Post-2015 Development Policy: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Tuesday, June 4, 2013 - 15:25

Last week, the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP) released its final report. Co-chaired by the Heads of Government of Indonesia, Liberia, and the United Kingdom, the report is meant to be a starting point for a debate on what will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015.

While I’ve had my doubts about the value of the MDGs, there’s little doubt that this new round of targets will set the framework for the development debate in the years ahead. The report produced by the HLP does better than the current MDG framework but falls short in many respects.

The Good

After a lot of pressure from ActionAid and other rights organisations, this document at least attempts to acknowledge the human rights framework. While the phrase “progressive realization” is absent from the document, the term “human rights” appears more than 30 times. The language in goal number two around women’s empowerment reflects the rights-based framework in that it calls for an end to discrimination and gender-based violence as opposed to reductions in inequalities – though without getting into many of the details. This is great to see but it should have been adopted in the rest of the document as well.

The document also calls for an end to “extreme poverty”, which is a somewhat refreshing change from the previous MDG target of halving poverty.

Last but not least, the report picks up on the issue of tax evasion and avoidance by big companies. As ActionAid revealed, developing countries lose much more money due to companies avoiding tax than they receive in aid. Were this element of the report to be taken seriously, it could dramatically change the amount of resources countries have to invest in health, education and development.

The Bad

With the exception of the language on women’s rights, most targets are expressed in terms of numbers that still need to be figured out. For example, the first target under “Provide Quality Education and Lifelong Learning” reads: “Increase by x% the proportion of children able to access and complete pre-primary education.”

This target could be ambitious or it could be redundant depending on what figure x ends up representing.

The variables x, y and z make more than 25 appearances in the section of the document detailing targets, no doubt pleasing fans of algebra but limiting the usefulness of this document

Second, “extreme poverty” – defined as living on less than $1.25 per day – is expected to go down anyway. Setting as top priority the reduction of this statistic in 2030 from 5% of the world’s population (a calculation that appears in the document based on current estimates) to 0% seems unambitious. As does the repeated call for Northern countries to set aid targets at 0.7% of GDP, a call that was first made in the 1970s.

The report also seems to ignore the bigger issue, which is that income inequality is skyrocketing even as those at the bottom do marginally better than they have previously. Indeed the word inequality – though it appears several times in the document – does not appear in the list of targets at all.

The ugly

According to an upcoming World Bank report, the richest 8% of the global population earn 50% of the world’s income. In terms of wealth, the situation is even worse, with the top 1% controlling about 50% of the world’s resources.

The remaining 99% of the population have to make do with only 50% of the world’s wealth and within that the top 5% take another significant chunk.

Despite some changes in recent years, the top 1% is still largely drawn from citizens of the countries you might expect – the U.S. and Western Europe. The bottom 50% is almost exclusively made up of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The fact that we live in a world with wealth concentrations that were scarcely imaginable even in feudal times is the defining issue of our age

The HLP report skirts around it in a brave attempt to ignore the elephant in the room.

The document’s subheading reads, “Eradicate Poverty And Transform Economies Through Sustainable Development”. The reference to transformation is not accidental; it seems to be the buzzword of choice in recent policy debates. Indeed, the need for economic transformation resonates with wide sectors of society. But the transformation, especially the question of what are we transforming away from, is not really addressed by this document.

Although the document does a much better job of articulating what global society should be transforming into, it does so without addressing hard questions. Sustainable development initiatives matter little when we are still pumping so much carbon into the atmosphere.

Peace initiatives are great, but how is it possible to move towards global peace when the global arms trade continues to grow?

And nearly four decades after most countries in the South became independent, why is most of Africa and much of Asia still functioning as a market from which the North buys cheap natural resources and sells expensive finished products, without even paying their fair share of tax?

These are the structural issues left unaddressed by the HLP and its advocates. But unless they do find a way to address these issues, the next fifteen years of development could be worse than the past fifteen.