Good job or missed opportunity?

Development Policy13 Aug 2013Jan Vandemoortele

The High-level panel (HLP) calls for a paradigm shift to address unsustainable production and consumption patterns, to integrate social, economic and environmental sustainability, and to enable a universal agenda that goes beyond aid. Although the five transformative shifts are not quite memorable, few people will object to their content. Most importantly, the panel argues that “targets should only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups”. This is particularly fitting, since within-country inequalities are the principal reason why the MDGs will not be met by 2015. The panel also calls for setting up an independent group to periodically convene a global forum to review progress at the highest political level. All these points are welcome, albeit that none of them are new or original.

Nevertheless, the report has been criticized by the majority of stakeholders, mostly for neglecting aspects on the ‘what’ and ‘how’. The most common response has been to identify items, aspects or dimensions that are missing, that should be added and that must be included. Yet, the proposed list of targets is already three times as long as the original MDGs – not quite in line with the panel’s own recommendation to keep the post-2015 agenda to “a limited number of goals and targets”.

On balance, the HLP missed the opportunity to fundamentally change the discussion on the post-2015 agenda. This is not due to it omitting any dimensions regarding the ‘what’ or the ‘how’, but because it sidesteps the debate on the ‘why’. The report devotes little attention to why we need a successor arrangement to the MDGs. It simply expresses, in the opening sentence, “a deep respect” for the MDGs, which seems to justify the quest for a post-2015 agenda. The panel does not engage in a deeper discussion why a set of global targets would be desirable. The need for a post-2015 agenda is taken for granted, if only to replace the MDGs.

Seizing this opportunity could have started by clarifying the essence of global targets, specifying their sense and nonsense, exploring their strengths and exposing their weaknesses, and explaining their relevance at the national and sub-national levels. The panel missed a unique opportunity to correct the misinterpretations, misconceptions and misappropriations of the MDGs that have taken root over the past decade. Such a discussion is essential because it would have brought closer together the divergent views among stakeholders about the purpose and meaning of global targets. By sidestepping such a vital debate about global target-setting, the panel’s report has not produced a much-needed transformation on the part of the major stakeholders. Instead, it has been business as usual: the same old rhetoric, the predictable reactions, and the familiar positioning – with merely another report on the table.

The report’s failure to transform the debate, despite its own call for a transformative agenda, is due to a fateful mistake. The panel succumbed to the temptation to put forward its own list of targets. By doing so, it virtually eclipsed its own report, as most of the attention and responses have focused on the list of illustrative goals and targets in Annex I, rather than on the report itself. It was unwise to believe that the time was ripe for a concrete list of goals and targets without first bringing closer together the different viewpoints on the meaning and purpose of global targets. The panel’s members should have known that by doing so, the tail would be wagging the dog.