Our man in Monrovia, Brendan Cox, files again…
So how universal is universal? In the context of the new development framework being discussed in Liberia this week does universal really mean every country must be covered by everything in the framework? Or does it just mean some things must cover every country? Does it mean we require the same things of every country? Or something of every country even if it’s different?! Still reading?
It feels almost Rumsfeldian in its linguistic complexity. But this is one of the most important and contested debates taking place at the High Level Panel this week in Liberia.
There are three main schools of thought:
- Every goal and target applicable to all. Every country signs up to standard goals and targets e.g. every country commits to abolish child poverty, improve educational attainment by x%, reduce carbon output by y%.
- Global goals, national targets: Everyone signs up to the same global goals, but the targets are then adapted nationally e.g. a global education goal to improve learning outcomes is then nationally adapted so that in the DRC it is focused on primary education, whereas in Germany it may be higher education focussed.
- Common but differentiated responsibility. This is significantly different from the first two. Those pushing this line tend to argue that addressing absolute poverty must be at the centre of the framework, but with every country committing to play a specific role in this shared ‘universal’ mission. Developed countries commit to help with finance, policy change, trade, transparency. LICs and MIC pledge to work nationally to abolish absolute poverty by 2030.
The political/policy argument for the first two is clear. The rise of emerging economies means development has changed. Why should we expect these countries and low income countries to take significant commitments via goals/targets when others won’t? Development has changed and while absolute poverty is still a major issue, it’s not the only issue and the others types of relative deprivation and the lack of sustainability is also key.
On the third school of thought the argument is equally clear. There’s no way one goal framework can do everything, if it’s to be meaningful it needs to focus on one key objective and that should be absolute poverty. This still means all countries have stretching obligations, but that they are different depending on their role. If we try and do everything we will do nothing.
The reason this debate is so important is it gets to the heart of what the framework is for and worryingly there still doesn’t seem consensus on that. Panellists are split.
In our view the framework can do lots of things, advance debates, encourage a normative shift, start to redefine development – but at its core must be abolishing absolute poverty in all its forms. That’s both because we think ending absolute poverty and focussing on the world’s poorest people is the most important thing (not that others are unimportant) but also because we’re worried that without clear prioritisation the panel and the ultimate framework will flounder, be unable to prioritise and unable to get specific. Such a framework would remain at 30,000 feet and struggle to gain political purchase if it could even be agreed.
So I certainly veer towards the common but differentiated end of the spectrum, but it’s not quite as clear as that. It’s very possible to come up with a hybrid model and in my view that offers the greatest potential.
I think there are two related hybrid options:
- That we retain ambitious common but differentiated responsibility for tackling absolute poverty as the centrepiece of the framework; but also include a few key goals that push these boundaries and make it clear that development doesn’t stop when you get above the absolute level (for example, tackling poverty above the $1.25 a day line, addressing inequality and violence against women).
- An alternative hybrid, as we referenced in our recent report, in which every goal applies to every country, but combines a commitment to an absolute global floor with more flexible targets. For example on child health it could be that the global floor and centre of the goal (with targets and indicators) is to eliminate preventable child death, but alongside that could be a commitment from all countries to improve the health of children more broadly. This could be nationally adapted so in the UK it might involve a reduction in childhood obesity, while in Mexico it might focus more on access to family planning services.
Both these hybrids keep the core purpose of the framework clear, avoiding overloading the process and would support measurable and specific outcomes. But they also allow the development debate to mature and begin a shift in the development paradigm.