THE DEVELOPING WORLD
A checklist of targets for post-MDG development policies
What sort of policy targets should be set for 2015 onwards, asks John Holmes. Not all the MDGs will have been achieved by then, but it’s still vital to think ahead.
The UN’s Millennium Development Goals were set back in 2000 and are due to be reached three years from now. They are generally viewed as a success as they’ve focussed the minds of governments, international agencies and development specialists on social and economic problems around the world that are nothing short of scandalous. And they’ve set priorities that are essential to correcting them. That so many policy actors have all been pointed in the same direction has ensured that the MDGs have had a genuinely galvanising effect and there’s been considerable progress in the reduction of extreme poverty along with widespread improvements in access to primary education and public health so that a number of serious diseases have been brought under control.
Now the big question is what should happen after 2015? Not all the MDGs will actually be reached by then, and none of them are likely to be achieved throughout the world as outcomes are inevitably patchy. Many African countries are a long way from meeting more than one or two of the goals and hunger is once again growing. This has led some sceptics to query the MDGs’ value, and to cast doubt on whether they are being implemented effectively. The most critical voices of all maintain that the MDGs are largely a creation of the donor nations without sufficient involvement of and consultation with, the developing countries most concerned.
This sort of criticism seems misplaced and unfair, although it is of course possible to criticise the choice of targets and the goals set. Targets often have a distorting effect as well as unintended consequences, and the MDGs are no exception. Action in some countries has been uncertain and at times downright insufficient. Resources have been unforthcoming from the donors on the scale originally envisaged, and global targets were not always well suited at national level.
Yet on the whole the MDGs have been an excellent initiative. They have gone well beyond expectations in keeping world attention on the moral inacceptability of great poverty in so many regions. The MDGs have commanded impressively wide support and provided the means for measuring progress for the poorest and most vulnerable. The policymakers behind the MDGs can hardly be blamed if there are still countries where good governance is a distant aspiration because their governments are embroiled in conflict, chaos and corruption. As it is, the targets were deliberately ambitious.
The MDGs will be reviewed more exhaustively than ever between now and 2015. We can safely leave that to the experts. But in some ways the more interesting and vital question now is what, if anything, should follow the MDGs. It’s a debate that is only just beginning.
If the MDGs are declared a success, despite missing many of their targets, we may want to launch a similar and hopefully more refined set of objectives. These would clearly need to be adapted in a number of ways especially as resources will be more difficult and negotiations will reflect greater scepticism of public spending now that the development paradigm has shifted away from a state-led approach to poverty reduction. We now know that the economic growth in China and India that’s responsible for much of the poverty reduction has had little to do with traditional development aid policies. Even in Africa, a significant and perhaps critical number of countries are growing fast enough to begin addressing their own problems. So if a new set of targets is to see the light of day, the role of trade and private investment will certainly need to be explicitly factored in. The private sector must become much more involved in the kick-starting of economic growth because that’s the way to reduce poverty and favour better governance.
An updating exercise of this sort will only get the go-ahead if the experts, on the basis of the final MDG evaluations, decide that the game will once again be worth the candle. But it would be a missed opportunity not to think more radically about what the world truly needs, beyond a mere second chapter to the MDGs. There is an urgent need to focus the world’s attention on the existential problems that have scarcely been touched by the MDGs – all those connected with the planet’s ability to sustain itself. When working as a UN emergency relief co-ordinator I became very aware of the serious consequences of climate change for Africa’s exploding populations who already live on the edge of disastrous food insecurity, and now are subjected to erratic man-made weather patterns.
Climate change is not a vague future threat, as so many in the West seem content to regard. It is a devastating reality for hundreds of millions of people, and it is only one of the many alarming trends compromising the planet’s sustainability. In the meantime, the risk of resource scarcity and of abrupt human displacements seem increasingly more likely to materialise in a world with seven billion inhabitants, forecast to rise to nine billion by 2050.
Part of the value of the MDGs lies in their design: they allow global progress to be measured against clear targets. We now urgently require something similar to allow us to quantify the earth’s ability to maintain life. This goes well beyond adding environmental targets to a future round of the MDGs, although that could well be a step forward. Indeed, some have called for the next MDGs to be re-named Sustainable Development Goals. But there is also an urgent need to come up with something separate and more radical to address climate change.
A number of experts meeting in the UK recently agreed that this summer’s UN+Rio 20 summit should lay the foundation for an altogether separate environmental initiative. They also concluded that an impartial international scoreboard should be implemented to provide a factual basis for measuring environmental degradation and improvements. It is certainly important for governments and the general public to quickly assess environmental quality, and these indicators could be tools for raising awareness and increasing pressure for more radical measures. It would certainly be useful to include success stories in environmental awareness campaigns, as scare tactics have so far been ineffective.
Such a scoreboard would ideally be entrusted to a relevant global institution, but of course there is no “World Environment Organisation” and the creation of one lies years in the future. The lengthy and difficult process of inter-governmental agreement on what should be measured and how means there is a strong case for civil society and the private sector to take the initiative. Some experts say that it could be set up at a relatively low cost as an interactive virtual platform that later the international community could formally take over. In effect it would be a global clearing house for environmental data, and might even act as a kind of environmental rating agency.
This could also feed into the idea of setting some basic but measurable environmental goals. We already have a potential framework for this in the concept of the planetary boundaries developed in 2009 by a group of scientists. They identified nine system processes vital to the earth’s sustainability – climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, global freshwater use, changes in land use, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution – and danger thresholds for each. The concept is still being refined and values have yet to be agreed for some of the boundaries. But of those system processes that have been quantified, three are thought to have already crossed the threshold, meaning that they have surpassed what is considered sustainable for the future. These are climate change, biodiversity loss and the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.
The idea of implementing environmental indicators has already gathered significant support and momentum. A public appeal has been made by a group of stakeholders calling themselves the “Planetary Boundaries Initiative”, for the Rio meeting to adopt a Declaration on Planetary Boundaries, or at least to ensure that the relevant principles will be fully reflected in Rio’s Final Declaration.
It is essential that the EU and its member states should get behind such an initiative. This would help maintain the strong lead Europe has long shown on environmental issues, despite the current economic pressures and distractions.
As to the MDGs, they deserve to be reinforced and reinvigorated so as to maintain the pressure for progress in tackling the problems of the earth’s bottom billion.
Sir John Holmes is the Director of the Ditchley Foundation and a former UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator email@example.com