New international development goals: score or miss?

The UN Secretary General's High-Level Panel has published their set of recommendations to replace the Millennium Development Goals. What is the verdict? How do they ‘score’?

Emily Benson's picture
Insight by 
Emily Benson
05 June 2013
A mom and her newborn baby at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A mom and her newborn baby at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh. If the High Level Panel targets were met, preventable infant and under-five deaths could end by 2030. Photo: United NationsCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

2015 will be a watershed year for international development, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be adapted, extended or replaced. With less than 1000 days to go till the goals ‘expire’, the question that has been buzzing across media-wires, conference halls and the blogosphere is: what will replace them?

For many of us, international goals feel remote. There is still uncertain evidence on the impact that global goals have on national decision making.  

But, they serve an important role. As well as directing international aid, aligning the cogs of the UN system and civil society action, global goals are a statement of our shared values and priorities as a global community. We measure what matters.

Last week, governments gave the first signal of where the agenda is moving when the High-Level Panel (HLP), established to advise the UN Secretary General on the ‘post-2015’ agenda, published their set of recommendations. What is the verdict? How do the Panel’s goals ‘score’?

Points awarded for…

Points go to the panel for backing a universal agenda with nationally defined targets. Their illustrative goals would be applicable to all countries, north and south, and to all people.

In a departure from the MDG approach – which merely tried to reduce the size of the problem – the HLP takes a "zero approach". For example, if the targets are met, by 2030, the number of people living on less than $1.25 will be zero; preventable infant and under-five deaths will have ended; and everyone will have access to modern energy services. Absolute and universal targets are a step forward that other IIED colleagues have shown as critical for tackling inequality.

The Panel gets points for recognising sustainable development as the key principle for moving forward. They argue for a single global development agenda and work hard to recognise, in equal measure, the dimensions of environment, economy and social in their illustrative goals. This is progress.

There are some welcome additions to the original MDGs. New goals are dedicated to sustainable energy, peace, job creation and long-term finance. The Panel targets major companies over tax evasion, corporate reporting and unfair trade conditions, and recognises small businesses and entrepreneurship as important drivers of local economies. The report would like to bring in metrics on progress made towards:

  • Reforming our financial systems “to encourage stable, long-term private foreign investment”
  • Publishing and using economic, social and environmental accounts in all governments and major companies
  • Including sustainability in government procurement - the purchasing by public sector bodies or utility organisations of contracts for public goods, works or services
  • Reducing fossil fuel subsidies.

The panel reiterates the commitment to hold the increase in global average temperatures below 2C. While some of the targets and metrics still need thinking through, this is all good stuff. 

Points missed for...

But, there are also some important omissions, fluffs and fudges. In spite of mounting evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the World Economic Forum on the detrimental impact that income inequality is having on our attempts to tackle poverty and protect our environment, the Panel does not include a self-standing goal on income inequality. The report says: “We recognized that every country is wrestling with how to address income inequality, but felt that national policy in each country, not global goal setting, must provide the answer”.

The Panel falls short of recognising all of our planetary boundaries, arguably one of the most important research developments in the last decade. It reiterates the commitment on CO2 levels and insists on the need for sustainable consumption and production. But most of the emphasis is on the role of efficiency gains from production and technological advances, rather than tackling issues of how we consume – particularly in rich countries. Taken together, their goals do not measure progress in staying within our ecological limits.

Finally, the Panel’s framework is based on a set of ‘transformational shifts’, such as ‘building peace and accountable institutions for all’ and ‘transforming economies for jobs and inclusive growth’, which sound sensible.

But, on closer inspection of the targets, we are left wondering how such objectives will be achieved. One rather vague target is to “safeguard ecosystems, species and genetic diversity”, another is to “increase the number of good and decent jobs and livelihoods by x” [the date has yet to be set], another is to “end hunger and protect the right of everyone to have access to sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food”. The scatter-gun approach to the targets, coupled with a lack of detail on metrics, means that the Panel fails to acknowledge the trade-offs between different choices, or the tricky question of implementation. (See this Independent Research Forum paper, for a more practical approach).  

The verdict

The Panel has navigated through a complex set of issues on an already over-crowded agenda. The report gets a solid 7 out of 10 for their efforts. They have 18 months to improve their scorecard. Given the scale and urgency of the problems facing our planet and our communities, surely it is time for 10 out of 10.

Read this paper on the Post-2015 International Development Goals, which captures the debates, describes the major propositions and casts a spotlight on emerging ‘fault lines’ that separate different approaches to setting new goals.