Shifting the Post-2015 Debate from Wish-list to International Traction

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    To produce an effective outcome, the debate on the post-2015 development agenda needs to move beyond subjective debates about what governments, civil society groups and others ‘would like’ to succeed the MDGs, and pay more attention to what kinds of international instrument exert traction on national governments and can help deliver lasting impact (1).

    Changing times

    The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a child of very different times. Politically, their gestation in the late 1990s was a time of post-Cold War optimism, with clear global leadership from both the Utstein group (2) and, later, the governments of the UK and the USA. The UN system had delivered a series of important global conferences on human rights and social justice issues from housing to women’s rights, creating a sense of momentum in building a series of progressive global norms around rights and development.

    Today, austerity and recession in Europe and the USA are coupled with growing disillusionment with a multilateral system that has produced a series of paralysed negotiations on trade, climate change, sustainability, and the arms trade. The ongoing global financial crisis that started in 2008 has proved a geopolitical tipping point; the global centre of gravity is moving rapidly from the old G8 powers to the emerging powers of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), reflected in the rise of the G20.

    However, these emerging powers seem to be prioritising growth and physical infrastructure over the kinds of social issues captured in the MDGs. Whatever the issue, the political appetite for big new global undertakings is not what it was.

    Economically, the late 1990s were good times – the G8 economies were growing, generating more fiscal cake to spread around as aid. This time around, while some governments are sticking to their promises (and all of them could do better), the impact of previous financial crises on aid flows suggests that overall aid is likely to fall in the coming years. World Bank research on the impact of previous banking crises on donor aid flows suggests that aid typically rises for a couple of years and then falls off a cliff, not returning to its former levels for at least 15 years., as illustrated in Figure 1. The latest global aid figures suggest that a repeat of this pattern could be under way. 

    Figure 1: Impact of banking crises on net disbursed aid provided by crisis-affected donors, 1977–2007

    Source: Dang H.-A., S. Knack, and H. Rogers 2009. “International aid and financial crises in donor countries,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5162, December, p 33.

    It is also the case that aid has declined in importance in most developing countries, as receipts from domestic taxation and natural resources have boomed.

    The intellectual landscape was also very different in the late 1990s. In the West, this time marked a high point in the kind of ‘planner’ mentality in the public sector, whose aid industry incarnation has been ably critiqued by William Easterly. Perhaps as a result, the moral and rights-based tone of the Millennium Declaration had to be transformed into the planners’ playground of the MDGs before it could be taken seriously by the aid industry.

    A different dynamics

    Since then, such ‘big push’ certainties have become increasingly questioned, as new donors with differing agendas have entered the development scene and traditional donors have slid into economic crisis. There has been increased attention to systems thinking, complexity and change, with development portrayed as an emergent, inherently unpredictable and discontinuous process (3).

    It is not currently clear whether and how this new thinking is compatible with a linear ‘goals, targets, indicators’ approach. There is a strong argument that supporting development has to be more nimble and opportunistic; actors need to get better at thinking on their feet and making it up as they go along, rather than simply implementing grand plans.

    Taken together, the shifts in the geopolitical, economic and intellectual landscapes since the MDGs were first conceived suggest that agreement on any post-2015 arrangement, as well as its sources of finance, and implementation, will be much harder to achieve this time around. On the plus side, though, is the power of precedent – it is much easier to build on an existing agreement than to start a new one from scratch.

    In search of effective international instruments

    The relative and absolute decline in aid volumes and the increasing economic and political autonomy of developing country governments means that the starting point for the post-2015 discussion should therefore become ‘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 the post-2015 debate. 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.

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

    2) Global goals and targets: as encapsulated by the MDGs.

    3) 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.

    4) 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.

    5) 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.

    6) 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.


    Shifting the debate

    In conclusion, to produce an effective outcome, the post2015 debate needs to move beyond subjective debates about what governments, civil society groups and others ‘would like’ to succeed the MDGs, and engage in a deeper conversation between the UN, governments and civil society over what kinds of instruments are most likely to influence decisions and deliver lasting impact.

    The alternative to asking (and answering) these questions is to develop the post-2015 arrangement through the kind of protracted negotiations that have too often served us poorly in other areas.

    Dr Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Advisor at Oxfam GB.

    1. This article is based on Green, D., S. Hale and M. Lockwood 2012. How can a post-2015 agreement drive real change? The political economy of global commitments, Oxfam Discussion Papers, November.
    2. The UtsteinGroup, formed in 1999 and comprising Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Norway, has become an important forum for co-ordinating development co-operation, focusing on poverty reduction, anti-corruption, and other key areas. It received the 2003 Commitment to Development Award for its dedication, vision, and leadership in reducing global poverty and inequality in developing countries. See the Center for Global Development website,
    3. D. Green (2011) ‘So the world is complex – what do we do differently?’ blog, ‘From poverty to power: how active citizens and effective states can change the world’, (last accessed 10 October 2012).

    This article was published in Great Insights Volume 2, Issue 3 (April 2013)

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