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Highly ambitious or empty rhetoric? Responses to the High Level Panel report

Saskia Hollander is executive director at The Broker.

While the UN High Level Panel report has been praised for its comprehensiveness and ambition, it is also criticized for avoiding more difficult political issues like inequality.

After eight months of speculation about its content and rising expectations with regard to its scope, last week the UN High Level Panel (HLP) launched its report on the post-2015 development agenda.

Praising the global commitment to the MDGs and their successes in reducing poverty, the HLP states that the new framework should ‘finish the job that the MDGs started’. At first glance, the report seems to do quite well in that respect. As Charles Kenny, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, put it: ‘There’s a lot to like’.

The 27 members of the HLP were appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 31 July 2012 to advise him on the future global development agenda after the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015. After five meetings and with input from numerous consultations with representatives from government, civil society, academia and business, the Panel reached consensus on a framework of twelve goals with measurable targets and indicators set for 2030.

A more inclusive and ambitious framework

The proposed framework goes well beyond the core business of the MDGs, by also including sustainability, social protection, peace & security, and good governance. In this sense, in terms of The Broker’s categories, the framework could be positioned somewhere between an MDG-plus and more comprehensive model. In addition, the Panel proposes a number of zero targets (e.g. reducing the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day to zero, zero violence and discrimination against girls and women, an end to child marriage, zero preventable infant and under-five deaths, zero violence against children, zero hunger, zero open-field defecation) and universal goals (e.g. access to water, energy and ICT, sexual and reproductive health and rights, freedom of speech). While the zero targets indeed aim to finish the job the MDGs started, the inclusion of both universal and sustainability targets stands in sharp contrast to the MDGs, as they imply a responsibility for middle and high-income countries as well.

Underlying development strategy

In this sense, the HLP recognizes that the world has changed since the time when the MDGs were formulated and presents a clear underlying development vision, something that was lacking in the MDGs. The Panel highlights five global transformative shifts that should drive global development policy. The first is to achieve an economy in which no one is left behind. Secondly, synergy must be created between social, economic and sustainable development, in which sustainable production and consumption are key. Furthermore, the Panel advocates a substantial role for the private sector in enabling economic transformation and creating jobs and inclusive growth; good governance to guarantee global peace and security; and finally a renewed global partnership between governments, civil society, academia, business and local and indigenous communities. The future global development framework should aim to accomplish these five transformative changes.

What about politics?

So far so good, you could say. In the days following its launch, the HLP was indeed highly praised for its ability to reach consensus on an ambitious framework. Yet closer investigation reveals pitfalls and even some of the early enthusiasts later identified important gaps. Despite the report’s comprehensiveness in terms of aims, it fails to specify the means necessary to achieve them.

For example, this is what Claire Melamed, head of the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the Overseas Development Institute, had to say:

It is all too easy to be fooled by rhetoric. Despite its promising transformative discourse, the HLP falls short of recognizing and tackling the economic and political power structures that hamper the desired transformative shifts.

‘The elephant in the room’

Take inequality, described by Andy Sumner, co-director of the King’s International Development Institute at King’s College London, as ‘the elephant in the post-2015 room’. While the HLP report discusses extensively how inequality limits opportunities for development, and calls for an economy in which ‘everyone has what they need to grow and prosper’, it does not target structural inequalities deriving from the global economic system. Rather than a global goal on inequality, the issue is seen as a cross-cutting theme and delegated to national politics. In addition, as Duncan Green, head of research at Oxfam GB, states, while the HLP makes a case for disaggregating data by relevant social groups (i.e. which implicitly implies a recognition that inequality matters), disaggregating data for income inequality seems to apply only to a country’s bottom 20%. Yet the HLP report fails to address the structural inequalities deriving from the global economy, which would require political instruments (on, for example, tax evasion and capital flight) at global level.

Open-ended global partnerships

Similarly, accomplishing the proposed transformative shifts requires more than the vague aspirations mentioned under Goal 12, ‘Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance’. While the HLP aims to ‘support an open, fair and development-friendly trading system’ and ‘implement reforms to ensure stability of the global financial system’, these targets remain open-ended and do not indicate how governments (and/or corporations) can be pressured to live up to or even formulate the necessary international regulations. This is, in the words of Claire Melamed, clearly a ‘missed opportunity’.

High ambitions, limited impact?

The HLP report now enters the highly politicized realm of the Open Working Group on Sustainability (OWG), where the Panel’s ambitious integrated framework on poverty eradication and sustainable development runs the risk of being overruled. Sustainability is clearly a political issue. During the opening session of the OWG, the chairman of the G77 lost no time in opting for a ‘differentiated responsibility’, in which the SDGs should not place restrictions on countries to fully develop. In the same vein, the BRICS countries are already calling for three different development frameworks: one aimed at poverty reduction (traditional ODA), an SDG framework targeted at the West, and a third that enables the BRICS countries to develop. Getting all the 69 OWG members on the same page will surely be a difficult task, and might well obscure the high ambitions of the HLP.

During the UN General Assembly’s Special Event on the MDGs to be held on 25 September 2013, the OWG will still be up and running. Despite the long wait for it to appear, the HLP report is therefore only a first step in the political process of formulating a future global development agenda. Although it does not tackle the structural political-economical constraints, critical voices might find it worthwhile to support the HLP’s highly ambitious and inclusive report in the upcoming political process, in which UN Member States might primarily pursue their own interests, weakening the global transformative shifts advocated by the panel.

Shortcomings of the HLP report


  1. See also our Inequality debate.
  2. With which the HLP does not seem to do justice to the debate on the various ways of measuring inequality.
Author: Saskia Hollander

About the author

Saskia Hollander is executive director at The Broker.

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