If you follow development issues, you’ll know that a major effort is under way to agree a successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before they expire at the end of 2015. This month should bring another milestone on that road with the completion of a report by an international panel of 27 political leaders and experts outlining the possible shape of the post-2015 goals.
When that report lands on the desk of the United Nations’ secretary-general, it will no doubt join a large pile of other submissions and recommendations on how best to follow up on the MDGs. Already this year, the UN has published findings from an ongoing “global conversation” about the MDGs. The organisation is also inviting people to share their views in its MY World survey – more than a third of a million people have already done so. Civil society has been busy, too, holding meetings and launching Beyond2015 , as have independent think-tanks like the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
It all adds up to a lot of activity. It’s also all very different from the process that led up to the creation of the original MDGs at the turn of the century. Back then, the draft MDGs were written in a basement office at the UN in New York. The then-head of the UNDP, Mark Malloch-Brown, later admitted that his team almost forgot to include any reference to environmental sustainability: “I was walking along the corridor, relieved at job done,” he told journalist Mark Tran last year, “when I ran into the beaming head of the UN environment programme and a terrible swearword crossed my mind when I realised we’d forgotten an environmental goal … we raced back to put in the sustainable development goal.”
Of course, the Millennium Development Goals weren’t just the product of chance encounters in the bowels of the UN. In reality, many of the ideas and targets they embody had bubbled up through international conferences in the 1980s and ’90s. And the idea of bringing all this work together in a set of headline international goals that – crucially – could be monitored had its roots in OECD work in the mid-1990s. (Richard Manning’s account of the MDG’s history is here.)
Still, when you contrast the level of interest in the MDGs today with their relatively informal origins (and the oft-forgotten fact that they were never formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly), it’s clear that – unlike many international agreements – they’ve only grown in stature. Critics might argue that much of this esteem is unwarranted – after all, it’s unlikely as of now that most of the goals will be met by the 2015 deadline. But, as even The Economist has noted, the MDGs have played a key role in how we think of development, shifting the debate away from “how much is being spent on development towards how much is being achieved”.
So how will all this attention shape the next round of MDGs? Views differ: One risk, as the ODI’s Claire Melamed has warned, is that the post-2015 process will become like a Christmas tree, “handing out baubles to single issue groups without thinking hard about how it all fits together”. On the other hand, the breadth of consultation in the post-2015 process should go some way to redressing a criticism of the original MDGs, namely that they were driven by the perspective of Western donors and not that of the developing world.
Indeed, one idea that’s already emerging in the post-2015 debate is that the next set of goals could be truly global, applying to developing and developed countries. The idea is that the post-2015 process would produce a small set of global goals, which would be translated at the national level into a set of specific targets reflecting each country’s particular needs and capabilities. Or, as a new paper from the OECD expresses it, “A post-2015 goals framework needs to be relevant to all countries and should propose truly global goals with shared – but not equal – responsibilities for all countries.”
The post-2015 process is already far more inclusive than its predecessor; over the next few months, we should get a sense of how far that’s reflected in the next set of goals themselves.