What are the politics? MDGs in a changing world


The political landscape is going to be as important to the post-MDG framework as the theory and policy that goes into them. The MDGs were drawn from a series of high-profile international conferences during 1990s. This meant many goals already had a large amount of political support, although they were inevitably altered somewhat by the grinder of the political process. There are fewer clear priorities this time round.

The bigger issue is that the MDGs were driven by a small group of wealthy countries with relatively consolidated power. The US particularly was seen as a ‘global super power’ at the end of the Cold War, to the extent that some described it as a G1. With support from IFIs, a limited number of countries had the ability to push a particular version of development through with a results-based management approach (RBM). (All things considered, it wasn’t such a bad agenda. There were huge omissions – particularly on sustainability, climate change, energy access, for example – but it was a multi-dimensional view of human development.) Bear in mind it was the first time something like this had been attempted.

Driven primarily by the OECD, the ‘SMART’ goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound) were directed at developing countries. As David Hulme says, the rich countries driving this agenda ‘were too smart (and too powerful) to agree to the SMART goals demanded by RBM’. MDGs 7 and 8, which related to action by developed countries, were fuzzy, with no specific targets or timeframes. While rich countries provided funding and theory for the framework, they were not bound to do much themselves.

2013, and the world is a different place. The geo-political landscape has fragmented. Power is now more diffuse. The OECD countries have on the whole been rocked to their foundations by the economic crisis. Emerging economies are increasingly playing an influential role on the global stage, with Brazil particularly being prominent in multilateral fora. While a large number of poor countries are still relatively powerless, outmanoeuvred and voiceless in international politics (mainly due to a lack of resource and capacity) there is a growing sense of impatience at the lack of political will and courage from the powerful and well-resourced – see the emotive speech from Naderev Sano from the Philippines in Doha recently. It is less likely that the ‘developing world’ will accept a ‘developed world’ agenda, particularly one where the onus for action is on low-income countries. (The distinction itself fails to respond to the multi-faceted world we live in.)

Furthermore, a recent paper by ODI suggests that ODA and traditional aid sources will play a less important role in post-2015 development. Instead, a plethora of funding options has emerged. This isn’t to say that there are vast amounts of cash sloshing around for this – quite the reverse. The increase in funding sources will make it more difficult to track flows and impact. The final nail in the MDG paradigm is that poverty will no longer be predominantly found in low income countries. Rather, a growing body of evidence suggests that the main body of it will be located in middle income countries although a number of variables make long-term forecasting problematic. So an agenda pushed onto low income countries by high income countries won’t address the poverty problem anyway.

The upshot is that we are unlikely to see a framework which reflects the MDG model of creation (exclusive, non-participatory), funding (domestic revenue topped up by ODA), and focus (measurable action from developing countries only).

What’s the solution?

Universality, and I say this for two reasons.

Firstly, Lawrence Haddad recently said that solidarity must be the foundation of multilateralism in the 21st century. I believe that the crisis of global politics will only be solved by the increased trust and a shared sense of direction that a global framework can give us. This doesn’t mean the rich dictating to the poor but us all recognising our collective responsibility.

Secondly, unless we address the root causes of poverty we will only ever be putting a sticking plaster on the wound of global injustice. This means addressing global inequalities through concrete actions by all countries and other actors such as international financing institutions, civil society, the private sector. This means a transformational, systemic shift.

"Nina", 15yrs, who lives in Mauá, a community of homeless people living in an occupied building. "Nina" wants to be doctor when she is older. She is also training as a youth leader. (Nickname used for child protection reasons.) In the photo, she is using her hands to make the shape of a heart, as an expression of affection to the UK parishes and schools that have sent messages and photos of solidarity.

“Nina”, 15yrs, who lives in Mauá, a community of homeless people living in an occupied building. “Nina” wants to be doctor when she is older. She is also training as a youth leader. (Nickname used for child protection reasons.) In the photo, she is using her hands to make the shape of a heart, as an expression of affection to the UK parishes and schools that have sent messages and photos of solidarity.

I don’t pretend that we all need to take the same pathway – there is no ‘one size fits all’ – but global action will come through concrete goals that ensure sustainable poverty eradication within our lifetime.

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6 Responses to “What are the politics? MDGs in a changing world”

  1. Kaganga John Says:

    Thanks a lot for that wonderfu highligts on MDGs and what is likely to happen when we are not very careful when developing the post 2015 MGDs Development Agenda according to past history.

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      Thanks Kaganga – you’re right that we need to learn from history before constructing the next global development framework. And the best way I can see of that happening is a strong global movement ensuring we have the right elements in place – glad you’re a part of it!

  2. post2015 Says:

    Reblogged this on Post2015.org – what comes after the MDGs?.

  3. Philemon Jazi Says:

    Thhanks for the interesting perspectives. I think we also need to reflect on would be the role of emerging international and regional bodies such as the G10, G20, etc. Developing countries have been frustrated and let down by traditional institutions such IMF and World. It makes sense to search for alternative development models in which developing countries are in charge of decision making. Thus the ongoing call for the need to democratise the UN and other similar bodies.

  4. Michael Anderson Says:

    Can you say more about what your solution would look like in practice? Your prescription is not very detailed. What would that mean for the actual text of a post-2015 agenda?

    • Neva Frecheville Says:

      At the moment, we’re working on how the vision, purpose and principles of the post-2015 development agenda works in practice in a paper and example goals, which will be ready mid-March – just in time for the Bali meeting of the HLP. We’re also waiting to see what comes out of the participatory research being carried out by Participate (http://www.ids.ac.uk/project/participate-knowledge-from-the-margins-for-post-2015), so that we can be sure that the perspectives and opinions of those living in poverty are central in the post-2015 debate.

      Happy to hear your thoughts on concrete suggestions for text as well…

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