Equity should be the goal of the post-2015 agenda

Inclusive Economy16 Jul 2013Alastair Roderick

The recently published report of the High Level Panel (HLP) on the Post-2015 Agenda rightly acknowledges the tremendous achievement of raising one billion people from just below the absolute poverty line ($1.25 a day) to just above. If this legacy is to last it depends on so much more than just raising people’s incomes. Emergent problems of resource use, environmental stress and population pressure, not to mention continuing economic uncertainty, now need to be taken as seriously as poverty reduction.

Whereas some Least Developed Countries (LDCs) (such as Ghana or Kenya) have pulled themselves out of absolute poverty into near-middle income status, the new dividing lines recognized by the HLP have been between a number of LDCs who are not even keeping pace with average performers such as Ethiopia or Cambodia due to risk factors such as conflict, severe environmental and economic stress, or weak governance. Adding to these numbers are a persistently impoverished rural population across all developing countries (particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa) who are not sharing the benefits of high levels of growth that return overwhelmingly to growing urban middle-classes.

What the HLP recognizes is that these people do not live in the neat delineations of the past, and that the poor no longer exactly match up with poor countries. The Panel has been lobbied to include a target for inequality reduction, in the same manner as poverty has been reduced. In a sense this is a worthy aim. The Make Poverty History campaign may not have made poverty history, but it did successfully reframe development as poverty reduction.

But there is a danger of comparing apples with oranges, and exchanging a fairly quantifiable concept for a largely unquantifiable one. Inequality reduction implies doing all sorts of things that poverty reduction (and the MDGs) never attempted, such as guaranteeing ‘social floors’, minimum living standards below which no citizens should live, and even social insurance guarantees for countries that are struggling to achieve Universal Primary Education or where the major diseases of poverty – malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS – are still endemic.

Another goal of the new framework is to promote sustainable environments. Here, the general consensus has been that a lack of attention to the environment in the MDGs, particularly a poorly formulated and erratic Goal 7, means that action on the environment has been the least successful part of the MDGs.

The scale of need on the environment is overwhelming, yet the emphasis that the Panel’s report puts on the environment is not supported by concrete proposals. There is a very weak commitment to the idea of Sustainable Development Goals, one of the ideas for a new framework that was lobbied for hardest, and there is a confusing attachment to the principles of both universal economic growth and a rejection of a ‘business-as-usual approach’. Most worryingly, for a report that states on its very first page that climate change is the theme that runs throughout the entire plan, only one sub-target of one goal explicitly mentions a target for climate change (limiting warming to 2oC). The lack of urgency on this issue is of special concern.

There is already a framework that could work to consolidate recent successes and safeguard against growing environmental and economic risk. Dropping an ill-defined attachment to equality in favour of the principle of equity could go a lot further to meeting the aspirations of the development community, as well as safeguarding the natural and environmental systems that future development is premised on.

Focusing on equality buys into the notion that development is always linear and that economies only ever get richer. The growing environmental and economic crisis shows how weak this assumption is. Focusing on equity instead transforms the development framework from one of targets handed down from on high to a contract between those consuming resources and those who legitimately feel that they still have a lot of development ahead of them.

By only going half-way on the environment the HLP is in danger of becoming a victim of its own logic. Having accepted that environmental stress of critical systems, particularly climate change, is the greatest potential threat to development, it avoids accepting that the first task of a development framework has to be to establish a fair system where bargains can be made between the environment and economic growth.