10 May 2013

From Singular Coherence to Coherent Plurality: the journey to a credible set of Global Development Goals

This week I was in Melbourne for a conference on the future of development in Asia and the Pacific hosted by the Australian National University, The Asia Foundation, the Lowy Institute and the University of Melbourne.

My exam question was to reflect on the challenges and opportunities generated by the relatively more open process that is shaping the post 2015 Goals, compared to the more closed MDGs process.

The MDGs have come a long way since 2000. I remember them taking at least 2 years to puncture my consciousness as a researcher at IFPRI. Now whatever comes next is all everyone is talking about—that and how will Manchester United fare post Sir Alex Ferguson.

The fact that so many people are talking about the post MDG world is a great testimony to the MDGs. They matter. And what comes after them matters. Otherwise there would be no such hubbub about post 2015. And hubbub there is. Multiple websites, conferences, op-eds, speeches, podcasts, special issues of the journals. Communities, businesses, NGOs, politicians, philanthropic foundations. They are all at it.

But can all of these views possibly come together into something coherent, something that is not only a marker of development but also a maker of development?

I believe they can. They have to.  Failure to achieve a consensus on a new set of development goals that are aspirational but also achievable would reduce the development community to a laughing stock in the eyes of the non-wonk world.

Like many inclusive processes, the move to a coherent consensus will go through 4 stages. At Stage 1 we begin with the singular, coherent, but ultimately limited vision. This is how I would characterise the MDGs. They were produced by a handful of supremely able technocrats and politicians. They are, for the most part, coherent. They are limited in that they miss out large chunks of the Millennium Declaration--governance, security, rights—but they are doubly limited because they implicitly seen as being facilitated by aid.

Stage 4 is the endpoint, the coherent plurality, where multiple views about what development is, how it is measured, how we get it, and who “we” are, have to be brought together in a coherent way. Coherence is characterised by (a) a global vision for the goals, (b) a balance between immediate human goals and longer term planetary goals, and (c) a whole of society approach to development, beyond aid, and beyond governments.

To get from stage 1 to 4 we have to go through two intermediate stages: stage 2, singular cacophony and stage 3, pluralistic cacophony. The MDG formulation process ran the risk of stage 2, singular cacophony, which is characterised by many voices, all saying basically the same thing. These were arguments over indicators: $1 a day or FAO’s undernourishment indicator? Primary or secondary education? At the present time we are in the middle of stage 3, pluralistic cacophony, by far the noisiest stage: lots of different people saying very different things.

There are at least 5 processes that I know of which are trying to solicit different voices and pull them together.

1. The UN SG’s High Level Panel: due to report very shortly
2. The Open Working Group of the UN General Assembly
3. UNDG national and thematic consultations
4. My World (UN, Ipsos Mori. WWWF and ODI)
5. Participate (IDS, Beyond 2015 and DFID)

My World is coming out with the “what’s” health, education and an honest and responsive government (based on half a million responses to the 16+ options listed on the website).

Participate is working more in depth, with over 50 groups in 14 countries and is focusing more on “how” different goals can be accomplished. They have highlighted the barriers to opportunity faced by the poorest and most marginal, the accelerating uncertainty and fluidity the poorest are having to manage, the foundational nature of trust and accountability that governments need to build if they are to be development partners, the "despair traps" that people fall into-traps that we in the West spend a lot of money trying to get out of; and finally the need to invest in and build on long term relationships with local and national drivers of development.

So, to get to coherent plurality what needs to happen?

• Keep it simple—have few goals and simple labels. Be more comprehensive with the indicators if necessary
• Make goals global to acknowledge the need for collective action and cross-learning-- but with differentiated obligations
• Adopt a whole of society approach--different actors need to call on a range of policies and actions that go beyond aid and beyond government
• Embrace the plurality of the journeys that we can take to get to these goals—there is no generic best way, and often the journey becomes more important than the destination
• Multiple actors means contestation, translation and negotiation—be honest about power differences, embrace political approaches
• Accountability is vital—for all parties: more mechanisms are needed

The adoption of these principles will help us move through the 4 stages of the post 2015 process: from singular coherence, via singular and pluralistic cacophony to coherent plurality.

While in Melbourne I gave a couple of other presentations: to Monash University's Economic Department on India’s Undernutrition Enigma’s and at the University of Melbourne's Development Studies group on the Role of Development Studies in the 21st century.  Both seminars were fun and I want to thank Gaurav Datt and Bina Fernandez, respectively, for hosting me so well. 

1 comment:

Reinieqr van Hoffen said...

Thank you for this great attempt to elevate the debate to the level of principles. Diversity is lost due to converging surge of meshed networks, also visible in the way the MDGs have shaped the policy agenda, causing interventions to miss out on other major issues like migation, climate and the like. Rather then goal setting the focus should be on a number of guiding principles that together determine whether an issue has gain momentum in edfectively addressing it. Such a dynamic framework does not lock practitioners in frameworks that were only valid a decade ago.