A view on the Open Working Group

Development Policy11 Dec 2013Kwabena Nyarko Otoo

The Open Working Group (OWG) process of developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflects the commitment of the United Nations (UN) and its agencies to move away from the closed-door approach that characterized the formulation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In particular, the opportunity extended to accredited Major Groups (including trade unions) and other stakeholders to contribute to the debate and framing of the SDGs makes for a more democratic, inclusive and participatory process. Hopefully, the final outcome – the SDGs – will reflect the broad range of views from the various groups, and thus gain global legitimacy.

The fifth session of the OWG took place at the UN Headquarters in New York from November 25-27. The nine Major Groups representing various non-state actors, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), were observers. Prior to the session, the Major Groups had the opportunity to meet with the members of the Intergovernmental OWG on November 22. This meeting focused on four major themes related to, or that have profound implications for, sustainable development, namely human rights, inequality and poverty; governance and institutions; and human development and planetary boundaries.

Benefits for a few

The intersessional meeting was highly successful on three counts. First, the exchanges were frank and produced a number of concrete ideas that could guide the framing of the SDGs. Second, the degree of convergence among the Major Groups on the thematic areas was higher than expected. Third, the co-chairs of the OWG posed critical questions and comments that drew attention to other dimensions of the issues at hand. Their commitment and interests were palpable. On the downside, representatives of member countries were virtually absent, turning the meeting into a conversation between groups of non-state actors with a common orientation and vision.

The actual meeting of the OWG kicked off with a keynote address by Jagdish Bhagwati. I was delighted to listen to him, but his remarks confirmed a long-held fear. For the last three decades, development policy-making has been dominated by a few influential people whose ideas have evolved into global common thinking. Bhagwati is one of these few. The ideas and policies that they have disseminated have resulted in economic growth and the wealth it has produced benefiting only a handful of countries and individuals. And it is alarming to hear, at the start of a session on SDGs, another sermon emphasizing the primacy of economic growth in solving all the ills that afflict the world.

Growth is not development

In the last thirty years, the only country that has truly emerged in developmental sense and has made giant strides against poverty – China – is also the country that has not followed the standard policies favoured by mainstream ideologies. Yes, there are some regions in the world where growth is still a necessary part of efforts to promote development and reduce poverty. But, as was repeated many times during the intersessional meeting, growth is not equal to development. And for growth to be effective in fostering development, an overhaul of the current development model is warranted. Countries that grow need policies to retain significant proportions of the wealth they generate, and to distribute them more equitably. The UN estimates that Zambia loses around US$50 million annually in tax revenues to exemptions, concessions and refund claims. It holds only a nominal 10% in the copper mine operated by Anglo American, which pays virtually no dividends. Similar situations occur in many resource-rich countries in Africa and elsewhere. The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that about 90% of Ghana’s export revenues of minerals is retained outside the country. Therefore, these countries do register modest but impressive growth, and generate wealth, but that wealth is not available for domestic investments either in upgrading productive capacity or for reducing extreme poverty. These are the consequence of policies that make growth an end in itself, and weaken the capacity of the state to tax; policies that generate growth and excellently capture them in domestic statistics, but then fly the resulting wealth offshore.

But even more alarming is the idea that social spending should wait until growth is underway. This idea presupposes that social spending is only the outcome of economic growth when, in fact, it is a driver for growth that can be sustained in the long-term. For how can a developing country initiate, nourish and sustain growth when half of its citizens have no formal education, and HIV/AIDS and other tropical diseases devastate its productive workforce?

The world is richer today than at any time in history. Yet, nearly half of its inhabitants continue to suffer from hunger, malnutrition, disease and poverty, and subsist on the margins. In large parts of the developing world, mothers and infants die from preventable causes. These people cannot wait. Their suffering is a “scar on the conscience of the world”, in the words of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The world needs immediate action to end this unacceptable deprivation and suffering.

Countries must have policy space

Returning to Bhagawati, the idea that the SDGs should focus more on means might sound ingenious superficially, but deeper reflection reveals a different motive: defending existing policies and making them the prime focus of the future SDG agenda. He criticizes the MDGs for ignoring the diversities among countries by setting a single set of quantitative targets for all countries. But now he wants global sets of policies to drive the development framework that succeeds the MDGs. I will invoke his earlier premise that countries differ vastly, and that what the SDGs must offer countries is the policy space to choose and alter policies in a manner dictated by domestic circumstances. The SDGs can then focus on how policies are coordinated to eliminate existing imbalances and future ones, and preserve multilateralism that benefits all countries and citizens.

The usual rhetoric

As expected, the OWG meeting produced the usual fine words and phrases from country delegations, such as ’inclusive growth’ and ‘sustainable growth’. However, it was not clear to me whether the countries understood these terms in the same way. I heard no definitions or explanations of the terms, nor any new approaches to ensure inclusivity and sustainability.

The rhetoric about the need to regulate finance and financial flows, maintain open trade, invest in infrastructure including in energy, job creation and social protection, promote the private sector and create an ‘enabling environment’ was again on the scoreboard. But this time, there was very little talk around the tired phrase “the need to reform global governance institutions”.

From the perspective of the poor, development cannot be inclusive if it does not afford them the opportunity to offer and make use of their most important asset – their labour. Development must also provide dignified guarantees for groups like children, the elderly and the disabled who cannot or should not participate in the labour market. It cannot be sustainable if it relies solely on growth without ensuring that is fruits are distributed fairly. The path to sustainable development must ultimately involve an overarching necessity to confront inequality within and between countries.

Fear of the unknown

It seemed to me that the delegations benefited immensely from the experts’ knowledge, but very little from the insight and orientation of civil society representatives. Consequently, they were more often than not politically and technically correct in their presentations, but remained largely within standard assumptions. Ideological barriers still remain despite countries now appearing to acknowledge the common challenges that humanity faces. They recognize the need for the world to reverse course in many areas, and there was a certain level of commitment to change in the air. But that commitment is weakened by subtle underlying nationalism/regionalism. While perhaps knowing what ought to be done, countries are dogged by the fear of the unknown when they do what ought to be done. This is the challenge and the price the world is paying or must pay for procrastination and only attempting to take action in the midst of crisis.

Same challenges, less options

As the UN records show, the world has been talking about sustainable development since the UN Conference on Human Environment in 1972. Since then, a number of innovative ideas have been put forward, but few have found favour with mainstream politics and economics. Over four decades later, the world still faces the same challenges with growing intensity, but vastly depleted resources, thus limiting available options. Hopefully, this time around, action will be louder than rhetoric clothed in fine words.

Where is civil society?

Finally, on the involvement of civil society, I am starting to feel apprehensive. There is no doubt – as the richness of the discussions on the 22nd illustrated – the Major Groups, as always, have concrete ideas about how to address the challenges facing humanity. But it is not clear whether the international development establishment is interested in those ideas. Yes, they pay to fly in, accommodate and feed people from across the world to be part of this process, but all that may be for a different purpose. In the 1990s and early 2000s, major development conferences organized by the World Bank, IMF, WTO and UN were marked by street battles and demonstrations. Such demonstrations used to be organized by civil society organizations (CSOs), but today, CSOs have been absorbed into the system, running parallel sessions at these conferences. In most cases, as happened on November 22, CSOs find that they are actually talking with and among themselves, while the real deal is being cut somewhere else in the same building. The failure of the development process to incorporate the enduring views of civil society should lead to re-evaluation of our role in the development discourse.