policy wonks everywhere are hyperventilating with joy (if you’re reading this you almost certainly are one). An opportunity to determine the future of the world via policy submissions, what could be better? (To which end, here’s ours.)
Certainly if the quantity of papers was anything to by, the High Level Panel (mandated by the UNSG) is well on track to changing the world. Reams of paper work, position papers and background research are being pulled together to inform their work. Folders straining under the weight of papers are being shuttled back and forth from meeting to meeting.
In reality of course the panel knows that changing the world is in fact a balance between ideas and raw power.
On the former, the creation of the panel has started to kick start debates and stimulated the flow of ideas. The games the policy community play over dinner have to be experienced to be believed – ‘name your craziest goal’, ‘what indicator is your favourite’, ‘if you could pick one target what would it be’. The fun goes on and on and on and…
There is already one powerful overarching idea on the table – the fact that we can get to zero on so many issues, that we really can banish some of the world’s evils (something rhetorically embraced previously before but never really believed). Beyond that it’s looking a bit piecemeal.
On the issue of power, the panel no matter what it does will never have what we need; and that has implications for the work the HLP does.
It’s now an open secret that the High Level Panel was launched in inauspicious circumstances; botched by the UN, leaked by No10, it was almost dead before it was born. The Brazilians, so pissed off with the process, pushed for a separate one (the Open Working Group) that almost ran in parallel and still hasn’t met thanks to UN politics.
The panel has some great people on it, but if we are honest (and with a few notable exceptions), it probably isn’t a group of people you’d assemble if you wanted to dictate terms to the rest of the world. While it may have the brains, it doesn’t have the political brawn.
Given this, the panel needs to understand its role. The proposal it develops isn’t going to be imposed onto the UN system by a macho do-as-I-say Ban Ki-Moon, rather it will go into a two year long UN process that will churn and grind and distort and debase whatever it comes up with.
So in that context, what is the role of the panel? In our view its role is to set the agenda in three ways; to consolidate what we already agree on, to lift our collective ambition and to push the envelope.
On the consolidation we already know there are things we agree on so there is no need to reinvent the wheel. We know child and maternal mortality is bad, that education is good, that hunger is awful. These aren’t startling new ideas but they remain key objectives that fundamentally impact on humanity and we cannot and must not move away from them. There may be some new areas, like renewable energy or infrastructure that might also be easily slotted into this category.
The second role is to lift the bar of ambition. The MDGs were mostly great but if you articulate the flip sides of them they can sound bizarre; “we want a world where we reduce poverty, but hey, not by too much; how about we keen half of them poor”? Or, “sure, preventable child mortality is bad, but why don’t we agree 3 million a year sounds like a good round figure?”.
The opportunity now is to go beyond agreeing things we do and don’t like and agree truly stretching targets that require focus and effort and an effective global partnership to deliver on them, and specifically to get to zero on some of these (zero hunger, zero excess mortality etc).
Fulfilling these first two objectives would be good; really good if they get the ambition right, but they should use this opportunity to try and go further.
In our view their third objective should be to push the envelope and begin a paradigm shift. This means that the panel should take on a couple of the most pressing issues of the day (or those likely to escalate before 2030) on which there isn’t consensus and try to develop some. Underlying this shift is an acceptance that as people and countries move out of absolute poverty, development isn’t just about survival, it’s about communities and individuals thriving. To enable people to thrive the most pressing issues the panel must lead thinking on are going to be how to tackle inequality and how to integrate sustainability. On inequality there is growing agreement but still some individuals with strong personal views who could hold the group back. The integration of sustainability also has growing political consensus around it but how to put it into a framework is much more difficult.
If it becomes too difficult to drill down too far into these newer areas they could be less specific and still have a powerful normative effect (as long as that doesn’t lead to sloppy imprecise drafting in the areas above). But failure to take this on would be a missed opportunity.
To achieve all of these objectives will still require focus and specifics. The panel doesn’t have to come up with every goal in detail but it should go beyond giving us a narrative. It needs to show – especially in the difficult to define areas like sustainability – what goals might look like. Sometimes it’s only by getting specific that we really clarify our thinking.
From what I’m hearing the panel is making good progress. Certainly on one and probably on two. Three is more tricky but by the end of the week we should be clearer on whether they are willing to push at the frontier. Of course, the journey beyond their report is another matter.