Post-2015 as if national politics really mattered

Development Policy17 Apr 2013Duncan Green

The post-2015 discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is picking up steam, with barely a day going by without some new paper, consultation or high level meeting. So I, along with Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood, decided to add to the growing slush-pile with a discussion paper: How can a post-2015 agreement drive real change? The political economy of global commitments.

Why join the circus? Because too much of the debate is being conducted in a political vacuum, dominated by overly theoretical policy analyses of what could ideally be developed. Bu it’s the messy business of power and politics that will really determine what happens to poverty, equality, essential services and sustainability over the next few decades, and there’s an urgent need to bring power and politics into the centre of the post-2015 discussion.

The international system is already awash with fine-sounding global undertakings and commitments (at the last count, the ILO alone had 189 international conventions on its books). Some of these have much more impact than others. What determines whether the post2015 agreement has more (or less) impact than all the rest?

To have impact, any post-2015 arrangement has to take into account the profound global changes since the MDGs were debated over the course of the 1990s and early noughties.

The most significant shift is that the new arrangements have to be designed to influence governments, whereas the main impact of the MDGs was on the aid system. Why the shift? Because aid is becoming less important, both because it is likely to decline in volume over the next few years, and because rising tax and natural resource receipts mean that governments’ dependence on aid as a percentage of revenues is falling even faster than aid itself.

The starting point for the post2015 discussion should therefore be ‘how do international agreements influence national behaviour, and in particular that of national governments?’ Remarkably (and alarmingly), we have been unable to locate research that helps answer that question in the context of post2015. And it is certainly a highly researchable topic: for example, in-depth interviews with policymakers in a sample of countries could investigate the traction exerted by a range of international instruments on their decisions (avoiding any leading questions on the MDGs). Yet to our knowledge, no-one has done this.

In the absence of hard research, we are obliged to speculate. International instruments can exert influence in three key ways:

By changing national norms in areas such as women’s rights. However intangible, norms matter, leading to long-term changes in what society considers acceptable or deplorable, which then leads to changes to laws, policies and behaviours.

By directly influencing government decision-making, through any of a number of possible carrots (aid, contracts, acceptance, approval) or sticks (sanctions, disapproval).

By giving civil society organisations and other domestic actors more tools with which to lobby, campaign, and secure action by their governments.

In most cases, the main drivers of change will be domestic – the result of national politics and culture. But international initiatives are second-order factors that can nudge things along. We suggest six kinds of instrument at global and regional levels.

Big global norms: rallying cries intended to influence the underlying attitudes of decision-makers and citizens, such as ‘zero poverty’ or ‘zero hunger’.

Global goals and targets: as encapsulated by the MDGs.

Regional goals and targets: the African Union has been particularly energetic in agreeing regional targets on the rights of women, spending on agriculture, health, social protection, and water and sanitation. Civil society, including Oxfam’s Pan Africa Programme, has made effective use of such advocacy targets.

Global league tables: Anecdotal evidence (and long NGO experience) suggests that league tables can be effective both in attracting public and media interest, and in goading politicians into action – there is nothing a leader likes less than to be seen to lose out to a rival nation.

Data transparency: according to Jan Vandemoortele, one of the architects of the MDGs, perhaps their greatest legacy will be the improved quality, collection and dissemination of social data. One option would be to make this the centrepiece of a post-2015 arrangement, and leave it to others (national or regional bodies, international institutions) to ‘mash up’ the data into different indices and use it to advocate for progressive policies.

International law: Most governments are already signatories to dozens, if not hundreds, of international conventions and the role and influence of international law appears to be on an inexorable upward curve, steadily encroaching on previously untouchable areas of state sovereignty.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of these options in influencing norms, decision-making or civil society activism? Some initial thoughts are captured in the table below.

Possible options for international instruments to drive change post-2015


Influence on national norms

On decision-making

Civil society take-up

Big global norms

Sometimes strong, but often disappear without trace

Long-term influence (e.g. shaping future leaders’ world views)

Strong, if resonate with national reality

Global goals and targets


Transmission via aid system, otherwise likely to be partial

Yes, when resonate with national reality

Far stronger if accompanied by national goals, civil society commitment to these, and clear national accountability mechanisms

Regional goals and targets

More influence where regional identity is stronger (e.g. African Union)

Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate. Rivalry can also be effective

Can provide a valuable advocacy tool, especially where regional identity is strong

Global league tables


Effective if builds on regional rivalries

Can provide a valuable advocacy tool

Data transparency


Depends how data are picked up by national actors

Depends on civil society capacity to use data for advocacy purposes, alliances with academics, etc.

International law

Strong, but slow osmosis into national common sense (e.g. children have rights)

Especially if governments have to ratify and legislate, or report publicly on their performance (as with the UNCRC or CEDAW)

Depends on civil society capacity to use legal system (and responsiveness of legal system)

Given the substantial investment of money and brainpower in both the MDGs and the global debate over what should replace them, it is deeply worrying that we lack the research necessary to answer some of the most important design questions around the post2015 debate. In the absence of such research, those involved in the post2015 discussion should at least take time out from adding yet more baubles to the Christmas tree of demands to quiz national decision-makers about how international agreements influence their work, and design the post2015 settlement accordingly.