The UN and civil society begin to discuss post-2015 development goals

In Brief: 
  • With the Millennium Development Goals set to expire in 2015, the UN has launched a wide discussion about formulating new goals for human well being in the next era.
  • Civil society, eager to participate, has created several broad coalitions to provide input in formulating the post-2015 development agenda.
  • Many want new elements in future goals that better address inequality, climate change, and employment.
  • Others are also concerned that any new goals be applied universally, so that all countries are included in creating “the future we want.”
  • One ongoing issue is how to balance development with environmental sustainability.

UNITED NATIONS — When they were formulated some 15 years ago, one of the main ideas behind the Millennium Development Goals was to provide a set of concrete and measurable objectives to guide UN agencies and others in a global effort to eradicate poverty, promote gender equality, and ensure sustainable development.

And today there is wide agreement that the MDGs have brought focus and significant progress to international development.

“On the whole, the MDGs have been an incredibly effective mobilizing tool, not only for development but also for getting people to understand some of the problems in the world and in rallying civil society around them,” said Minh-Thu Pham, public policy director for the UN Foundation.

Now, with the Goals set to expire in 2015, the UN has embarked on a wide-ranging process to determine the “post-2015 development agenda,” as the subject is commonly known. And civil society is eager to join in the discussion.

A number of broad coalitions of non-governmental and civil society organizations have recently emerged to address the post-2015 framework, producing statements and creating websites aimed at stimulating discussion and offering their viewpoints on the so-called “post-MDGs.”

The UN, for its part, has set up a series of meetings, venues, and channels for civil society input, aiming to make the process more open than when the MDGs were devised. Although the Goals can trace their priorities to the global conferences of the 1990s, their actual articulation came more or less from the top, initially drafted by UN staff in the Secretary-General’s office.

“The process that has been in place this time is much more open,” said Bernadette Fischler, who focuses on the post-MDGs as a policy analyst with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. “The UN is really trying.”

Among other things, the UN Secretary-General has appointed a high level panel of “eminent persons” to make recommendations — and they have begun meeting with civil society representatives around the world.

In parallel, civil society has been invited to a series of national-level consultations in more than 60 countries and a set of 11 thematic consultations that have been organized by the UN Development Group to discuss possible new goals for the “post-2015 development agenda.”

Emerging themes

Although it is still early, a number of ideas have begun to emerge from these consultations. These include the view that new international development goals must be more integrated and holistic than the MDGs, and that they must be more universal, requiring action not just in poorer nations but also in those considered wealthy and “developed.”

“We believe that for the post-2015 framework to be able to meaningfully address the challenges that we are all facing, they have to be universal in scope,” said Gerard Vives, the European outreach officer with Beyond 2015, a global coalition of some 500 organizations around the world that seeks a “strong and legitimate successor framework” to the MDGs.

“They must apply to all countries, regardless of their level of development, with definite rights and responsibilities for each country,” he said.

“We believe that for the post-2015 framework to be able to meaningfully address the challenges that we are all facing, they have to be universal in scope.”

— Gerard Vives of Beyond 2015

Mr. Vives and others said global civil society also wants to see a larger focus on environmental issues in the post-2015 development framework, and an emphasis on going beyond simple poverty eradication to measures that would strive to reduce economic inequality.

“Most of the critics of the MDGs would say that they don’t pay enough attention to inequality,” said Frances Stewart, a professor emeritus in development economics at Oxford University who was until last year chair of the UN Committee for Development Policy.

Civil society representatives also said other themes that should be addressed include how to achieve more and better employment, greater emphasis on climate change and environmental degradation, and goals on peace and security as they relate to poverty and under-development.

“The MDGs have lagged in the so-called ‘fragile states’ where conflict and crisis prevent the delivery of aid,” said Ms. Pham of the UN Foundation. “So the next goals need to deal with development in that context.”

History of MDGs

In the broadest sense, the MDGs evolved from the global plans for action that emerged from the thematic global conferences of the 1990s, such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, which together identified new global challenges for sustainable development and gender equality.

They were further developed by UN agencies, who saw the need for measurable targets. Finally, they were given broad approval by the international community in the Millennium Declaration, made by world leaders at the 2000 Millennium Summit.

Eight goals were established, to be realized by 2015: to halve extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat global pandemics, ensure environmental sustainability, and create a global partnership for development.

Today, according to the United Nations Development Programme, broad progress has been made. “Extreme poverty is falling in every region,” the UNDP said in a 2012 report, noting that preliminary estimates already show it to be less than half the 1990s rate, suggesting that the first goal may already have been achieved.

Towards other goals, the world has achieved parity in primary education between girls and boys, said the report, and enrollment rates have increased markedly for primary school children.

At the same time, however, “inequality is detracting from these gains,” said the report. “Decreases in maternal mortality are far from the 2015 target” and “hunger remains a global challenge,” with an estimated 850 million living in hunger, more than 15 percent of the world’s population.

Because of the apparent success of the MDGs, there is general agreement that the post-2015 framework should include some type of measurable goals and targets once again.

At the same time, there is a strong feeling that they must also go further, that they should be more encompassing, and that they reflect the complexities of challenges facing the world.

“The strength of the MDGs lies in their simplicity and quantification,” said Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a professor of International Affairs at the New School in New York, who has followed the MDG process closely.

“But there is a problem with oversimplification. Take the idea of reducing the problem of gender inequality,” said Prof. Fukuda-Parr. “In the MDGs, it is reduced mainly to the issue of primary and secondary school enrollment for girls. And then there are some things that you can’t measure that are priorities.”

The big challenge

Prof. Fukuda-Parr and others said perhaps the main challenge in devising the post-2015 framework lies in combining the traditional agenda for poverty eradication with the international agenda on sustainable development and the environment.

Last June, at the Rio+20 UN Summit, governments endorsed the idea of “sustainable development goals” (SDGs) to augment or even replace the MDGs.

“The SDG process is driven by governments who are not seeking to have a rich world/poor world poverty agreement,” said Prof. Fukuda-Parr. “They want a universal vision that combines sustainability and environmental issues with economic and social development. They want an agenda that is applicable in Nigeria and Kenya, and India and China — and also the United States and Germany.”

A dichotomy also occurs among non-governmental organizations, she said, where there is a split between NGOs that are oriented toward the environment and those oriented towards anti-poverty efforts.

Others, however, see less conflict between the two agendas. “From a conceptual point of view, they are two sides of the same coin,” said Mr. Vives. “You cannot have development without environmental sustainability. And I think member states are getting more and more aware of the need for a unified agenda, to have a single overarching framework.”

In September, some 300 civil society representatives gathered in Montreal for the 2012 CIVICUS World Assembly and issued a joint statement that advocated a combined post-2015 framework.

“We affirm that we will work united and collaborate to ensure a legitimate and inclusive development framework is in place to succeed the current MDGs, that delivers lasting change in the world. We affirm that this framework must work to genuinely integrate ending poverty, ensuring environmental sustainability and promoting human rights. The framework must fully reflect the priorities and perspectives of people directly affected by poverty and inequality, the majority of whom are socially excluded populations, for example, women, children, youth and indigenous peoples.”