There’s an African proverb often repeated in conversations on multilateralism: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ Like most clichés, it’s over-used because it’s at once true and not yet reflected in international politics.
MDG7 (environmental sustainability) and MDG8 (global partnership) are different from the other six goals, tackling as they do sustainability and systemic barriers to development, rather focusing on poverty, health, education and equality. MDGs 7 and 8 are the goals that require all nations to participate in the journey towards equitable, sustainable, inclusive development. Arguably, they are also the weakest in terms of language. With vague aspirations in place of concrete targets, a lack of comparable metrics, and little direction on implementation at the national level, it’s no surprise that they are failing. It’s also questionable whether some of the actors required to take action had sufficient buy-in to the framework to change their practices, particularly the private sector (pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies), and countries who are more likely to assert national sovereignty.
Let’s look at MDG7 in a little more detail. Uneven progress has been made under the goal on environmental sustainability. The target to provide access to water has been met ahead of schedule, but providing sanitation has proved more challenging. While the target to improve the lives of slum dwellers has been met, the rapid increase of urban populations means that while living conditions have improved for twice as many people than the original MDG targeted, the absolute number of slum dwellers has so dramatically increased that proportionally there are far more people without those resources.
And these are the targets with analogous metrics. The target on integrating sustainable development policy at the national level remains abstract as there are no comparable indicators for progress. (Although some countries have still taken the initiative, with Costa Rica using renewable sources for nearly 80% of its energy requirements, Mexico signing a climate act, and Ethiopia planning its development on a green growth model.) Similarly, the target to significantly reduce the rate biodiversity loss by 2010 was missed by miles – arguably because it doesn’t link directly to human development outcomes, and is dependent on change outside of the remit of traditional development actors. Reducing biodiversity loss will require transformation in global patterns of production and consumption.
Despite general faith in multilateral processes at the end of the 1990s, buoyed by the long economic boom in the developed world, there was insufficient political will for global collaboration to tackle complex systemic barriers to equitable development.
Global power in 2012 is far more diffuse and more complicated now than it was in 2000. It’s a fractured, multi-polar world out there. This means that leadership in the 21st century is more complex, and it is unlikely that one country can set the global agenda alone. There are many more actors and stakeholders engaged in post-2015 than there were in the creation of the MDGs with the BRICS flexing some multilateral muscle recently, Brazil dominating Rio+20 and India the showstopper in Durban and Doha.
This leads me to David Cameron’s recent opinion piece ‘Combating poverty at its roots’, which was published last month in the Wall Street Journal. Most post-2015 pundits will have read it for the insight into the UK’s thinking. Cameron argues that both aid and good governance are essential for development, tackling global poverty through spending more on aid and dealing with weak institutions, corruption and conflict in developing countries (the ‘golden thread’ narrative). He isn’t inherently wrong, but his approach misses the mark. The subtitle ‘Economic development requires aid, but also sound institutions. Britain can lead on both fronts’ gives the game away. The UK might have some good ideas, even some great ideas, along with some strong resources: DfID, certain thinktanks, research institutions and agencies (plus a pretty dynamic NGO sector, even if I do say so myself) but the UK can’t lead this agenda from the front anymore we’ll ever find a single silver bullet for the global challenges we face. Collaboration and partnership must the approach to the next global development framework. It’s the difference between leading through directing and leading through supporting and engaging with others. I hope that the UK makes the shift from ‘our aid,’ ‘our leadership’ and ‘our record,’ to an approach that enables us to travel together to the future we want.