26 September 2013

The UN General Assembly's Challenge: To Build a High Level Development Goal Framework from the Ground Up

So, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings are over.  The press release is out and the reactions will no doubt roll in.

For those who are not in NYC to catch the whispers and rumours (I am not there), the key documents are the UN press release, Ban Ki Moon's A Life of Dignity for All (July 2013) presented to the UNGA, a Letter from the Co-Chairs of the UNGA's Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (July 2013), and, of course, Participate's new report on how positive change can happen and the lessons for the next set of Development Goals.

The press release is not that exciting (are they ever?). The release calls for the next goals to "balance the three elements of sustainable development – providing economic transformation and opportunity to lift people out of poverty, advancing social justice and protecting the environment".  This is good--the advancing social justice is surely there because of the strong efforts of civil society. But these 3 have long been uncomfortable bedfellows, each with their own constituency, so what makes us think they can come together under the existing institutional infrastructure?  Any UN report on development goals would be so much more powerful if it told us that the UN itself will realign--institutionally and organisationally--behind such goals. 

To be fair, the Secretary General's report does talk about institutions needing to be "fit for purpose"--I just hope the UN is included in that.  The SG's report is good in that it not only talks about rights (which UN document would not?) but it translates that into inclusive growth, empowering women, tackling exclusion and inequality.  In fact it lists 14 areas in which progress needs to happen--but I think with too much of an emphasis on ODA and not enough on domestic resource mobilisation (mentioned twice in a 20 page document).

The Open Working Group Letter documents its progress since March 2013.  The OWG is currently in stocktaking and consultation mode.  This ends in February 2014 and drafting begins in March 2014 for a report to the 2014 UNGA in September, with the big set-piece at the UNGA in September 2015.  The progress report states that "poverty eradication remains the overarching objective of the international community and needs to be central to a proposal on sustainable development goals".  This will reassure some who felt that the SDGs would focus in an unbalanced way on the environment. 

The big elephant in the room in all of this is the quality of economic growth.  We tend to judge growth in terms of its quantity, not its quality.  Does it lift people out of poverty? Does it wreck the environment?  Does it increase inequality? These are not questions we ask regularly enough and the IMF and the World Bank certainly do not--they should, and they should generate answers too.

To get a sense of the potential synergies and tradeoffs between economic opportunity, social justice and environmental sustainability, where best to look? 

People living at the margins--they have to integrate and deal with the harsh tradeoffs we can't imagine and are oblivious to.

MyWorld is an interesting and useful people-focused exercise, polling millions about their priorities for development, but like all ranking exercises it tends to atomise the debate.  For example, "a good education" comes up as the number one priority for most countries, but how important are other priorities in the list, such as a responsive government, absence from violence and gender equality, to achieving a good education?  Pretty important I would say. 

Participate is another such initiative and one IDS is involved in.  If MyWorld simplifies, Participate reminds us of the complexities. Complexity is not something policymakers like (and maybe something researchers love), but I like the complementarity of the two approaches--sometimes simplicity is needed, sometimes complexity needs to be appreciated.

The new Participate report stresses the how rather than the what. It helps to tell hundreds of everyday stories about how structural issues can pile misfortune upon misfortune and what the triggers for change look like, stressing people's own agency.

The challenge for the Open Working Group will be to build a high level picture, which respects different contexts and views (whose goals count?), from the ground up.

Quite a challenge, but not nearly as big a challenge as those faced by the billions living on less than $2 a day.

1 comment:

Nadine van Dijk said...

I agree that the UN should try to work on combining economic transformation, social justice, and protection of the environment in their own work and thinking. At UNRISD I'm working on the Social and Solidarity Economy project which is an attempt at providing part of such an approach. http://www.unrisd.org/sse