Reigniting global development: What development goals after 2015?

For many, the coming of the year 2000 was marked by overblown hype around a computer virus that never happened and slightly disappointing parties that did.

In the world of development it was heralded with a much more momentous occasion; the agreement of the Millennium Development Goals – global goals on international development that have provided a focus for development efforts ever since.

With all their shortcomings (ranging from the way that poverty is measured to key gaps like sustainability, infrastructure or inequality), it is hard to deny the success of the MDGs in galvanising political momentum around the fight against poverty and in helping to mobilise unprecedented levels of global aid. Since the beginning of the 2000s – partly because of these goals – we have witnessed impressive progress in improving access to primary education, reducing child mortality and combating extreme poverty.

So with a track record to be broadly proud of, the question turns to what should replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. Next week these discussions start in earnest when the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (co-chaired by our Prime Minister) will meet for the first time.

While 2015 may sound slightly less auspicious than the turn of the millennium, there are still high hopes for what the replacement framework might achieve.

Whatever shape it takes, the new framework must start by building on the strengths of the MDGs. To that end they should be specific, time-bound and measurable – we can’t let the specific targets be watered down to bland aspirations or UN speak (‘reaffirming’, ‘aspiring to’, ‘cognisant of’ must all be banned phrases).

Secondly, while the new framework should address emerging development challenges, it should remain focused on key development priorities where an international agreement can make a difference. Trying to make the framework respond to every development challenge may tick all the lobby groups’ interests but will play no role in incentivising political action in key areas. Worse still, if we try to overload the process we could derail it entirely.

Thirdly, while there were certainly gaps, the current framework did pick many of the right issues and the replacement should finish that job. Most of the issues identified in the MDGs have remained some of the key development challenges; however, targets within the MDG framework tended to be about halving extreme poverty, or reducing under-5 mortality by two-thirds, or reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters. This is why the UN Secretary General recently recognised that When the MDGs were first articulated, we knew that achieving them would, in a sense, be only half the job.” Now is the time to finish the job we started. For the first time in history, the world is at a stage where we could make historic breakthroughs. For example it is now feasible to imagine that in the next couple of decades no child would die from preventable causes, that every child could go to school and that we could eradicate extreme poverty. This inspirational human accomplishment must be seized.

Proposals that encapsulate this idea have already been put forward, including Getting to Zero. This would include a zero target for eliminating extreme poverty, and close to zero targets for child and maternal mortality, child stunting or illiteracy.

So for us there needs to be a strong thread of continuity in the replacement framework. But we also know that some things must be different because the world has moved on.

The first change in emphasis within the goals comes from the implication of moving from fraction-goals to zero goals. Possibly, one of the greatest weaknesses of the MDGs was failing to recognise that by setting aggregate targets the poorest and hardest to reach sectors of the population would be left behind. The roadmap to get to zero by 2035 should ensure that interim targets and national targets aim at reaching the hardest to reach.

Secondly, we know that the location of poverty has changed. The growing number of people in poverty living in middle income countries means that to be successful we need to take on inequality at the national level. Relying on current growth trajectories and basic service interventions alone won’t achieve the things we want. Trends in poverty reduction show that achieving these inspirational goals will only be possible if the thorny issue of inequality is addressed so progress can be dramatically accelerated.

Currently, one in six of the people living in extreme income poverty (less than $1.25 a day ) live in upper-middle income countries and more than half live in lower-middle income countries. New analysis by Andy Sumner for the Center for Global Development shows that extreme income poverty in each group of countries could be eliminated by a small redistribution of GDP: just 0.2% of GDP in upper-middle income countries, and 1.3% in lower-middle income countries.  Save the Children’s research shows that reducing inequality is also crucial to address other goals such as reducing stunting.

Thirdly, since 2000 countries such as China and Brazil have made incredible development strides, and there is also a much more complex geopolitical constellation. Whereas in 2000 low income countries were broadly seen as recipients of an agreement, this time emerging economies and many low income countries will rightly be much more vocal. Pushing for goals that only focus on the poorest countries is unlikely to get traction. Hence, the new framework will have to include goals that have obligations for all governments. Some of these will be about richer countries helping the poor (e.g. aid targets); but there is also an opportunity to go beyond this and identify global priorities that every country will strive to deliver on. These could include goals on transparency, sustainability, national poverty reduction targets, or employment targets.

Of course, this is not the type of agreement that can be brokered by a few technical experts from donor countries in the corridors of the UN. It will require strong political leadership that can forge one of the greatest global agreements in history.

Negotiating the new agreement will take real political skill and we know the biggest danger is stalemate. To avoid this we think it should be negotiated in a series of building blocks – rather than holding off on everything until everything is settled. For example, hardly anyone disagrees on the need to eradicate extreme poverty or end child mortality. These common agreements needs to be ring-fenced early, so potential in-fighting in other areas does not compromise progress on this central principle.

If we can get both the content and the negotiating strategy right, the replacement framework to the MDGs could be a truly historic document. If we mishandle either, it may end up feeling more like the millennium bug that never was.